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updated 9/7/2007 11:54:42 AM ET 2007-09-07T15:54:42

Jay Barbree, NBC’s veteran space correspondent — who covered the American space program since it began — shares an engaging, behind-the-scenes account of America’s 50 years into the unknown. Read an excerpt:

During the Cape’s early days, humor lightened long workdays. Practical jokes were the in thing, and the astronauts quarterbacked most of them.

About 30 miles south of the Cape’s launch pad row, Jim Rathmann ran the local Chevrolet dealership. He was a world class Race Car driver who was the 1960 winner of the Indianapolis 500. He was really cut from the same cloth as the astronauts with the only difference Rathmann did his speed on the ground instead of in the air. He worked out a deal with General Motors to give the Mercury Seven new Corvettes. Of course, such a arrangement would not be tolerated today by NASA but in 1960 Jim Rathmann sold General Motors on the fact the public relations and advertising benefits would more than offset the cost, and the guys happily hopped into a strong friendship with Rathmann and his hot ‘Vettes.

Competition was mother’s milk for the astronauts. They had to see who could get the most speed out of anything they flew, drove, sailed, or pedaled and each astronaut’s personal Corvette was at the top of the list. After a full day of training, they would set up drag races on the long, and deserted road called ICBM row.

Cooper, Grissom, and Shepard were an unholy trio on the asphalt. They’d line up and burn rubber down the straight road by the rockets and gantries sending rabbits, deer, wild hogs, but more importantly, traffic cops running through the sand dunes.

At first, there was this Barney Fife wannabe who was determined to give the astronauts tickets. The Mercury Seven, and those who had gathered to watch the fun, regarded this deserted and restricted road as none of his business. They took his ticket book and ripped it to pieces. Gordo decided to eat a few pages while the others undressed the “Rent-A-Cop” and threw him and his pistol and his badge and his uniform into the surf. Next they drove his patrol car deep into the sand where it took two wreckers to get it out. It was a great way to get rid of the tension that built up during the long work hours, and the polite astronauts, thanked the Barney Fife wannabe for the good fun.

The traffic cop matter was soon dropped because the U.S. Attorney had the final say on federal property and it seems that he had married the sister of one of those involved. The ticket writer was invited to leave the Cape. He found a ticket writing vacancy in the Cocoa Beach Police Department.

Only days had passed when the same traffic cop found himself in another donnybrook with the feds.

Air Police with Thompson submachine guns were escorting an urgently needed secret missile unit through Cocoa Beach at about 3:00 in the morning. The speed limit was 35, but the urgently needed freight was moving about 50 along deserted A1A. Barney Fife pulled the escorted truck over and began writing the driver a ticket. The Air Police ordered him to step aside and Barney Fife decided to draw his big bad 38. The clicking sounds of rounds going into the barrels of the Thompsons persuaded him to rethink his action.

As the story goes, the John Wayne of space coast traffic cops decided his talents could best be used in the backwaters of Louisiana. He wasn’t missed, and the drag races continued without further interruption.

We reporters weren’t permitted on federal property to witness these races, but some of us got them first hand daily. A few years before Alan Shepard passed on, he admitted, “Barbree, there’s no way all the stories that have been told about us can be true. But most of them are good for a laugh.”

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Soon Gordo Cooper was leaving Alan Shepard in the dust at the starting gate of the drags. Alan wasn’t laughing. Fuming he turned to Gus. “What the hell’s going on?”

Gus grinned. “You’re getting your ass kicked,” he told Alan who drove off disgusted and headed for Rathmann’s Chevrolet.

Jim was in the garage and Shepard went in growling. “There’s something wrong with my car, Jim, you gotta’ do something.”

“Leave it with me, Alan,” Jim said, smiling.

Rathmann was in on Gordo’s prank, and when Shepard picked up his ‘Vette and tried Gordo again, he lost. He had expected his ‘Vette to be better, but it was even worse. Alan was beginning to smell a rat and he took his ‘Vette in again, even more adamant with Jim that something be done.

Fighter pilots had a tradition of painting swastikas, or rising sun flags for each kill on the side of their cockpits during World War II. When Shepard returned this time, his car had four Volkswagens, and two bicycles painted on its driver’s door. Alan was on his knees laughing. He soon learned the mechanic had changed the rear end ratio on his ‘Vette. This gave him more speed but less pickup. Gordo’s car could out run Shepard’s for about two miles – long enough to win every drag. It was truly a classic “Gotcha.”

The fun soon spilled over into their work place. Walt Williams was the boss. He was a serious man. He moved about the Cape’s buildings and launch complexes with a driven determination. A frown on his face was a major part of his daily dress, and on one particular day, when the astronauts were working on the Mercury-Redstone launch pad, Williams suddenly remembered he had to make a luncheon speech in Cocoa Beach. “I’ve gotta’ be in town in twenty minutes,” he complained. “I left my car back at the office.”

