317th Veterans Group, Project Mercury
Friday, 23 October 2009
General Norty Schwartz
Thank you, Mr. Lloyd,1 for that kind introduction; and, thank you to the 317th Veterans Group, for inviting me to join such a distinguished group of American patriots for today’s ceremony. Colonel Lovett,2 I greatly appreciate your leadership and your hospitality. To the family and friends of the brave Airmen to whom we pay homage today: it is my honor to be here with you, to remember your husbands, fathers, and brothers, who made what President Lincoln solemnly called “the last full measure of devotion.” With today’s dedication, we will ensure that the memory of 13 brave Airmen will endure.
1 Mr. Bill Lloyd is the president of the 317th Veterans Group.
2 Col Andre Lovett is vice commander of the 45th Space Wing at Patrick Air Force Base.
Humankind’s Odyssey of Discovery
Since time immemorial, humankind has embarked on a journey of discovery – fraught with uncertainty, and yet rich with exhilaration, propelled by a sense of the possibilities. Like all grand endeavors – born of both curiosity and necessity, and accelerated by the efforts and sacrifice of those who are determined to realize humankind’s best aspirations – Project Mercury, the United States’ first program to put a man in space, served as a keystone for our future successes in this regime. With these grand endeavors come human costs that some may understand, few truly appreciate, and only the most intrepid accept.
The 13 Airmen whom we honor today are part of a distinguished roll call of devoted servants to our great Nation. Through their efforts, they helped humankind embark on its daring journey into space. I was less than 10 years old when Alan Shepard became the first American in space, but his mission and those of the Project Mercury manned space flight program still resonate in my memory, as they do for many of those who were able to witness history in the making.
Championed by President Eisenhower, Project Mercury began in October of 1958, and lasted almost five years, at a seminal – and anxious – time in American history. In a tense, Cold War setting, with two principal ideological rivals vying for preeminence, the world’s most esteemed scientists were making substantial advances in missile and rocket technology, both for weapons and satellite payloads, and to explore possibilities of space for national security purposes. When the Soviets launched and orbited Sputnik on the fourth of October, 1957, the “Space Race” began in earnest, with an enormous surge in political, military, technological, and scientific development. The United States became determined to be the first to put a man in space; and, to that end, our Nation employed more than 2 million people from the aerospace industry and from multiple government agencies, unifying their skills, initiative, innovation, and expertise into an impressive coordinated effort.
The goals of Project Mercury were specific: to orbit a manned spacecraft around Earth; to investigate man’s ability to function in space; and to recover the astronaut and spacecraft safely. Because of the potential military applications of space, the Department of Defense was intimately involved in the Mercury program. A strong relationship developed between the National Aeronautics and Space Administration, and the DoD – in particular, the Air Force. Collaborating further on a great number of scientific projects through the years, the Air Force-NASA relationship remains strong today. The Human Space Flight Support Office, for example, here at Patrick Air Force Base, was established in 1959, in order to provide better support to the Nation’s initial efforts in manned space flight. A half-century later, this office still serves as the focal point for the DoD, helping to coordinate worldwide contingency support for global communications, spacecraft tracking, data relay, public affairs, medical support, and astronaut and space capsule recovery.
Entry into Manned Space Flight
In the fine tradition of the 322nd Air Division, today’s Air Force conducts other launch support operations that some of you – the 317th Veterans Group – conducted during the Project Mercury missions close to 50 years ago. The storied 317th, as a Troop Carrier Wing during World War II, flew support operations during the occupation of Japan, and conducted other daring operations throughout the Pacific region. After the war, the 317th flew supplies during the legendary Berlin Airlift, answering the call for help from the determined but increasingly desperate citizens of West Berlin; and, although the 317th was inactivated in 1958, the mighty spirit of the wing did not diminish, as it was eventually reactivated in 1963, and currently serves our Nation as the 317th Airlift Group at Dyess Air Force Base in Texas.
During those five dormant years prior to 1963, units of the 317th served as part of the 322nd Air Division, whose Airmen played a significant part in supporting the Nation’s space ambitions like Project Mercury. Behind every successful operation such as Mercury is a multi-layered support architecture that is vital to the success of the mission. When technology fails; when environmental factors intervene; when any number of contingencies confound our plans, dedicated professionals must be ready to address the challenge. There are so many moving parts in manned space flight that mission aborts or emergency landings remain a persistent and grave concern, despite our best efforts to avoid them. In the event of such contingencies, NASA, the Air Force, its sister Services, and other government agencies positioned support assets around the globe, to be prepared to secure our human and technical assets as quickly as possible.
