This, Sir, Is a Spacecraft!
Written on September 19th, 2012

The 1983 motion picture The Right Stuff shows a classic scene where the Mercury astronauts confront a German engineer (obviously modeled after Wernher von Braun, although never referred to by name). The astronauts have decided to take control and “change the parameters of the experiment.” They insist on changes to the Mercury capsule including the addition of a window, a hatch with explosive bolts, and a stick that will allow the astronaut to take manual control. During the tense confrontation, Alan Shepard (played by Scott Glenn) challenges NASA’s nomenclature: “That is a spacecraft, sir. We do not refer to it as a capsule.”

Such exchanges between astronauts and engineers did take place during the Mercury program, although the staging was much less dramatic and Von Braun was not actually involved. The astronauts insisted on all the design changes that were mentioned in the film and they vehemently objected to calling Mercury a “capsule” – which sounded like something an astronaut might swallow. Spacecraft was the term the astronauts preferred.

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