Project Mercury was the first American manned space program initiated in 1958 under President Eisenhower’s administration. Prior to 1958, the world knew little about the space program and virtually nothing of the rocket launches that preceded Mercury by a dozen years. However, the Soviet Union knew, and they were on the same path to launch a man into space and win the space race before Mercury made history.
Wernher von Braun and his team of scientists surrendered to the United States in 1945, shortly before the end of WWII. At the end of WWII, the USA and the Soviet Union emerged as the world superpowers and each pursued rocket weaponry.
Von Braun and his team of scientists came to the US with their rocket expertise and brought their rocket assemblies with them. He had worked extensively on V2 rockets in Germany. After settling in the USA, von
Braun and team built, tested, and launched ICBM missiles, the forerunners of Redstone and Atlas. These converted vehicles would launch the first American space flights.
Project Mercury with the help of hundreds of scientists, engineers and technicians began in 1958 under the newly established NASA. The goal was to “establish a national manned space-flight project.” More than two million people participated in the various project phases, coming primarily from government agencies and the aerospace industry.
For the orbital flight, the existing Atlas would launch the spacecraft that sat atop the rocket. The newly designed spacecraft with both manual and automatic controls would allow the astronaut to maneuver controls that would be important in reentry into the atmosphere.
Man and machine
Large teams of scientists and engineers assembled to manage aspects of space travel including the new design of a manned spacecraft. The first space capsule was so small it seated only one astronaut, but it had manual and automatic controls so the astronaut could maneuver the craft. It had systems to monitor the vital signs of the pilot and each system was redundant.
Astronaut safety was a critical agenda in Project Mercury. Weight, volume, and performance of man and machine were concerns in the first manned space flight. In order to test these elements, animals were the first space travelers.
Ham, a chimpanzee, was launched into sub-orbital flight in 1961 and the craft overshot its sub-orbital height by 40 miles, but Ham performed well and completed all assigned tasks. When the spacecraft landed, it took the recovery team three hours to reach the space capsule. Ham was fine and survived and lived to the ripe old age of 25 before dying in 1983.
Sub-orbital Manned launches:
Flight performance data gathered from these early sub-orbital flights allowed NASA to evaluate, correct, or recalibrate equipment, systems, and procedures.
Alan Shepard made the first manned sub-orbital flight on May 5, 1961. He spent 15 minutes in flight and returned home without incident.
Gus Grissom made the second sub-orbital flight July 21, 1961, but his space capsule sank before he was recovered when the hatch blew off. Man and spacecraft were recovered safely.
Flight performance data gathered from these early flights allowed NASA to correct or recalibrate equipment, systems, and procedures. Prior to John Glenn’s first orbital flight, a chimpanzee named Enos orbited the earth twice.
The USA was ecstatic when astronaut John Glenn became the first American pilot to orbit the earth on February 20, 1962 in Friendship 7 with an Atlas booster. He completed three orbits in the flight that lasted 4 hours and 55 minutes. Project Mercury had their first successful orbital flight and at the end of the flight, they had made history but lost the status of launching the first man into space. (Russian, Yuri Gagarin)
John Glenn became a national hero overnight.
The Seven historic astronauts originally selected for the Mercury project were all pilots selected from the military: John Glenn, Marine Corps, and from the Navy, Walter Schirra, Alan Shepard, and Scott Carpenter. Air Force astronauts were Donald Slayton, Gordon Cooper, and Virgil Grissom.
Project Mercury was an astounding success and launched a total of six manned space flights through 1963. The program lasted 4 years and 8 months without serious or fatal incident. The flight performance data obtained from Project Mercury provided critical information about man and spacecraft paving the way for all succeeding space flights and launched the USA into space.