On this day (Feb. 25) in 1969, Mariner 6 was hefted off of Earth on a path to Mars. What’s less known is the spacecraft nearly was destroyed only 10 days beforehand as the rocket began to collapse. This NASA account succinctly summarizes what must have been a terrifying moment:
A faulty switch opened the main valves on the Atlas stage. This released the pressure which supported the Atlas structure, and as the booster deflated it began to crumple. Two ground crewman started pressurizing pumps, saving the structure from further collapse. The Mariner 6 spacecraft was removed, put on another Atlas/Centaur, and launched on schedule. The two ground crewman, who had acted at risk of the 12-story rocket collapsing on them, were awarded Exceptional Bravery Medals from NASA.
Who were these exceptional people? Universe Today asked around at NASA for some answers, and got the gentlemen’s names: Billy McClure and Charles Beverlin, who were NASA contractors at General Dynamics. It appears that these two men were the first to receive an Exceptional Bravery Medal from the agency.
McClure, a Second World War veteran, died in 2009 at the age of 85. It appears that the medal was a highlight in McClure’s life, according to an account by his great-granddaughter Hanna Smith, who referred to him as “Grandad”:
“Grandad was flown to California to receive copies of the first pictures ever taken of Mars and to be personally thanked by the Vice President of the United States,” she wrote in a 2012 article. McClure retired from General Dynamics after 31 years of service. His son, also named Billy McClure, was a worker on the U.S. shuttle program.
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The agency had no contact information for Beverlin given that he was not a NASA employee.
As for Mariner 6, the mission made it to Mars at a time when spacecraft failures were fast and frequent. The spacecraft’s closest approach to Mars was 2,131 miles (3,431 km) and it successfully beamed images and information back to Earth. It’s images finally squashed the notion of Martian “canals” — once proposed by astronomer Percival Lowell — and showed the surface of Mars to be very different from that of the Moon, in contrast to the results from Mariner 4. Mariner 6 also helped identify the makeup of the south polar cap (predominantly carbon dioxide, and its radio science refined estimates of the mass, radius and shape of Mars.
Just think, this cratered image of Mars below was only possible through an act of bravery from two men.