Alan Shepard stepped forward. “Take my ‘Vette, Walt, I’ll catch a ride in with Gus.”

Walt Williams was rarely offered a favor. He wasn’t sure how to respond. He did, however manage a slight smile. “Thank you, Commander Shepard,” he said politely. “But I don’t know if I can drive a hot car like yours?”

“Sure you can, Walt,” Shepard assured him. “Com’on, I’ll help you get it started.”

The two men rushed across the parking lot and Alan helped buckle Williams into his ‘Vette. The Project Mercury Director sat there, staring at all the knobs, buttons, switches, and instruments. “What the hell,” he mumbled, fussing with the unfamiliar controls.

“Here, Walt,” Shepard said, reaching across and starting the vehicle.

“Thank you,” Williams said, closing the door.

Alan heard his ‘Vette’s gears cry in agony as Williams jammed the stick in 1st, and chugged away, stopping and starting and eventually getting the sports car to move somewhat at a steady pace.

Shepard turned and ran into the launch pad’s office. As Williams was turning onto the main road, he phoned the cops. “This is astronaut Alan Shepard,” he shouted. “Some sonofabitch just stole my Corvette. He’s headed for the south gate.”

Williams chugged and jerked Shepard’s ‘Vette up to the Cape’s exit, and the guards pounced on the stoic man, lifting him from the car and spread-eagling him over the hood.

Shepard was already on the phone with NASA security chief Charlie Buckley. “You better get to the south gate right now, Charlie,” he laughed. “They have the boss in handcuffs.”

Then, it was the day.

The seven astronauts doodled at their desks in their office at the Langley Research Center in Virginia. It was January 19th, 1961. Tomorrow John F. Kennedy would be sworn in as president of the United States. But right now Robert Gilruth was more important to the Mercury Seven. As chief of the Space Task Group, Gilruth ran Project Mercury. He owned the candy store. He was Walt Williams’ boss and he would say who would be the FIRST TO GO!That had been the engine driving the Mercury Seven’s training, and that afternoon Gilruth had called the astronauts. “How about hanging in after quitting time guys? I have something to tell you.”

There it was. He’d made his decision, and each of the seven reviewed where they stood in the program. There’d been an unquestioned breakthrough in mid-December when a Redstone carried an unmanned Mercury capsule through a perfect flight. That’s when Gilruth said oh so casually, “Everybody better start thinking about who goes first.”

Okay. Each astronaut voted for himself. Then Gilruth smiled and said, “I would like for you guys to take a peer vote. If you were unable to make the first flight, select the man you think should go.” He was aware of their discomfort and he smiled. “Drop your choice by my office soon.”

The astronauts couldn’t determine whether Gilruth had really given them a vote, or if he was playing it clever. Either way the Mercury Seven knew he could simply select the man he wanted, and the astronauts would never be the wiser.

The door opened, Gilruth came in and got right to the point. “What I have to say to you must stay with you. You can’t talk about it, not to anyone, not even to your wives. Now let’s keep it that way. Each of you has done an outstanding job. We’re grateful for your contributions, but you all know only one man can be first in space.

“What I’m about to tell you,” Gilruth continued, “is the most difficult decision I’ve every had to make. It is essential this decision be known to only a small group of people. We’ll make it known to the public at the appropriate time.”

He hesitated only to take a breath.

“Alan Shepard will make the first suborbital Redstone flight, Gus Grissom will follow Alan on the second suborbital flight, and John Glenn will be backup for both missions.”

Six hearts sunk as the seventh raced ahead with pride.

Alan Shepard understood the other guys’ disappointment, but they all knew from the beginning, one would go, six would watch.

John Glenn stepped forward and shook Shepard’s hand as the other five moved in and offered their congratulations before quietly leaving the room. Alan knew this was a time to keep his feelings inside, but as he went through the door, he permitted himself one little click of his heels.

We reporters were kept in the dark but within days I learned the selection committee had picked Shepard because he was judged to be the smartest. The committee selected Gus because of his engineering skills, and John Glenn because he always brought his plane back no matter how badly it had been shot up.

None of this did me any good as reporter for I had received the information off the record. The other astronauts knew the smart guy would be in the seat for the unknown, the engineer would be there to analyze and fix any hardware during the second, and the third guy would push the envelope. If he pushed it too far and they got into trouble, well, somehow Glenn would bring the ship home.

They also knew that if Shepard’s flight came off as planned, then all of them would have their flight. They had no fight with one another. Their struggle was to develop safe hardware and come home alive.

Excerpted from “Live From Cape Canaveral” by Jay Barbree. Copyright 2007, Jay Barbree. Reprinted by permission of Harper Collins. All rights reserved.

© 2013 MSNBC Interactive.  Reprints

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