Project Mercury

Project Mercury

Project Mercury
Duration 1958–1963
Nationality US
Goal Orbital flight
Result Accomplished goal but no firsts
US flight firsts:
Crew size One
Rockets Atlas D, Redstone and Little Joe
Contractor McDonnell Aircraft (spacecraft)
Cost $1.73 billion (current prices)
Followers Gemini and Apollo
Rival Vostok program (Soviet)

Project Mercury was the first human spaceflight program of the United States led by its newly created space agency NASA. It ran from 1959 through 1963 with the goal of putting a human in orbit around the Earth, and doing it before the Soviet Union, as part of the early space race. It involved seven astronauts flying a total of six solo trips. On May 5, 1961, Alan Shepard became the first American in space in a suborbital flight after the Soviet Union had put Yuri Gagarin into orbit one month earlier. John Glenn became the first American to reach orbit on February 20, 1962. He was the third person to do so, after Soviet Gherman Titov made a day-long flight in August 1961. When the project ended in May 1963, USA was still behind the Soviet space program, but the gap was seen as closing.

The space race started in 1957 with the launch of the Soviet satellite Sputnik 1. This came as a shock to the American public and led to the creation of NASA to gather the efforts in space exploration already existing in the US. After the launch of the first American satellite in 1958, manned space flight became the next goal. The spacecraft was produced by McDonnell Aircraft; it was cone shaped with room for one person together with supplies of water, food and oxygen for about one day in a pressurized cabin. It was launched from Cape Canaveral in Florida by a modified Atlas D or Redstone missile, and had an escape tower for protection from a failing rocket. The whole flight could be controlled from the ground through the Manned Space Flight Network, a system of tracking stations which also allowed communication with the astronaut. If necessary, the astronaut could take manual control. For reentry into Earth's atmosphere, small rockets were used to bring the spacecraft out of its orbit. A heat shield would protect the spacecraft from the heat of reentry, and a parachute would slow the craft for a water landing. Here both astronaut and spacecraft were picked up by helicopter and brought to a ship.

From a slow start with humiliating mistakes, the Mercury Project became popular worldwide and the manned flights were followed by millions on radio and TV not only in United States, but around the world. Apart from the manned missions, Mercury had a total of 20 unmanned launches as a part of the development of the project. This also involved test animals, most famously the chimpanzees Ham and Enos. Mercury laid the groundwork for Project Gemini and the follow-on Apollo moon-landing program, which was announced a few weeks after the first manned flight. The astronauts were collectively known as the "Mercury Seven" and they named their spacecraft with a "7" at the end. The project name was taken from Mercury, a Roman god. It is estimated to have cost $1.73 billion (current prices) and have involved the work of 2 million people.


Project Mercury was officially approved on October 7, 1958 and publicly announced on December 17.[1][2] Originally it was called Project Astronaut, but President Dwight Eisenhower thought that it gave too much attention to the pilot.[3] Instead, the name Mercury was chosen from Greco-Roman mythology, which already lent names to rockets like the Atlas and Jupiter[2] It absorbed military projects with the same aim such as the Air Force Man-in-Space-Soonest.[4][n 1]


Following the end of World War II, a nuclear arms race evolved between the US and the Soviet Union to develop long-range missiles.[6] At the same time both sides also developed satellites for espionage.[7] Most of this took place in secret, therefore it came as a shock to the American public when the Soviet Union placed the first satellite into orbit in October 1957 and there was a growing fear in the US that the country was falling behind.[8][7] A month later, the Soviets launched a dog into orbit and though the dog was not recovered, it was obvious that they were striving for manned spaceflight.[9] Unable to tell the public about the progress of military space projects, President Eisenhower decided to create a civilian space agency known as the National Aeronautics and Space Administration, based on the NACA, a federal aeronautical research agency.[10] NASA was placed in charge of civilian and scientific space exploration and after having orbited an American satellite in 1958 the next goal became to put a man in space.[11]

The limit of space was defined as an altitude of 62 mi (100 km) and the only way to reach it was by rocket.[12][13] This created risks for the pilot, including explosion, subjection to high g-forces and vibrations during lift off through the atmosphere.[14] In space, the pilot would experience zero gravity, a condition where he might suffer from disorientation.[15] In this altitude he had to be in a pressurized chamber or suit and supplied with fresh air.[16] Further possible risks were radiation from space and micrometeoroids, from which the air would normally protect him.[17] At reentry to the denser part of the atmosphere, air compression would heat the spacecraft to more than 10,000 °F (5,540 °C).[18] All these obstacles, however, seemed possible to overcome. Experiences from satellites suggested that the risk from micrometeoroids was negligible.[19] As to the medical questions, experiments in the early 1950s with simulated weightlessness and high g-forces on humans, together with experiments of sending animals to the limit of space gave the conclusion that problems could be overcome by known technology.[20] Finally, reentry was studied using the nuclear warheads of ballistic missiles.[21] From this, the best solution to the heating problem was found to be a blunt heat shield facing the direction of movement during reentry, since it created a shock wave that let most of the heat flow around the spacecraft or warhead.[21]

Organization and facilities

Location of production and operational facilities of Project Mercury
C. Canaveral
St. Louis
San Diego
Los Angeles

T. Keith Glennan had been appointed administrator of NASA with Hugh L. Dryden (last director of NACA) as his deputy from the creation of the agency on October 1, 1958.[22] Glennan would report to the president through the National Aeronautics and Space Council.[23] The group responsible for Project Mercury was NASA's Space Task Group and the goals of the program were to orbit a manned spacecraft around Earth, investigate the pilot's ability to function in space and to recover both pilot and spacecraft safely.[24] Existing technology and off-the-shelf equipment would be used wherever practical, the simplest and most reliable approach to system design would be followed, and an existing launch vehicle would be employed together with a progressive test program.[25] Spacecraft requirements included: a launch escape system to separate the spacecraft and its occupant from the launch vehicle in case of impending failure; attitude control for orientation of the spacecraft in orbit; a retrorocket system to bring the spacecraft out of orbit; drag braking blunt body for atmospheric reentry; and landing on water.[25] To communicate with the spacecraft during an orbital mission, an extensive communications network had to be built.[26] To begin with President Eisenhower hesitated to give the project top national priority (DX rating), which meant that it had to wait in line behind military projects for materials; however, this rating was granted in May 1959.[27]

