“The S-II stage was a nightmare the minute it was conceived, and it only got worse from there. During the course of its creation, it would grind up people and careers the way the transcontinental railway devoured laborers. Though the methods and materials used to build the S-II were reasonably well known, nobody had ever tried to apply them on such a titanic scale. Originally, it was to be somewhere around 8 stores tall with a diameter of 22 feet, but the width ballooned from there to 27 feet before the contract was even signed, then to 30, and finally to 33 feet. And all the while as the size of thing increased, NASA was trimming the allowable weight.” Harrison Storms of NAA.
The structural efficiency of the S-II stage, in terms of the weight and pressures taken by its extra-thin walls, was comparable only to the capacity of one of nature’s most refined examples of structural efficiency, the egg.
Mercury-Redstone 4 was the fourth mission in the Mercury-Redstone series and the second U.S. manned suborbital spaceflight. The mission was essentially a repeat of Alan Shepard’s Freedom 7 flight. So why was it necessary to launch another sub-orbital mission? Why not proceed with an orbital flight to match the Soviet Vostok 1? Among other things the U.S. needed more space experience to corroborate the “Man-in-Space” concept. Also the Redstone was the only booster NASA had that was approved for manned launches. The Atlas booster was available but not ready. Atlas was capable of putting a Mercury Capsule into orbit, but it had been launched three times with unmanned capsules, and it had exploded on 2 of the 3 attempts.
Over 52 years ago, in the early hours of May 5th, 1961 the US prepared to launch its first man into space. Three weeks earlier, the Soviet Union had sent Yuri Gagarin on an orbital mission. This was a suborbital mission planed to last only 15 minutes. For the moment that did not matter, the entire nation held its breath while Alan Shepard became America’s first man in space.