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This NASA's image of a Mercury-Redstone rocket Freedom 7 carrying Alan Shepard, the first American in space, is titled Light the Candle:

   enter image description here

   Light the Candle (Image Credit: NASA)

I remember this phrase also mentioned in the movie The Right Stuff, with Alan Shepard (Scott Glenn) waiting for the launch to commence for a rather long time, having to urinate in his suit before launch, because he was sat in his capsule with no easy way to exit it for so long (and the movie portrays many cups of coffee that he had that morning before leaving home, in a somewhat jocular manner) that he couldn't hold it any longer. If I remember correctly from the movie, one of his fellow astronauts in the control center says: "Let's light the candle!", to which control center crew looks at each other and Wernher von Braun agrees: "Yes. Light the candle!". Gustav Holst's Op. 32 "The Planets" starts playing in the background (I believe a passage from act 4, Jupiter, the Bringer of Jollity) and seconds after, the countdown resumes and the the first American manned suborbital spaceflight launches.

Now, that's only a movie and they often dramatize events differently than they really happened, so here's my question:

Who coined the phrase "Light the Candle!" to commence with a rocket launch, and how does the story really go? Did The Right Stuff movie accurately portray events before the Freedom 7 launch, or is there some other story behind this phrase?

Please provide references for claims in your answers.

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  • $\begingroup$ You are right to question it. I read the book first (thank goodness), and even then, there were a lot of anecdotes that I could not substantiate after years of looking into them. The movie took even more liberties as I recall. Also, I can't resist the irony, but Yuri Gagarin smartly relieved himself on the back bus tire before boarding! $\endgroup$ – DrZ214 Jul 23 '15 at 4:08
  • $\begingroup$ Shuttle Cmdr. Chris Ferguson, pilot of the final shuttle mission STS-135 and currently the director of Crew and Mission Operations for Boeing may have something to say about it; youtu.be/LUO5HO0C8qc?t=314 $\endgroup$ – uhoh Jun 12 '17 at 10:11
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I am unsure if this reference is tight enough for your criteria, but this article written by Ben Evans at AmericaSpace appears to have a detailed accounting of the launch. Unfortunately, I cannot find what Mr. Evans's references for the accounting are. In any case, the article is highly entertaining.

There's a paragraph towards the bottom of the article that deals specifically with the origin of the "light this candle" phrase.

The clock was now marching rapidly towards 9:00 am. Two minutes remained on the countdown. Then, another halt was called. Pressures inside the Redstone’s liquid oxygen tank had climbed unacceptably high. NASA had two options. It could either reset the pressure valves – which would necessitate a launch scrub – or bleed off some of the pressure by remote control. An irritable Shepard, after almost four hours on his back and now lying in dried-up urine, obviously preferred the second option. “I’m cooler than you are!” he barked. “Why don’t you fix your little problem and light this candle?” Those final three words have since gained immortality and truly epitomise the ‘right stuff’ from which Shepard was cut.

This account is supported by Gene Kranz in chapter 3 of Failure Is Not an Option, though he gives the quote as "Why don't you guys fix your problems and light this candle?"

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