Twelve companies bid to build the Mercury spacecraft on a $20 million ($162 million) contract.[28] In January 1959, McDonnell Aircraft Corporation was chosen to be prime contractor for the spacecraft.[29] Two weeks earlier, North American Aviation, based in Los Angeles, was awarded a contract for Little Joe, a small rocket to be used for development of the launch escape system.[30][n 2] The World Wide Tracking Network for communication between the ground and spacecraft during a flight was awarded to the Western Electric Company.[31] Redstone rockets for suborbital launches were manufactured in Huntsville, Alabama by the Chrysler Corporation[32] and Atlas rockets by Convair in San Diego, California.[33] For manned launches, the Atlantic Missile Range at Cape Canaveral Air Force Station in Florida was made available by the USAF.[34] This was also the site of the Mercury Control Center while the computing center of the communication network was in Goddard Space Center, Maryland.[35] Little Joe rockets were launched from Wallops Island, Virginia.[36] Astronaut training took place at Langley Research Center in Virginia, Lewis Flight Propulsion Laboratory in Cleveland, Ohio, and Naval Air Development Center in Johnsville.[37] Langley wind tunnels[38] together with a rocket sled track at Holloman Air Force Base at Alamogordo, New Mexico were used for aerodynamic studies.[39] Both Navy and Air Force aircraft were made available for the development of the spacecraft's landing system,[40] and Navy ships and Navy and Marine Corps helicopters were made available for recovery.[n 3] South of Cape Canaveral the town of Cocoa Beach boomed.[42] From here, 75,000 people watched the first American orbital flight being launched in 1962.[42]


The principal designer of the Mercury spacecraft was Max Faget who started research for manned spaceflight during the time of the NACA.[43] The spacecraft was 10.8 feet (3.3 m) long and 6.0 feet (1.8 m) wide; with the launch escape system added, the overall length was 25.9 feet (7.9 m).[44] With 100 cubic feet (2.8 m3) of habitable volume, the spacecraft was just large enough for the single crew member.[45] Inside were 120 controls: 55 electrical switches, 30 fuses and 35 mechanical levers.[46] The heaviest spacecraft, Mercury-Atlas 9, weighed fully loaded 3,000 pounds (1,400 kg).[47] Its outer skin was made of René 41, a nickel alloy able to withstand high temperatures.[48]

The spacecraft was cone shaped with a neck at the narrow end.[44] It had a convex base, which the heat shield was mounted on (2).[49] It was composed of an aluminum honeycomb structure covered with multiple layers of fiberglass.[50] Strapped to it was the retropack (1)[51] which consisted of three rockets meant to brake the spacecraft for reentry.[52] Between these were three minor rockets for separating the spacecraft from the launch vehicle at orbital insertion.[53] The straps that held the package could be severed when it was no longer needed.[54] Next to the heat shield was the pressurized crew compartment (3).[55] This contained the astronaut strapped to his couch with the instruments in front of him and his back to the heat shield.[56] Underneath the seat was the environmental control system, which supplied him with oxygen and heat.[57] The system also cleaned the air of CO2, vapor and odors, as well as (on orbital flights) collect urine.[58][n 4] The recovery compartment (4)[60] at the narrow end of the spacecraft contained three parachutes: one drogue to stabilize free fall and two main parachutes of which only one was used, with the other as a reserve.[61] Between the heat shield and the inner wall of the crew compartment was a landing skirt, which was deployed by letting down the heat shield before landing.[62] On top of the recovery compartment was the antenna section (5)[63] containing antennas for communication with the Earth and scanners for guiding the orientation of the spacecraft.[64] Attached to it was a flap used to ensure that the spacecraft was faced in the correct direction (heat shield first) during reentry.[65] A launch escape system (6) was mounted to the narrow end of the spacecraft.[66] In case of failure during the first minutes of launch, three small solid-fueled rockets would fire for a second to bring the spacecraft free of the launch vehicle so it could deploy its parachute and land at sea.[67]

Role of pilot

John Glenn wearing his Mercury space suit

The astronaut sat with his back to the heat shield, in a seat which was molded from his body for maximum support. As a safety measure, he wore a pressure suit with its own oxygen supply, which would also cool him.[68] A low pressure atmosphere of pure oxygen was easier to control than one with the same composition as air at ground level.[69] To put out fire, the astronauts had to empty the compartment of oxygen.[58] Should the air pressure of the compartment fail due to puncturing by micrometeoroids or other reasons, the astronaut could still make an emergency return to Earth relying on his suit for survival.[70][58] The astronauts normally flew with their visor up which meant that the suit was not inflated.[58] With the visor down and the suit inflated, the astronaut could only reach the side and bottom panels where vital buttons and handles were placed.[71] The cabin pressure was equivalent to an altitude of 18,000–25,000 feet (5,500–7,600 m).[71] The astronaut also wore electrodes on his chest to record his heart rhythm, a cuff that could take his blood pressure and a rectal thermometer to record his temperature (this would be replaced by an oral thermometer on the last flight).[72] Data from these was sent to the ground during the flight.[68] For orientation, he could look through the window in front of him or from a screen connected to a periscope which could be turned 360°.[73] The astronaut normally drank water and ate food pellets.[74][n 5]

In orbit, the spacecraft could be rotated in three directions: along the longitudinal axis of the spacecraft (roll), from left to right as seen from the astronaut (yaw) and up-down as seen from the astronaut (pitch).[75] Movement was created by thrusters (jets) using hydrogen peroxide as a fuel.[76] The movements and other functions of the spacecraft could be controlled in three ways: remotely from the ground when passing over a ground station, automatically guided by its own instruments, or manually by the astronaut, who could replace or override the two other methods.[77] In his left hand, the astronaut could hold an abort handle that could activate the launch escape system if the automatic system failed.[78] The astronauts had taken part in the development of the spacecraft and they required the manual control by the astronaut together with the window in front of the astronaut.[79] Gordon Cooper's manual reentry during the last flight was an example of the value of such control.[80]

