Alan Shepard? John Glenn? Wernher von Braun? Gus Grissom? Gordon Cooper? Apocryphal?
Dear Quote Investigator: According to legend an astronaut was asked how he felt sitting in a space capsule while preparing for launch or travelling in orbit around the Earth. He replied with a trenchant comment about equipment and low-bid contracts. Would you please examine this topic?
Quote Investigator: On April 26, 1963 a columnist in a Bryan, Texas newspaper printed a remark ascribed to astronaut Alan Shepard although the word “supposedly” was used to signal uncertainty. Shepard was the first American to travel into space. Emphasis added to excerpts by QI: 1
Here’s one of the comments Astronaut Alan Shepard supposedly made before he crawled into his space capsule for the first trip into outer space by an American: “Just think, the contract on this thing went to the lowest bidder.”
A few days later, on May 1, 1963 a columnist in an Amarillo, Texas newspaper printed a more elaborate quip ascribed to John Glenn who was the first American to orbit the Earth: 2
Astronaut John Glenn is supposed to have said: “My life depended on 150,000 pieces of equipment – each bought from the lowest bidder.”
Similar remarks have been attributed to other astronauts, and QI conjectures that the colleagues of the space program shared the quip with one another. During a 1998 interview Glenn directly retold his version of the joke, and QI believes he created the most interesting version.
Below are additional selected citations in chronological order.
On May 9 1963 the “St. Louis Post-Dispatch” St. Louis, Missouri reported an anecdote told by the famous rocket engineer Wernher von Braun about an unnamed astronaut: 3
Wernher von Braun, director of Marshall Space Flight Center at Huntsville, Ala., discussing the necessity of quality and reliability in manufacturing of components, materials and design, said that “to create a product which we can commit to the rigors of space, we must do more than that which we can describe in specifications and procedures.
“There is an unconfirmed story about one of our astronauts being asked by a newspaper man how it felt to be in orbit,” he said. “He replied, ‘Well, how does it feel when you know your life depends on 150,000 parts all bought from the lowest bidder?'”
On June 1, 1963 gossip columnist Betty Beale wrote about a cocktail party in Washington D.C. hosted by NASA Administrator James E. Webb and his wife. During the gathering Von Braun relayed the joke to astronaut Scott Carpenter: 4
Rocket expert Wernher von Braun amused Scott Carpenter at the Webb party with an astronaut story.
Seems that a newsman asked one of the astronauts, “How does it feel to be out there whirling around in space in a capsule?” And the astronaut replied: “Well, how do you think it feels when your life depends on 150,000 parts borrowed from the lowest bidder?”
In August 1963 a version of the joke ascribed to Glenn appeared in an advertisement for a cement company in a Louisiana newspaper: 5
John Glenn told a news conference his last thought before blastoff was, “I sure wish this rocket hadn’t been built by the lowest bidder.”
In December 1964 “The New York Times” published an instance with an ambiguous ascription to Shepard or Glenn: 6
One of the astronauts, incidentally, is the subject of what appears to be a favorite anecdote on the Cape. It has to do with Alan Shepard or John Glenn—depending on who is telling it—after he had spent hours in the capsule atop the launcher before it finally got off. Asked what he had thought about during the wait, the astronaut replied, “I just kept looking around at all those dozens of instruments in front of me and reminding myself that every one was supplied by the lowest bidder.”
In April 1965 an instance was credited to astronaut Gus Grissom who later died in a tragic fire during a pre-launch test in 1967: 7
From space man Gus Grissom, as he orbited around the earth in his space capsule: “I shudder to think, this thing was built by the lowest bidder.”
In May 1965 the expression was linked to Gordon Cooper: 8
… Gordon Cooper, Air Force major who, in the middle of an orbital flight, succumbs to thoughts like “I’m now in a capsule built by the lowest bidder”…
In 1998 an interviewer spoke to John Glenn about the early days of the space program, and he reminisced: 9
On Feb. 20, 1962, he became the first American to orbit Earth. He also was the first to ride the new Atlas rocket, which had a disconcerting habit of blowing up about 40 percent of the time.
Glenn still jokes about it.
“I felt exactly how you would feel if you were getting ready to launch and knew you were sitting on top of two million parts — all built by the lowest bidder on a government contract.”
In conclusion, the article presents a snapshot of current research. Alan Shepard and John Glenn are the leading candidates for creators of this basic quip. QI believes that Glenn probably constructed the version mentioning a large number of parts.
Image Notes: Picture of John Glenn from a camera aboard the “Friendship 7” Mercury spacecraft. Launch of Friendship 7. Alan Shepard in capsule aboard Freedom 7. Images from NASA accessed via Wikimedia Commons. Images have been retouched, resized, and cropped.
(Great thanks to Austin Kleon and Karin L. Kross whose inquiry and comment led QI to formulate this question and perform this exploration. Kleon pointed to a quotation attributed to John Glenn. In addition, quotation expert Nigel Rees relayed a request in the July 2017 issue of his periodical “The ‘Quote…Unquote’ Newsletter”. David Critchlow wanted a trace of the statement: “every item of work and materials in his space shuttle was the result of the cheapest offer”. Special thanks to Barry Popik for his pioneering research on this topic. He found citations beginning on July 7, 1966. Also, thanks to Jonathan Lighter who asked about a related military expression: “Always remember: your equipment was made by the lowest bidder”. Additional thanks to Thomas Fuller for locating a citation and asking about this topic.)
- 1963 April 26, The Bryan Daily Eagle, Eagle Items by Brett Martin, Quote Page 2, Column 4, Bryan, Texas. (Newspapers_com) ↩
- 1963 May 1, The Amarillo Globe-Times, Putting Around Curtis with Putt Powell, Quote Page 15, Column 1, Amarillo, Texas. (Newspapers_com) ↩
- 1963 May 9, St. Louis Post-Dispatch, NASA Official Tells How To Win Contracts by Sam B. Armstrong (National Correspondent of The Post-Dispatch), Quote Page 7A, Column 1 to 3, St. Louis, Missouri. (Newspapers_com) ↩
- 1963 June 1, The News Journal, Washington Social Whirl: Capital Notables Play Host To Astronaut Gordon Cooper by Betty Beale, Quote Page 20, Column 1, Wilmington, Delaware. (Newspapers_com) ↩
- 1963 August 25, Lake Charles American-Press, Sometimes Western Misses Out on Cementing Jobs Because We Place Accuracy Above Simply Getting Work, (Advertisement for The Western Company of Lafayette, Louisiana), Quote Page 33, Column 1, Lake Charles, Louisiana. (Newspapers_com) ↩
- 1964 December 13, New York Times, Visit to the Three Cape Kennedys: Visit to the Three Cape Kennedys by Robert G. Whalen, Start Page SM34, Quote Page SM110, New York. (ProQuest) ↩
- 1965 April 21, The Ottawa Journal, Below the Hill by Gord Lomer, Quotable Quotes, Quote Page 17, Column 7, Ottawa, Ontario, Canada. (Newspapers_com) ↩
- 1965 May 7, Muncie Evening Press, A Washington Attorney and His Astronauts: Part One by Jim Bishop, Quote Page 4, Column 7, Muncie, Indiana. (Newspapers_com) ↩
- 1998 October 25, Sunday Southern (The Southern Illinoisan), Rocket man by Michael Cabbage (The Orlando Sentinel), Quote Page 1D, Column 3, Carbondale, Illinois. (Newspapers_com) ↩