North Carolina and the Space Race

Mercury Redstone 3 recovery
George Cox and Wayne Koons, of Marine Corps helicopter squadron HMR-262, recover astronaut Alan B. Shepard and his capsule, Freedom 7, on May 5, 1961. Courtesy NASA.

What does North Carolina have to do with that?

Some form of that question is what I typically receive when I tell folks about my work on the state’s role in the space race. And, to be fair, it’s a valid response. All the launches occurred in Florida. Mission Control was, and still is, in Houston. The rocketry needed to launch American astronauts into orbit was developed in Huntsville, Alabama.

But what if I told you that all of Project Mercury’s early capsule recovery procedures were developed and executed by a helicopter unit stationed in North Carolina? Have you ever heard of George F. Cox? No? He’s the North Carolinian who pulled astronauts Al Shepard and Gus Grissom from the ocean following America’s first two suborbital flights.

How about James Webb? If you’re a fan of space history, that’s a name you might know. Mr. Webb served as NASA’s second administrator and is largely credited with building the infrastructure and political support needed to land man on the Moon by President John F. Kennedy’s deadline. And, oh yeah, he was born and raised in Granville County!

Here’s another name for you: Christine Darden. Some of you might recognize her from Margot Lee Shetterly’s book Hidden Figures. The Union County native began her storied NASA career during the Apollo program and went on to retire as one of the world’s foremost experts in supersonic wing design.

Morehead Planetarium, on the campus of UNC Chapel Hill, trained NASA astronauts in celestial navigation through Projects Mercury, Gemini, and Apollo. The training guided astronauts home following emergency situations during Mercury-Atlas 9 and Apollos 12 and, most famously, 13.

And believe it or not, North Carolina was actually home to a NASA facility. Those of you out in the western part of the state probably know this one! Outside of the small town of Rosman, on the edge of the Pisgah National Forest, NASA operated its primary east-coast satellite tracking station. The giant antenna located there ensured reliable communication links between ground control and manned and unmanned spacecraft.

All of this and more can be found in MosaicNC’s debuting digital exhibit North Carolina and the Space Race. The exhibit explores the contributions of North Carolina engineers, mathematicians, scientists, manufacturers, and more to Projects Mercury, Gemini, and Apollo. This exhibit, and others like it, shows that American victory in the space race truly was a national effort, one that required the support of everyday citizens from across the country. It is our hope that the exhibit leaves North Carolinians with a newfound sense of pride in their state.

Interested in learning even more? Come by the North Carolina Museum of History (admission is free!) to see space race artifacts in person. A 1,500-square-foot exhibit entitled One Giant Leap: North Carolina and the Space Race showcases artifacts related to the work of North Carolinians during Projects Mercury, Gemini, and Apollo. It is currently open to the public and will run through the end of the year.

 

Jessica A. Bandel has served as the digital editor for Governors’ Papers and Special Projects since January 2018. She has a M.A. in public history from Middle Tennessee State University and is the author or coauthor of three publications on North Carolina history.