Development and production

Spacecraft production at McDonnell

The spacecraft design was modified three times by NACA/NASA between 1958 and 1959 before the final shape was found.[81] At the time of bidding for the spacecraft contractor in November 1958, the third approach named "C" was selected by NASA and the winning bid was based upon this design.[82] This was changed to the final configuration called "D" after the "C" design failed a test flight in July 1959.[83] The shape of the heat shield had been chosen earlier in the 1950s through experiments with ballistic missiles, which had shown that a blunt heat shield would create a shock wave which would lead most of the heat around the spacecraft.[84] To further protect against heat, either a heat sink or an ablative material could be added to the shield.[85] The heat sink would remove heat by the flow of the air inside the shock wave, whereas the ablative heat shield would remove heat by a controlled evaporation of the ablative material.[86] After unmanned tests, the latter was chosen for manned flights.[87] Apart from the capsule design, a rocketplane similar to the existing X-15 was considered.[88] This approach was still too far from being able to make a spaceflight and was consequently dropped.[89][n 6] The heat shield and the stability of the spacecraft were tested in wind tunnels[38] and later in flight.[92] The launch escape system was developed through unmanned flights.[93] An alternative concept for landing system involving the use of a glider wing instead of a parachute was considered but ultimately scrapped.[94]

The spacecraft were produced at McDonnell Aircraft, St. Louis, Missouri in clean rooms and tested in vacuum chambers at the McDonnell plant.[95] The spacecraft had close to 600 subcontractors, such as Garrett AiResearch which built the spacecraft's environmental control system.[29][57] Final quality control and preparations of the spacecraft were made at Hangar S at Cape Canaveral.[96][n 7] NASA ordered 20 production spacecraft, numbered 1 through 20.[29] Five of the 20, Nos. 10, 12, 15, 17, and 19, were not flown.[98] Spacecraft No. 3 and No. 4 were destroyed during unmanned test flights.[98] Spacecraft No. 11 sank[98] and was recovered from the bottom of the Atlantic Ocean after 38 years.[99] Some spacecraft were modified after initial production (refurbished after launch abort, modified for longer missions, etc.)[n 8] A number of Mercury boilerplate spacecraft (made from non-flight materials or lacking production spacecraft systems) were also made by NASA and McDonnell.[102] They were designed and used to test spacecraft recovery systems and the escape tower.[103] McDonnell also built the spacecraft simulators used by the astronauts during training.[104]

Launch vehicles

1. Mercury-Atlas. 2. Mercury-Redstone. 3. Little Joe

The Mercury program used two launch vehicles for manned missions.[105][n 9] The most important was the Atlas LV-3B or Atlas D, a two-stage liquid fueled rocket used for orbital flight.[106] It was developed by Convair for the Air Force during the mid-1950s[107] and was fueled with liquid oxygen (LOX) and kerosene.[106] It was 67 feet (20 m) by itself and with the spacecraft and the launch escape system (including the adapter that held both to the launch vehicle), its total height was 95 feet (29 m).[108] The first stage was a booster skirt with two engines using liquid fuel from the sustainer stage.[106] This together with the larger sustainer stage gave it sufficient power to launch a Mercury spacecraft into orbit.[106] Both stages fired from lift-off until staging of the booster; the sustainer through an opening in the booster.[106] After staging, the sustainer stage continued alone. The sustainer also steered the rocket by thrusters guided by gyroscopes.[109] Smaller vernier rockets were added on its sides for precise control of maneuvers.[106] The Atlas was made of paper-thin stainless steel and had to be kept under constant internal pressure by fuel or helium in order to prevent the rocket from collapsing.[110] This meant that the airframe of the launch vehicle could be reduced to 2% of the weight of the fuel.[110] The Atlas D rocket also required extra strengthening in order to handle the increased weight of the Mercury spacecraft beyond that of the nuclear warheads it was designed for.[53] Its internal guidance system also had to be moved accordingly to its greater length.[53] The Titan missile was also considered for later Mercury missions but was not ready in time.[111][n 10] The Atlas was flown to Cape Canaveral and transported to the launch pad on a dolly.[113] At the launch pad, the rocket and dolly were lifted to a vertical position by the service tower and the Atlas was then held by clamps to the launch pad.[114][113]

The other manned launch vehicle was the Mercury-Redstone Launch Vehicle which was an 83 feet (25 m) (spacecraft and escape system included) tall single-stage launch vehicle used for suborbital (ballistic) flights.[115] It had a liquid-fueled engine that burned alcohol and liquid oxygen producing about 75,000 pounds of thrust, which was not enough for orbital missions.[115] It was a descendant of the German V-2,[32] and developed for the U.S. Army during the early 1950s. It was modified for Project Mercury by removing the warhead and adding a collar for supporting the spacecraft together with material for damping vibrations during launch.[116] Its rocket motor was produced by North American Aviation and its direction could be altered during flight by its fins. They worked in two ways: by directing the air around them or by directing the thrust by their inner parts (or both at the same time).[32] Both the Atlas-D and Redstone launch vehicles contained an automatic abort sensing system which allowed them to abort a launch by firing the launch escape system if something went wrong.[117] The Jupiter rocket, a relative of the Redstone, was originally considered for the suborbital launch vehicle, but was replaced by the Redstone in July 1959 due to budget constraints.[118][119]

A smaller launch vehicle (55 feet (17 m) long) called Little Joe which carried a Mercury spacecraft with an escape tower mounted on it, was used for unmanned tests of the launch escape system.[120][121] Its main purpose was to test the system at a point called max-q, at which air pressure against the spacecraft peaked, making separation of the launch vehicle and spacecraft most difficult.[122] It was also the point at which the astronaut was subjected to the heaviest vibrations.[123] The Little Joe rocket used solid-fuel propellant and was originally designed in 1958 by the NACA for suborbital manned flights, but was redesigned for Project Mercury to simulate an Atlas-D launch.[93] It was produced by North American Aviation.[120] It was not able to change direction, instead its flight depended on the angle from which it was launched.[124] Its maximum altitude was 100 mi (160 km) fully loaded.[125] A Scout launch vehicle was used for a single flight intended to evaluate the tracking network; however, it failed and was destroyed from the ground shortly after launch.[126]


