Carolina Marines added another laurel to their proud history by their important contributions to our nation’s manned space flight programs, beginning in 1959 with the Mercury program and continuing through the Gemini and Apollo programs, including all the lunar landings, until the final launch, Apollo 17 in 1972.

The Genesis of manned space flight began at the Wallops Island Flight Facility in Virginia with the launching of various experimental rockets and unmanned Mercury capsules to test, among other preliminary concerns, a viable means to successfully separate the capsule from the launch vehicle, with the astronaut’s survival a principle issue, in the case of a launch failure. The Marine Corps was tasked with recovering the test rockets and capsules from the Chesapeake Bay for evaluation, a mission undertaken by Marine Corps Air Station New River’s Marine Aircraft Group 26, specifically Marine Helicopter Transport Squadrons (HMR) -262 and 461.

With the success of this phase of the program, Cape Canaveral became the launch site for the subsequent manned missions, and HMR-262 was a key participant in the first two American manned-space flights, having gained substantial experience at Wallops Island. Staging aboard the U.S.S. Lake Champlain (CVS-39), HMR-262’s (CH-34) helicopters recovered both our first astronaut, CDR Alan Shepard, and his Mercury capsule, “Freedom Seven,” from the Atlantic on 5 May 1961, followed by recovering our second, Capt Gus Grissom, on 21 July. The attached photo, one of the more iconic of the Mercury program, shows Shepard’s recovery.

At Cape Canaveral itself, another Carolina Marine unit, a detachment of LVTR-1s (Amtrack Recovery Vehicles) from Camp Lejeune’s 2nd Amphibian Tractor Battalion, stood ready during every manned space flight as a vital component of the Launch Site Recovery Force. Amphibious, and uniquely capable with their powerful winch and boom, their role was to recover in the ocean any capsules, and their crew, from a failed launch, within the immediate launch area, a task they, fortunately, never had to perform.

Posted on: October 6, 2020
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