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Project Mercury



Project Mercury


Project Mercury began in 1958. The previous year on October 4, 1957, the Soviet Union had stunned the world by orbiting the first artificial satellite of the Earth. It was called Sputnik and it served as a wake-up-call to the United States.
To answer this challenge, a new governmental agency, called the National Aeronautics and Space Administration was created in 1958.  NASA was charged with guiding the space exploration efforts of the United States. The manned space flight initiative was called Project Mercury.
Project Mercury had three main goals.

  • Orbit a manned spacecraft around the Earth.
  • Investigate man’s ability to function in space.
  • Recover both man and the spacecraft successfully.

Seven men were selected from a pool of 508 volunteers to train as astronauts for Project Mercury.  The original seven consisted of Malcolm Scott Carpenter, Leroy Gordon Cooper, Jr. John Herschel Glenn, Jr. Virgil Ivan Grissom, Walter Marty Schirra, Jr., Alan Bartlett Shepard, Jr. and Donald Kent Slayton.


Rockets: To carry man into space, NASA would modify military ballistic missiles. These missiles were designed to carry nuclear warheads to distant targets on the ground, but they could be modified to deliver payloads to space. The Army’s Redstone missile coud be used for suborbital flights. A larger missile, Atlas, was under development for the US Air Force, and could be modified to launch orbital flights.

Space Suit: Astronauts would not leave the spacecraft during Project Mercury, but a protective suit would be needed if the spacecraft lost pressure while in orbit. NASA selected the Mark IV, a pressure suit used by US Navy pilots who flew at high altitudes, to be heavily modified for use as a “space suit”.


Spacecraft: The McDonnell Aircraft Company was awarded the contract for producing the Mercury spacecraft, which would have to be designed and built from scratch. It was originally named the Manned Satellite Capsule, which reflected initial ideas about the nature of Project Mercury.

No one knew how well a human could function in weightlessness, and it was not clear exactly what role man would play in these missions. Not everyone envisioned a pilot controlling a spacecraft. Some thought the men on these flights would merely be passengers in an automatically-controlled orbiting capsule.

The term capsule is still used to refer to small manned spacecraft which have no wings to create lift when they enter the atmosphere.

Project Mercury Missions

There were seven Mercury astronauts, but only six manned missions were flown. One of the astronauts, Deke Slayton, was discovered to have an irregular heartbeat, and was not permitted to fly.

Slayton remained with NASA, and was named Director of Flight Crew Operations. Among other things, Slayton was responsible for astronaut flight assignments for the remaining Mercury flights, and for all of the Gemini and Apollo missions.

The original plan for Project Mercury was to have all of the astronauts fly a suborbital flight, giving them a short, but complete spaceflight experience. Each would then fly an orbital mission.

As Soviet spaceflights became longer and more complex, however, NASA decided to begin the orbital missions much sooner. There were only two suborbital flights. Alan Shepard became the first Amercian in space with a suborbital flight on May 5, 1961, and Gus Grissom followed with a second suborbital flight on July 21, 1961.

John Glenn became the first Amercian to orbit the earth on February 20, 1962. Other orbital flights were made by Scott Carpenter on May 24, 1962, Wally Schirra on October 3, 1962, and Gordon Cooper on May 15 1963. Cooper ended Project Mercury on a high note, with a successful mission that lasted more than a day.

Space Chimps

Two chimpanzees also flew as part of Project Mercury. A chimp named Ham was launched into space on January 31, 1961. This was a final test of the Mercury capsule and Redstone rocket before Alan Shepard’s suborbital flight. On November 29, 1961, Enos the chimp tested the Mercury hardware in orbit before John Glenn’s flight.


Project Mercury

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