Left to right: Grissom, Shepard, Carpenter, Schirra, Slayton, Glenn and Cooper, 1962

NASA announced the selected seven astronauts – known as the Mercury Seven – on April 9, 1959,[127] they were:[128]

Shepard became the first American in space by making a suborbital flight in May 1961.[129] He went on to fly in the Apollo program and became the only Mercury astronaut to walk on the Moon.[130] Gus Grissom, who became the second American in space, also participated in the Gemini and Apollo programs, but died in January 1967 during a pre-launch test for Apollo 1.[131] Glenn became the first American to orbit the Earth in February 1962, then quit NASA and went into politics, but returned to space aboard STS-95.[132] Deke Slayton was grounded in 1962, but remained with NASA and flew on the Apollo-Soyuz Test Project in 1975.[133] Gordon Cooper became the last to fly in Mercury and made its longest flight, and also flew a Gemini mission. [134] Carpenter's Mercury flight was his only trip into space.

One of the astronauts' tasks was publicity; they gave interviews to the press and visited project manufacturing facilities to speak with those who worked on Project Mercury.[135] To make their travels easier, they requested and got jet fighters for personal use.[136] The press was especially fond of John Glenn, who was considered the best speaker of the seven.[137] They sold their personal stories to Life magazine which portrayed them as patriotic, God-fearing family men.[138] Life was also allowed to be at home with the families while the astronauts were in space.[138] During the project, Grissom, Carpenter, Cooper, Schirra and Slayton stayed with their families at or near Langley Air Force Base; Glenn lived at the base and visited his family in Washington DC on weekends. Shepard lived with his family at Naval Air Station Oceana in Virginia.[139]

Selection and training

It was envisaged that the pilot could be any man or woman willing to take a personal risk.[140] On President Eisenhower's insistence, however, the first Americans to venture into space were drawn from a group of 508 military test pilots.[141] This excluded women, since there were no female military test pilots.[3] It also excluded the NACA's X-15 pilot and later astronaut Neil Armstrong, since he was a civilian.[3][n 11] It was further stipulated that candidates should be between 25 and 40 years old, no taller than 5 ft 11 in (1.80 m), and hold a college degree in science or engineering.[3] The college degree requirement excluded the X-1 pilot Chuck Yeager, the first person to exceed the speed of sound.[143] He later became a critic of the project, ridiculing especially the use of monkeys.[143][n 12] Joseph Kittinger, a stratosphere balloonist, met all the requirements but preferred to stay in his contemporary project.[143] Some other potential candidates declined because they did not believe that manned spaceflight had a future beyond Project Mercury.[143][n 13] From the original 508, 110 candidates were selected for an interview, and from the interviews, 32 were selected for further physical and mental testing.[146] Their health, vision, and hearing were examined, together with their tolerance to noise, vibrations, g-forces, personal isolation, and heat.[147] In a special chamber, they were tested to see if they could perform their tasks under confusing conditions.[147] The candidates had to answer more than 500 questions about themselves and describe what they saw in different images.[147] Jim Lovell, later astronaut in Gemini and Apollo, did not pass the physical tests.[143] After these tests it was intended to narrow the group down to six astronauts but in the end it was decided to keep seven.[148]

The astronauts went through a training program covering some of the same exercises that were used in their selection.[37] They simulated the g-force profiles of launch and reentry in a centrifuge at the Naval Air Development Center, and were taught special breathing techniques necessary when subjected to more than 6 g.[136] Weightlessness training took place in aircraft, first on the rear seat of a two-seater fighter and later inside converted and padded cargo aircraft.[149] They practiced gaining control of a spinning spacecraft in a machine at the Lewis Flight Propulsion Laboratory called the Multi-Axis Spin-Test Inertia Facility (MASTIF), by using an attitude controller handle simulating the one in the spacecraft.[150] A further measure for finding the right attitude in orbit was star and Earth recognition training in planetaria and simulators.[151] Communication and flight procedures were practiced in flight simulators, first together with a single person assisting them and later with the Mission Control Center.[152] Recovery was practiced in pools at Langley, and later at sea with frogmen and helicopter crews.[153]

Mission profile

Suborbital mission profile; the dashed line indicates the region of zero gravity

Project Mercury had two kinds of missions: suborbital, and orbital.[154] In the suborbital mission, a Redstone rocket lifted the spacecraft for 2 minutes and 30 seconds to an altitude of 32 nautical miles (59 km), separated from it and let it continue on a ballistic curve.[155][156] Though not necessary for re-entry because orbital speed had not been attained, the spacecraft's retrorockets were fired, and the spacecraft landed in the Atlantic Ocean.[157] Orbital missions also landed in the Atlantic, and a flotation collar, not ready for suborbital missions, was fastened around the spacecraft after landing.[158] The suborbital mission took 15 minutes, had an apogee altitude of 102–103 nautical miles (189–191 km), and a downrange distance of 262 nautical miles (485 km).[134][159]

Preparations for a mission started a month in advance with the selection of the primary and back-up astronaut; they would practice together for the mission.[160] For three days prior to launch, the astronaut went through a special diet to minimize his need for defecating during the flight.[161] On the morning of the trip he typically ate a steak breakfast.[161] After having sensors applied to his body and being dressed in the pressure suit, he started breathing pure oxygen to prepare him for the atmosphere of the spacecraft.[162] He arrived at the launch pad, took the elevator up the launch tower and entered the spacecraft two hours before launch.[163][n 14] Once the astronaut was secured inside, the hatch was bolted, the launch area evacuated and the mobile tower rolled back.[164] After this, the launch vehicle was filled with liquid oxygen.[164] The entire procedure of preparing for launch and launching the spacecraft followed a time table called the countdown. It started a day in advance with a pre-count, in which all systems of the launch vehicle and spacecraft were checked. After that followed a 15 hour hold, during which pyrotechnics were installed. Then came the main countdown which for orbital flights started 6½ hours before launch (T – 390 min), counted backwards to launch (T = 0) and then forward until orbital insertion (T + 5 min).[163][n 15]