These recovery and support missions seldom made headlines; yet, they were – and still continue to be – absolutely essential to the overall mission. The aircraft and crews from the 322nd were part of the contingency support provided by the Air Force. Its Airmen ensured that assets were in position and ready for spacecraft tracking, data relay, medical support, and astronaut and space capsule recovery. Their aircraft and their substantial complement of capabilities – from flight medicine to pararescue to helicopter support – were forward-deployed from their base in France, to various locations in Africa, ready to support our Nation’s first manned space flights,
anywhere assistance was required on the continent. Bill Lloyd was part of one of those first missions, providing maintenance support to assets in place for the Project Mercury program. He and his fellow maintainers ensured that the contingency support aircraft were ready to perform their mission.
Their efforts serve as an inspiration to us all; their work is so vital because aircrews, operating in the best of conditions, still must manage significant risks. They always rely on their highly-skilled maintainers. Flying the magnificent hinterlands of Africa presented unique hazards for the Airmen of the 322nd; but, they knew that were in good hands with the likes of Bill Lloyd; and, driven by duty, they willingly accepted the dangers in order to ensure that Project Mercury had all of its major support components in place.
But, on the 17th of May, 1962, tragedy struck, as 13 brave Airmen lost their lives while flying into Nairobi, to position themselves at the prescribed location, in support of Scott Carpenter’s upcoming Mercury space flight. Fathoming the immensity of their loss, but still unshakably determined to fulfill their role in the upcoming mission, the Airmen of the 322nd pressed forward with generating another flight, ensuring that Commander Carpenter’s mission, which was to occur only a week later, would still be a “go.”
I know that all were devastated at the loss of their teammates; I imagine that survivors pondered the tragedy and the wherefores; but, I know that, with these Airmen, the call to service – to bolster America’s efforts in manned spaceflight – was a precious thing that was bigger than any individual, and so to all of them, it required their very best response. When Commander Carpenter’s Aurora 7 spacecraft lifted off as scheduled on May 24th, 1962 – not too far from here, in fact – there probably was an emerging sense that their teammates’ sacrifice was not in vain. But, even then, they could not take time for deep reflection – at least not yet – as mission control predicted Commander Carpenter’s reentry would place him some 250 miles off the intended target.
This was a contingency for which the Air Force was prepared, for which the 322nd Air Division had trained, and to which they now had to respond. Some five hours after liftoff, and after the Aurora 7 capsule attained a maximum altitude of 164 miles and an orbital velocity of over 17,500 miles per hour, it reentered the atmosphere. Eight minutes before it landed in the Atlantic Ocean, an Air Rescue Service SA-16 seaplane embarked from Puerto Rico to rendezvous with Aurora 7; and, approximately an hour after splashdown, an Air Force search and rescue plane was first on scene, with two young Airmen plunging into the water to aid Commander Carpenter. As the story goes, one of the Airmen enthusiastically greeted the astronaut, and the three of them floated on the raft and awaited pickup, enjoying the clear sunny day, and sipping Commander Carpenter’s supply of water. I imagine that while there perhaps was a sense of excitement for the success of the mission that was so vitally important to their country, there probably was also a fitting solemnity in deference to the 13 brave souls, who, a week earlier, ascended onto the celestial roster of great and never-to-be-forgotten American heroes, who we remember today.
And, in their fine tradition, today’s Air Force continues its support of manned space flights. While the methods have certainly changed, the commitment to being prepared across a wide continuum of contingencies has not. Most recently, the Air
Force supported the launch of the Space Shuttle Discovery, and currently is preparing to support the Shuttle Atlantis’s November launch. Should the shuttle need to abort, or land at an alternate location, Air Force men and women are prepared to provide a wide variety of support capabilities, just as the 322nd did 47 years ago.
Today, we honor 13 brave Airmen of the 322nd Air Division – of the 40th Troop Carrier Squadron and the 317th Consolidated Aircraft Maintenance Squadron – who, in distinctive service to their country, risked the profound joys of life, and, as fate would have it, made the ultimate sacrifice.
But, we can be comforted in the knowledge that their ideals, their professionalism, and their undying devotion are so powerfully eternal that they endure in our brave men and women in uniform today. Perhaps we can find solace in the notion that they surely would be proud of today’s service men and women, who, in humble and selfless service, are protecting and defending America, and performing exceptional deeds around the world. This is the legacy of our 13 heroes. With their names etched on this plaque, their memories will forever be emblazoned in our hearts.
It has been my humble honor to have been a part of this ceremony today. On behalf of the men and women of the United States Air Force, and their loving and supportive families, Suzie and I wish you the absolute best, always. Thank you.