The History of Nasas Mercury Program

The year was 1957, and the world as it was known would never be the same, for this was the year in which the Soviet Union launched Sputnik 1, the first artificial satellite. A few months later, the United States responded by launching Explorer 1. Thus the space race was born.

Each of these two superpowers wanted to display their superiority not only in scientific achievements, but also with military might. In the beginning of this heated competition, the Soviets had the advantage. NASA, (the National Aeronautics and Space Administration) was formed in the U.S. in 1958 to challenge the Russian space program. Project Mercury was developed by German rocket scientists who were either captured or defected to America after World War II. The objective of this program was to send humans into earth orbit aboard a spacecraft launched by a rocket and to return them safely home.

The search commenced for the best military test pilots that could be found. Following a rigorous battery of physical and mental tests, 7 of 110 potential candidates were eventually selected These included; in the chronological order of their flights: Alan Shepard, Gus Grissom, John Glenn, Scott Carpenter, Wally Schirra, and Gordon Cooper. The 7th astronaut, Deke Slayton, was grounded in 1962 for a heart abnormality and would not fly until 1975 on a joint Apollo-Soyuz mission.

Following Alan Shepard’s first flight, President John F. Kennedy put forth a collective goal for the U.S. to reach the moon before the end of the decade. Despite the fact that the Russians had figuratively beaten the Americans to the punch by launching cosmonaut Yuri Gagarin into orbit, the Mercury program was well underway.

The project lasted from 1959 until 1963, and was the first of three steps NASA would take to reach the moon. Two of the Mercury program’s most notable moments included Alan Shepard becoming the first American in space and John Glenn becoming the first American to orbit the earth. During Glenn’s historic flight, the nation held its breath when it was learned that the heat shield on his space capsule, dubbed Friendship 7, was damaged. Nobody knew for certain whether or not it would hold up during re-entry into the atmosphere. Fortunately, it did. Decades later, John Glenn would become the oldest human to travel into space. In 1998, at the age of 77, he flew aboard the Space Shuttle Discovery. Gus Grissom nearly drowned in the sea following splashdown of his capsule, but he was rescued in time before it sank to the ocean floor. Sadly, Grissom would die along with astronauts Ed White and Roger Chaffee a few years later in a fire that erupted on Apollo 1 during a launch pad test. As of this writing, John Glenn and Scott Carpenter are the only two original Mercury astronauts still living.

When the Mercury program concluded in 1963, NASA began the Gemini series of spaceflights which featured longer durations in space as well as two astronauts in a larger craft. The United States fulfilled President Kennedy’s prophecy in July, 1969, when the lunar module from Apollo 11 touched down on the moon. The Soviet Union never managed to send humans there. To this day, even nearly 20 years after the collapse of the Berlin Wall and hence the end of Communism in Europe, the U.S. remains the only nation to have ever accomplished this feat.

It’s now closing in on half a century since man first ventured into space. The Soviets enjoyed a jump-start of sorts in the beginning, but if not for NASA’s Mercury Project initially paving the way for Kennedy’s goal of reaching the moon to be realized, it’s a sure bet that this defining moment in mankind’s history would still lie in a rather distant future. As we look back to the brave pioneers who piloted those tiny Mercury capsules, we can look proudly and confidently to what lies ahead in the never-ending quest to conquer the vastness of space.