Orbital mission profile; A-D is launch; E-K is re-entry and landing

On an orbital mission, the Atlas' rocket engines were ignited 4 seconds before lift-off. The launch vehicle was held to the ground by clamps and then released when sufficient thrust was built up at lift-off (A).[166] After 30 seconds of flight, the point of maximum dynamic pressure against the vehicle was reached, at which the astronaut felt heavy vibrations.[167] The booster engines were cut off and released after 2 minutes and 10 seconds (B).[163] At this point, the launch escape system was no longer needed, and was separated from the spacecraft by its jettison rocket (C).[52][n 16] The launch vehicle moved gradually to a horizontal attitude during launch until, at an altitude of 87 nautical miles (161 km), the spacecraft was inserted into orbit (D).[169] This happened after 5 minutes and 10 seconds in a direction pointing east, whereby the spacecraft would gain speed from the rotation of the Earth.[170][n 17] Here the spacecraft fired the three posigrade rockets for a second to separate it from the launch vehicle.[172][n 18] Just before orbital insertion and sustainer engine cutoff, g-loads peaked at 8 g (6 g for a suborbital flight).[167][174] In orbit, the spacecraft automatically turned 180°, pointed the retropackage forward and its nose 14.5° downward and kept this attitude for the rest of the orbital phase of the mission, as it was necessary for communication with the ground.[175][176][n 19] Once in orbit, it was not possible for the spacecraft to change its trajectory except by initiating reentry.[178] Each orbit would typically take 88 minutes to complete.[179] The lowest point of the orbit called perigee was at the point where the spacecraft entered orbit and was about 87 nautical miles (161 km), the highest called apogee was on the opposite side of Earth and was about 150 nautical miles (280 km).[159] When leaving orbit (E) the angle downward was increased to 34°, which was the angle of retrofire.[175] Retrorockets fired for 10 seconds each (F) in a sequence where one started 5 seconds after the other.[172][180] During reentry (G), the astronaut would experience about 8 g (11–12 g on a suborbital mission).[181] The temperature around the heat shield rose to 3,000 °F (1,650 °C) and at the same time, there was a two minute radio blackout due to ionization of the air around the spacecraft.[182][54] After re-entry, a small, drogue parachute (H) was deployed at 21,000 ft (6,400 m) for stabilizing the spacecraft's descent.[64] The main parachute (I) was deployed at 10,000 ft (3,000 m) starting with a narrow opening that opened fully in a few seconds to lessen the strain on the lines.[183] Just before hitting the water, the landing bag inflated from behind the heat shield to reduce the force of impact (J).[183] Upon landing the parachutes were released.[61] An antenna (K) was raised and sent out signals that could be traced by ships and helicopters.[61] Further, a green marker dye was spread around the spacecraft to make its location more visible from the air.[61][n 20] Frogmen brought in by helicopters inflated a collar around the craft to keep it upright in the water.[158] The recovery helicopter hooked onto the spacecraft and the astronaut blew the escape hatch to exit the capsule.[60] He was then hoisted aboard the helicopter that finally brought both him and the spacecraft to the ship.[n 21]

The number of personnel supporting a Mercury mission was typically around 18,000, with about 15,000 people associated with recovery.[187][188][n 22] Most of the others followed the spacecraft from the World Wide Tracking Network, a chain of 18 stations placed around the equator, which was based on a network used for unmanned satellites and made ready in 1960.[190] It collected data from the spacecraft and provided two-way communication between the astronaut and the ground.[191] Each station had a range of 700 nautical miles (1,300 km) and a pass typically lasted 7 minutes.[192] Mercury astronauts on the ground would take part of the Capsule Communicator or CAPCOM who communicated with the astronaut in orbit.[193] Occasionally this communication was broadcast on live TV while the spacecraft was passing over the United States.[194] Data from the spacecraft was sent to the ground, processed at the Goddard Space Center and relayed to the Mercury Control Center at Cape Canaveral.[195] In the Control Center, the data was displayed on boards on each side of a world map, which showed the position of the spacecraft, its ground track and the place it could land in an emergency within the next 30 minutes.[176][n 23]


Project Mercury landing sites
Cape Canaveral
Freedom 7
Liberty Bell 7
Friendship 7
Aurora 7
Sigma 7
Faith 7

On April 12, 1961 the Soviet cosmonaut Yuri Gagarin became the first person in space on an orbital flight.[198] Alan Shepard became the first American in space on a suborbital flight three weeks later, on May 5, 1961.[129] John Glenn, the third Mercury astronaut to fly, became the first American to reach orbit on February 20, 1962, but only after thepp Soviets had launched a second cosmonaut, Gherman Titov, into a day-long flight in August 1961.[199] Three more Mercury orbital flights were made, ending on May 16, 1963 with a day-long, 22 orbit flight.[134] However, the Soviet Union ended its Vostok program the next month, with the human spaceflight endurance record set by the 82-orbit, almost 5-day Vostok 5 flight.[200]


All of the manned Mercury flights were successful.[201] The main medical problems encountered were simple personal hygiene, and post-flight symptoms of low blood pressure.[187] The launch vehicles had been tested through unmanned flights, therefore the numbering of manned missions did not start with 1.[202] Also, since two different launch vehicles were used, there were two separate numbered series: MR for "Mercury-Redstone" (suborbital flights), and MA for "Mercury-Atlas" (orbital flights). These names were not popularly used, since the astronauts followed a pilot tradition, each giving their spacecraft a name. They selected names ending with a "7" to commemorate the seven astronauts.[52][128] Mercury-Redstone flights were launched from Launch Complex-5 while the Mercury-Atlas flights were launched from Launch Complex-14. Times given are Universal Coordinated Time, local time + 5 hours.

