Although many American scientists and engineers had been interested in rocket science for some time, there was a significant increase in this interest that began at the end of World War II. In 1946, after his surrender to the United States, Werner Von Braun and his scientists were brought to the United States. Von Braun had been the leader of the German V-2 program.
Von Braun and the scientists who had worked with him were sent to live and continue their research in White Sands New Mexico. They were doing research on ballistic missiles as well as research into the development of vehicles that could be launched into space. They used the captured German V-2 rockets to conduct their research.
While Von Braun and his men were conducting their research, elsewhere in the U.S., scientists had been conducting experiments with manned supersonic test flights in an attempt to break the sound barrier. In October of 1947, that goal was achieved for the first time with Captain Charles Yeager’s successful flight.
International Geophysical Year (IGY) –
Beginning in 1952, the United States began to plan for its involvement in the IGY or International Geophysical Year which was to take place from July of 1957 to December of 1958. The famous global program was designed to bring participating countries together to coordinate their observations of a variety of different geophysical phenomena.
With the approval of President Eisenhower, one of the ways through which the United States participated in this endeavor was by launching some small satellites. One month later, the Soviets who were also participating in the IGY, announced that they were going to launch their own satellite.
Observers from the western World, including American scientists basically ignored the Russian announcement because they didn’t believe that it was anything more than a ploy and that they were just trying to use the same old Soviet propaganda.
The Americans couldn’t have been more wrong, and that is what they discovered on October 4, 1957 when the Soviets launched the satellite Sputnik I with a dog on board. The dog’s name was Laika, and that prompted American journalists to dub the space craft “Muttnik.”
Throughout the emerging space community in the United States, people who had once been skeptical about the potential for the Soviet Union to accomplish anything technologically or scientifically, began to realize that the Russians would very likely be planning to send a human into space, and to do so very soon.
With the success of the Soviet Union’s first two flights, scientists in the American space community began to worry that these capabilities might make it possible for the Russians to launch nuclear strikes against the U.S. from their satellites.
ICBM or Intercontinental Ballistic Missile –
During this entire time, American and Russian scientists, engineers and researchers from both countries had focused their attentions on the development of an ICBM or Intercontinental Ballistic Missile. They hoped that the development of this missile would extend the delivery range of their respective nuclear arsenals.
The ICBM was also essential for other things: it was the only missile with enough power to be able to launch a space capsule into orbit. By the summer of 1957, the Soviets had succeeded in making their first launch. The R-7 was a modification of the ICBM, and it carried the earliest Russian satellites into orbit.
The Mercury Program –
NASA’s Mercury Program was intended to last from 1958 to 1963. The goal of the program was to launch a manned spacecraft into orbit and to have it orbit the earth three times. The process of getting to this point was incredibly complicated, problematic and time consuming. It was racked by unforeseen difficulties that NASA and the civilian contractors had never anticipated.
Finally, by September of 1959, the United States had succeeded in creating their own operational ICBM missile and it was given the name Atlas. Atlas would become the missile that would ultimately launch the Mercury flights into orbit. The importance of this success cannot be understated. Atlas (or the ICBM) was the only missile that was powerful enough to launch the space capsule into orbit.
America enters the space race –
All of the U.S. research and development along with the Russian launch of their Sputnik satellites served as the catalyst for the American “man-in-space program.” On January 31, 1958, the U.S. launched the Explorer 1 satellite into space, marking the American official entry into the space race.
Throughout most of the early phases of its development, the Atlas missile was plagued by problems. On September 9, 1959, it was finally declared operational, but there were still problems, and on July 29, 1960, the Atlas rocket that was in its Mercury configuration (as Mercury Atlas 1,) suffered a catastrophic failure on the launch pad. No one was hurt, but that was just one of the early difficulties that delayed the manned launch further.
Throughout the time during which the technical problems with the Atlas rocket were being ironed out, executives from NASA, the leaders from the Air Force Space Systems Division and experts from Aerospace Corporation and other contractors from the private sector joined forces and began to formulate a Pilot Safety Program.
But all along, NASA officials knew that Project Mercury was only intended to be a short project and the clock was ticking away fast. There was no possibility for altering the basic design of the rocket, but it was still necessary to make modifications to ensure the safety of the pilot and the reliability of the space craft. The result was the development of two programs that were created to be part of the Pilot Safety Program.
Program One –
Program One was designed to ensure that booster reliability would include a factory inspection and a quality assurance program. The quality assurance aspect would require that there be a detailed check and an analysis of every component on the rocket prior to each launch.
The inspection was required to guarantee that every single Mercury Atlas booster was fully functioning and that before it could be delivered to the Air Force, it had to be set to the closest possible launch configuration.
Program Two –
Program Two was designed to ensure the safety of the Mercury pilot. Reliability augmentation acted as a built in security measure that would ensure the functionality and reliability of all 100 critical components on the Atlas engine.
The very lives of the astronaut were in the hands of inspectors, so even the most minute aspects of inspections couldn’t be overlooked.
To further assure the high level of quality control, strict standards were established for both worker and manufacturing performance.
Engineers developed one other highly sophisticated safety measure that was called ASIS or Abort Sensing and Implementation System. The system was capable of automatically detecting any type of booster malfunction and that would then trigger the system to eject the astronaut capsule from the Atlas missile through a specially designed escape hatch or tower.
Chronology of the Mercury-Atlas flights –
The entire aerospace industry worked through 1960 and 1961 on refining the pilot safety program. But on July 29, 1960, the launch of Mercury-Atlas 1 failed one minute after blast off and the next blastoff was delayed for seven months.
Mercury-Atlas 2 and Mercury-Atlas 3
On February 21, 1961, Mercury-Atlas 2 launched successfully, but two months later on the scheduled launch of Mercury-Atlas 3, the launch was terminated 40 seconds after takeoff because of some electrical problems.
On September 13, 1961, Mercury-Atlas 4 became the first U.S. spacecraft to orbit earth.
On November 29, 1961, Mercury-Atlas 5 was launched. It was to be the last test launch before the first astronaut was to fly. Enos the chimpanzee flew in the astronaut capsule, and the spacecraft orbited earth twice instead of the three times that had been planned.
Soviet cosmonaut orbits earth –
On April 12, 1961, the Soviet Union successfully sent Cosmonaut Yuri Gagarin into space as the first human in space. He and his space capsule completed one orbit around the earth.
American sub-orbital flights –
Three weeks later, on May 5, 1961, Alan Shephard became the first American in space by successfully completing a sub-orbital flight.
On July 21, 1961, Virgil (Gus) Grissom successfully completed a second sub-orbital mission.
Mercury-Atlas 6 –
After a multitude of further delays, on February 20, 1962, Mercury-Atlas 6 was launched into space from Cape Canaveral in Florida. Astronaut John Glenn was on board the space craft and he named that space craft “Friendship 7.” Glenn completed three complete orbits of the earth. After a total of 4 hours, 55 minutes and 23 seconds, Glenn and the spacecraft touched down in the waters near Grand Turk Island of the Turks and Caicos Islands.
With that success, the flight established what was deemed the practical value of the first manned near earth orbit flight.
NASA wraps up Mercury project –
The Mercury Project lasted for 4 2/3 years, during which the combined efforts of more than two million people from government agencies, the military and a substantial portion of the aerospace industry worked together to fulfill the U.S. vision of a manned space flight. With their success, they further proved that the mission could be accomplished with complete safety to the astronauts and the safe return of the space craft.