Mission Call-sign Pilot Launch time Duration Orbits Apogee
mi (km)
mi (km)
Max. velocity
mph (km/h)
Recovery Ship Miss
mi (km)
Remarks[203] l
Mercury-Redstone 3 Freedom 7 Shepard 14:34 on May 5, 1961 15 m 22 s 0 117 (188) 5,134 (8,262) USS Lake Champlain (carrier)[15] 3.5 (5.6) First American in space.[129]
Mercury-Redstone 4 Liberty Bell 7 Grissom 12:20 on July 21, 1961 15 m 37 s 0 118 (190) 5,168 (8,317) USS Randolph (carrier)[204] 5.8 (9.3) Spacecraft sank before recovery when hatch unexpectedly blew off[205][n 24]
Mercury-Atlas 6 Friendship 7 Glenn 14:47 on February 20, 1962 4 h 55 m 23 s 3 162 (261) 100 (161) 17,544 (28,234) USS Noa (frigate)[206] 46 (74) First American in orbit.[207] Retropack retained during re-entry.[208][n 25]
Mercury-Atlas 7 Aurora 7 Carpenter 12:45 on May 24, 1962 4 h 56 m 5 s 3 167 (269) 100 (161) 17,549 (28,242) USS Farragut (destroyer)[210] 248 (400) Carpenter replaced Deke Slayton.[211][n 26]
Mercury-Atlas 8 Sigma 7 Schirra 12:15 on October 3, 1962 9 h 13 m 15 s 6 176 (283) 100 (161) 17,558 (28,257) USS Kearsarge (carrier)[213] 4.6 (7.4) The flight closest to plan.[214] Carried out maneuvering tests[215]
Mercury-Atlas 9 Faith 7 Cooper 13:04 on May 15, 1963 1 d 10 h 19 m 49 s 22 166 (267) 100 (161) 17,547 (28,239) USS Kearsarge[80] 5.0 (8.1) First American in space for over a day.[216] Last American solo mission.[n 27]


The unmanned flights used Little Joe, Redstone, and Atlas launch vehicles.[128] They were used to develop the launch vehicles, launch escape system, spacecraft and tracking network.[202] One flight of a Scout rocket attempted to launch an unmanned satellite for testing the ground tracking network, but failed to reach orbit. The Little Joe program used seven airframes for eight flights, of which three were successful. The second Little Joe flight was named Little Joe 6, because it was inserted into the program after the first 5 airframes had been allocated.[218][161]

Mission Launch Duration Objective Result Remarks[219]
Little Joe 1 August 21, 1959 20 s Test of launch escape system during flight. Failure Due to an electrical malfunction, the escape tower ignited ½ hour before launch and took the spacecraft with it, leaving the rocket on the ground.[220]
Big Joe 1 September 9, 1959 13 m 00 s Test of heat shield and Atlas/spacecraft interface Success/Failure Actually the first Mercury-Atlas flight.[128] Recovered byUSS Strong (DD-758) 2,407 km southeast of Cape Canaveral.[221] Altitude: 65 mi (105 km) Qualified ablative heatshield.[92]
Little Joe 6 October 4, 1959 5 m 10 s Test of spacecraft aerodynamics and integrity Partial success No additional tests[222]
Little Joe 1A November 4, 1959 8 m 11 s Test of launch escape system during flight with boiler plate capsule Partial success The rescue tower rocket ignited 10 seconds too late.[223] Recovered by USS Opportune 11.5 mi (18.5 km) southeast of Wallops Island.[224]
Little Joe 2 December 4, 1959 11 m 6 s Primate escape at high altitude Success Carried Sam, a rhesus macaque.[223] Recovered by USS Borie (DD-704) 194 miles (312 km) southeast of Wallops Island, Virginia; altitude: 53 mi (85 km).[225]
Little Joe 1B January 21, 1960 8 m 35 s Maximum-q abort and escape with primate with boiler plate capsule Success Carried Miss Sam[226] Altitude: 9 mi (15 km)
Beach Abort May 9, 1960 1 m 31 s Test of the off-the-pad abort system Success
Mercury-Atlas 1 July 29, 1960 3 m 18 s Test of Mercury spacecraft / Atlas combination Failure Collapsed and exploded while passing through max-q[227] To save weight, the airframe had been made thinner since Big Joe, which led to the collapse. The next Atlas was strengthened by a temporary solution while the rest were made from the same specifications as Big Joe[228]
Little Joe 5 November 8, 1960 2 m 22 s First test escape system with a production Mercury spacecraft Failure The clamp holding the spacecraft was deflected by air pressure; due to this and an incorrect wiring, the escape tower ignited too early but failed to separate spacecraft from launch vehicle.[39] The clamp was subsequently tested by a rocket sled.[39] Altitude: 10 miles (16 km)[229]
Mercury-Redstone 1 November 21, 1960 2 s Qualify production spacecraft at max-q Failure Engine shutdown caused by improper separation of electrical cables;[230] vehicle rose 4 in (10 cm) and settled back on the pad.[231][n 28]
Mercury-Redstone 1A December 19, 1960 15 m 45 s Qualify spacecraft / Redstone combination. Success First flight of Mercury / Redstone. Recovered by [232] Altitude: 130 mi (210 km)[97]
Mercury-Redstone 2 January 31, 1961 16 m 39 s Carry the chimpanzee Ham on suborbital flight Success Recovered by USS Donner (LSD-20)[233] 422 miles (679 km) southeast of Cape Canaveral; altitude: 157 mi (253 km)[234]
Mercury-Atlas 2 February 21, 1961 17 m 56 s Qualify Mercury/Atlas interface Success Recovered by USS Donner[235] 1,432 miles (2,305 km) southeast of Cape Canaveral.
Little Joe 5A March 18, 1961 23 m 48 s Second test of escape system with a production Mercury spacecraft Partial success Tower fired 14 seconds too soon; it failed to separate the spacecraft from the rocket.[236]
Mercury-Redstone BD March 24, 1961 8 m 23 s Redstone development test flight Success Last Redstone test flight. (BD: Booster Development)[237]
Mercury-Atlas 3 April 25, 1961 7 m 19 s Orbital (upgraded from suborbital) flight with robot astronaut[238][239][n 29] Failure Was aborted when it did not go into orbit; boiler plate capsule recovered and reused in Mercury-Atlas 4[241]
Little Joe 5B April 28, 1961 5 m 25 s Third test of escape system with a production Mercury spacecraft Success Concluded Little Joe program
(May–July, 1961: manned suborbital flights)
Mercury-Atlas 4 September 13, 1961 1 h 49 m 20 s Test of environmental control system with robot astronaut in orbit Success Completed one orbit and sent data to the ground; first orbital flight of the project.[242] Recovery by USS Decatur (DD-936) 176 miles (283 km) east of Bermuda.[243]
Mercury-Scout 1 November 1, 1961 44 s Test of Mercury tracking network Failure Was aborted after malfunction of guidance system;[244] results of Mercury-Atlas 4 and Mercury-Atlas 5 were used instead[245]
Mercury-Atlas 5 November 29, 1961 3 h 20 m 59 s Test of environmental control system in orbit with a primate Success Chimpanzee Enos completed a two-orbit flight, performing tasks of pulling a lever on a given signal.[246][n 30] Last Mercury-Atlas test flight. Recovery by USS Stormes (DD-780)[248] 255 miles (410 km) southeast of Bermuda.[249]
(February 1962 – May 1963: manned orbital flights)


Suborbital flights were planned for four other astronauts, making Mercury-Redstone 8 the last.[250]
Mission Call—sign Pilot Planned Launch Cancellation Remarks
Mercury-Jupiter 1 July 1, 1959[251]
Mercury-Jupiter 2 Chimpanzee First Quarter, 1960 July 1, 1959[251] Proposed maximum dynamic pressure qualifying test for a capsule.[252]
Mercury-Redstone 5 Glenn (likely) March 1960[250] August 1961[253]
Mercury-Redstone 6 April 1960[250] July 1961[254]
Mercury-Redstone 7 May 1960[250]
Mercury-Redstone 8 June 1960[250]
Mercury-Atlas 10 Freedom 7-II Shepard October 1963 June 13, 1963 In November 1962 it was intended to be a three-day mission with extra supplies attached to the heat shield. By January 1963, it was changed to a one-day back up mission for Mercury-Atlas 9. Was cancelled after the success of the latter.[255]
Mercury-Atlas 11 Grissom Fourth Quarter, 1963 October 1962 Intended to be a one-day mission[256]
Mercury-Atlas 12 Schirra Fourth Quarter, 1963 October 1962 Intended to be a one-day mission[257]

Impact and legacy

Ticker tape parade for Gordon Cooper, 1963

The project was delayed by 22 months, counting from the beginning until the first orbital mission.[187] It had a dozen prime contractors, 75 major subcontractors, and about 7200 third-tier subcontractors, who together employed two million persons.[187] An estimate of its cost made by NASA in 1969 gave $392.6 million ($1.73 billion adjusted for inflation[258]), broken down as follows: Spacecraft: $135.3 million, launch vehicles: $82.9 million, operations: $49.3 million, tracking operations and equipment: $71.9 million and facilities: $53.2 million.[259][260]

Today the Mercury program is commemorated as the first manned American space program.[261] It did not win the race against the Soviet Union, but gave back national prestige and was scientifically a successful precursor of later programs such as Gemini, Apollo and Skylab.[262][n 31] During the 1950s, some experts doubted that manned spaceflight was possible.[n 32] Still when John F. Kennedy was elected president, many including he had doubts about the project.[265] As president he chose to support the programs a few months before the launch of Freedom 7,[266] which became a great public success.[267][n 33] Afterwards, a majority of the American public supported manned spaceflight, and within a few weeks, Kennedy announced a plan for a manned mission to land on the Moon and return safely to Earth before the end of the 1960s.[271] The six astronauts who flew were awarded medals,[272] driven in parades and two of them were invited to address a joint session of the US Congress.[273] As a response to the selection criteria, which ruled out women, a private project was founded in which 13 women pilots successfully underwent the same tests as the men in Project Mercury.[274] It was named Mercury 13 by the media[275][n 34] Despite this effort, NASA did not select female astronauts until 1978 for the Space Shuttle.[276]

In 1964, a monument commemorating Project Mercury was unveiled near Launch Complex 14 at Cape Canaveral, featuring a metal logo combining the symbol of Mercury with the number 7.[277] In 1962, the United States Postal Service honored the Mercury-Atlas 6 flight with a Project Mercury commemorative stamp, the first US postal issue to depict a manned spacecraft.[278] The stamp first went on sale in Cape Canaveral, Florida on February 20, 1962, the same day as the first manned orbital flight.[278] On May 4, 2011, the Postal Service released a stamp commemorating the 50th anniversary of Freedom 7, the first manned flight of the project.[279] On film, the program was portrayed in The Right Stuff a 1983 adaptation of Tom Wolfe's 1979 book of the same name.[280] On February 25, 2011, the Institute of Electrical and Electronic Engineers, the world's largest technical professional society, awarded Boeing (the successor company to McDonnell Aircraft) a Milestone Award for important inventions which debuted on the Mercury spacecraft.[281][n 35]



Commemorative patches were designed by entrepreneurs after the Mercury program to satisfy collectors.[282][n 37]


Astronauts assignments

Tracking network

Spacecraft cutaway

Control panels and handle

Launch complex

Earth landing system tests


  1. ^ Man in Space Soonest was first part of a four phase Moon landing program to finish in 1965, cost a total of $1.5 billion ($12.1 billion) and being boosted by a "Super Titan".[5]
  2. ^ The name Little Joe was adopted by its designers from the throw of a double deuce in a craps game since this resembled the four-rocket arrangement in the blueprints for the vehicle.[30]
  3. ^ NASA's planning for recovery operations in the summer of 1960 was, according to the Navy, asking for the deployment of the whole Atlantic Fleet and might have cost more than the entire Mercury program.[41]
  4. ^ On the first suborbital flight there was no urine collection whereas on the other, the astronaut had a reservoir added to the space suit[59]
  5. ^ Moisture and urine was reclycled into drinking water.[45]
  6. ^ The rocket plane approach to manned space flight was pursued by the Air Force with their Dyna-Soar project, which was cancelled in 1963[90] Towards the end of the 1960s, NASA began the development of a reusable space plane, which was ultimately developed into the Space Shuttle program.[91]
  7. ^ Test and rework of Mercury-Redstone 2 at the Hangar required 110 days.[97]
  8. ^ They received a letter designation after their number, examples 2B, 15B.[100] Some were modified twice; for example, spacecraft 15 became 15A and then 15B.[101]
  9. ^ The word booster is sometimes used for launch vehicle like in Mercury-Redstone Booster Development. With the latter as an exception, the word booster is only used for the first stage of the Mercury-Atlas in this article.
  10. ^ Instead, it was used for the Gemini program which followed.[112]
  11. ^ Armstrong left the Navy in 1952, and became a Lieutenant, Junior Grade, in the US Naval Reserve. He remained in the reserve for eight years until he resigned his commission in 1960.[142]
  12. ^ John Glenn did not have a college degree either, but used influential friends to make the selection committee accept him.[144]
  13. ^ At the beginning of the project both President Eisenhower and NASA's first administrator T. K. Glennan believed that USA would put the first man in space and that this would be the end of the space race.[145]
  14. ^ Inside the spacecraft the other astronauts had usually prepared a practical joke, such as a sign saying "No handball playing".[164]
  15. ^ Countdown was controlled from the blockhouse at the Launch Complex until 2 min. before launch then it was transferred to Mission Control Center. The countdown of the last 10 sec. before launch would be given to the astronaut by one of the others and included on TV transmissions which had already started.[165]
  16. ^ In the event of a launch abort before this point, the launch escape system would fire its main rocket for one second, pulling the spacecraft and astronaut away from the launch vehicle and a possible explosion.[67] At this point, the spacecraft could be separated from the launch vehicle and land using its parachute.[168]
  17. ^ The direction of insertion was east and slightly to the north, this meant that on at three orbit flight the tracking network was utilized best possible and a landing could take place in the North Atlantic Ocean.[171]
  18. ^ The sustainer would disintegrate and fall down; after the launch of Friendship 7 a part of the sustainer was found in South Africa.[173]
  19. ^ In orbit the spacecraft would be drifting meaning changing its attitude by it self. This was countered automatically by the attitude control system (ASCS) which released oxygen produced from peroxide through small thrusters. To save fuel, however, the spacecraft would be let adrift from time to time especially on longer missions.[177]
  20. ^ Radar chaff and a SOFAR bomb which could be detected by the recovery ship's hydrophone were eliminated as unnecessary measures after the first orbital flight.[184]
  21. ^ It was also possible to exit the capsule through the nose cylinder; only Carpenter did this.[26][64] In the two last missions the spacecraft with the astronaut inside was dragged by a boat to the ship, hoisted aboard and where upon the astronauts left through the hatch.[185] During Carpenter's mission a seaplane from the US Air Force got to the landing site about 1½ hour ahead of the Navy ships and offered to pick him up. This, however, was declined by the admiral in charge of Mercury recovery operations, which led to controversy and a Senate hearing about the incident.[186]
  22. ^ T. J. O'Malley pushed the button to launch Glenn while site Manager and Launch Conductor at Complex 14, Calvin D. Fowler, pushed the button to launch Carpenter, Schirra and Cooper.[189]
  23. ^ The World Wide Tracking Network went on to serve the following space programs until it was replaced by a satellite relay system in the 1980s[196] Mission Control Center was moved from Cape Canaveral to Houston in 1965.[197]
  24. ^ It was recovered in 1999.[99]
  25. ^ Launch of Friendship 7 was postponed repeatedly during two months; a frustrated politician compared the spacecraft-Atlas combination to "a Rube Goldberg device on top of a plumber's nightmare".[209]
  26. ^ Carpenter's overshoot of the landing site was caused by a malfunction in the automatic stabilization, which meant that retrofire was out of line with the movement of the spacecraft[212]
  27. ^ Likely to be so according to Alexander & al.[217]
  28. ^ Immediately after the Redstone's engine shut down, the capsule's escape rocket jettisoned itself, leaving the capsule attached to the booster. The escape rocket rose to an altitude of 4,000 feet (1,200 m) and landed about 400 yards (370 m) away. Three seconds after the escape rocket fired, the capsule deployed its drogue parachute; it then deployed the main and reserve parachutes.[231]
  29. ^ A machine that produced the same heat, vapor and CO2 as an astronaut[240]
  30. ^ Was given a reward in the form a banana pellet or a punishment in the form of mild electrical shocks depending on whether or not he gave the right response to a given signal; by mistake he was sometimes given shocks on right answers.[247]
  31. ^ International rules required that a pilot must land safely with the spacecraft; in reality, Gagarin landed separately by parachute; however, the Soviet Union did not admit this until 1971 when their claim was no longer in danger of being challenged.[263]
  32. ^ In May 1957, five months before Sputnik I, the president of McDonnell, the later prime contractor, predicted that manned spaceflight would not take place before 1990.[264]
  33. ^ Along the roads in USA, drivers stopped to follow Freedom 7 on the radio. Later, 100 millions saw or listened to Friendship 7, the first orbital flight, on TV or radio.[268] The launch of Sigma 7 and Faith 7 were relayed live via communication satellite to television audiences in Western Europe.[269] Two of the three major US networks covered Sigma 7 minute-by-minute, the rest were showing the opening of the World Series.[270]
  34. ^ It gave Soviet leader Khrushchev the idea of launching the first women cosmonaut Valentina Tereshkova on 16 June 1963.[217]
  35. ^ Boeing received the award in recognition of Project Mercury's pioneering "navigation and control instruments, autopilot, rate stabilization and control, and fly-by-wire systems."[281]
  36. ^ The stamp was issued February 20, 1962, the day of John Glenn's flight in Friendship 7. This one has a First Day of Issue postmark from Cape Canaveral post office.
  37. ^ The only patches the Mercury astronauts wore, were the NASA logo and a name tag.[282] Each manned Mercury spacecraft was painted black and decorated with a flight insignia, its call-sign an American flag and the words United States.[52]


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External links

  • The Mercury Project (Kennedy Space Center)
  • Space Medicine In Project Mercury By Mae Mills Link
  • Project Mercury Simulator for Mac and PC
  • PDFs of historical Mercury documents including familiarization manuals.
  • Project Mercury Drawings and Technical Diagrams
  • Project Mercury - 1963 NASA Space Program Documentary (Video)