Project Mercury

Project Mercury was the first human spaceflight program of the United States, running from 1958 through 1963. An early highlight of the Space Race, its goal was to put a man into Earth orbit and return him safely, ideally before the Soviet Union. Taken over from the US Air Force by the newly created civilian space agency NASA, it conducted twenty unmanned developmental flights (some using animals), and six successful flights by astronauts. The program, which took its name from Roman mythology, cost $2.2 billion adjusted for inflation.[1][n 2] The astronauts were collectively known as the "Mercury Seven", and each spacecraft was given a name ending with a "7" by its pilot.

The Space Race began with the 1957 launch of the Soviet satellite Sputnik 1. This came as a shock to the American public, and led to the creation of NASA to expedite existing US space exploration efforts, and place most of them under civilian control. After the successful launch of the Explorer 1 satellite in 1958, manned spaceflight became the next goal. The Soviet Union put the first human, cosmonaut Yuri Gagarin, into a single orbit aboard Vostok 1 on April 12, 1961. Shortly after this, on May 5, the US launched its first astronaut, Alan Shepard, on a suborbital flight. Soviet Gherman Titov followed with a day-long orbital flight in August 1961. The US reached its orbital goal on February 20, 1962, when John Glenn made three orbits around the Earth. When Mercury ended in May 1963, both nations had sent six people into space, but the Soviets led the US in total time spent in space.

The Mercury space capsule was produced by McDonnell Aircraft, and carried supplies of water, food and oxygen for about one day in a pressurized cabin. Mercury flights were launched from Cape Canaveral Air Force Station in Florida, on launch vehicles modified from the Redstone and Atlas D missiles. The capsule was fitted with a launch escape rocket to carry it safely away from the launch vehicle in case of a failure. The flight was designed to be controlled from the ground via the Manned Space Flight Network, a system of tracking and communications stations; back-up controls were outfitted on board. Small retrorockets were used to bring the spacecraft out of its orbit, after which an ablative heat shield protected it from the heat of atmospheric reentry. Finally, a parachute slowed the craft for a water landing. Both astronaut and capsule were recovered by helicopters deployed from a US Navy ship.

The Mercury project gained popularity, and its missions were followed by millions on radio and TV around the world. Its success laid the groundwork for Project Gemini, which carried two astronauts in each capsule and perfected space docking maneuvers essential for manned lunar landings in the subsequent Apollo program announced a few weeks after the first manned Mercury flight.

Project Mercury
Circle containing the astronomical symbol for planet Mercury, with the numeral 7 inside it
Retroactive logo[n 1]
CountryUnited States
PurposeManned Earth orbital flight
Program history
Cost$277 million (1965)[1]
First flightSeptember 9, 1959
First crewed flightMay 5, 1961
Last flightMay 15–16, 1963
Partial failures1: Big Joe 1
Launch site(s)
Vehicle information
Vehicle typeSpace capsule
Crew vehicleMercury space capsule
Crew capacity1
Launch vehicle(s)


Project Mercury was officially approved on October 7, 1958 and publicly announced on December 17.[5][6] Originally called Project Astronaut, President Dwight Eisenhower felt that gave too much attention to the pilot.[7] Instead, the name Mercury was chosen from classical mythology, which had already lent names to rockets like the Greek Atlas and Roman Jupiter for the SM-65 and PGM-19 missiles.[6] It absorbed military projects with the same aim, such as the Air Force Man in Space Soonest.[8][n 3]


Following the end of World War II, a nuclear arms race evolved between the US and the Soviet Union (USSR). Since the USSR did not have bases in the western hemisphere from which to deploy bomber planes, Joseph Stalin decided to develop intercontinental ballistic missiles, which drove a missile race.[10] The rocket technology in turn enabled both sides to develop Earth-orbiting satellites for communications, and gathering weather data and intelligence.[11] Americans were shocked when the Soviet Union placed the first satellite into orbit in October 1957, leading to a growing fear that the US was falling into a "missile gap".[12][11] A month later, the Soviets launched Sputnik 2, carrying a dog into orbit. Though the animal was not recovered alive, it was obvious their goal was manned spaceflight.[13] Unable to disclose details of military space projects, President Eisenhower ordered the creation of a civilian space agency in charge of civilian and scientific space exploration. Based on the federal research agency National Advisory Committee for Aeronautics (NACA), it was named the National Aeronautics and Space Administration (NASA).[14] It achieved its first goal, an American satellite in space, in 1958. The next goal was to put a man there.[15]

The limit of space (also known as the Karman line) was defined at the time as a minimum altitude of 62 mi (100 km), and the only way to reach it was by using rocket-powered boosters.[16][17] This created risks for the pilot, including explosion, high g-forces and vibrations during lift off through a dense atmosphere,[18] and temperatures of more than 10,000 °F (5,500 °C) from air compression during reentry.[19]

In space, pilots would require pressurized chambers or space suits to supply fresh air.[20] While there, they would experience weightlessness, which could potentially cause disorientation.[21] Further potential risks included radiation and micrometeoroid strikes, both of which would normally be absorbed in the atmosphere.[22] All seemed possible to overcome: experience from satellites suggested micrometeoroid risk was negligible,[23] and experiments in the early 1950s with simulated weightlessness, high g-forces on humans, and sending animals to the limit of space, all suggested potential problems could be overcome by known technologies.[24] Finally, reentry was studied using the nuclear warheads of ballistic missiles,[25] which demonstrated a blunt, forward-facing heat shield could solve the problem of heating.[25]


T. Keith Glennan had been appointed the first Administrator of NASA, with Hugh L. Dryden (last Director of NACA) as his Deputy, at the creation of the agency on October 1, 1958.[26] Glennan would report to the president through the National Aeronautics and Space Council.[27] 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.[28] 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.[29] 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.[29] To communicate with the spacecraft during an orbital mission, an extensive communications network had to be built.[30] In keeping with his desire to keep from giving the US space program an overly military flavor, President Eisenhower at first hesitated to give the project top national priority (DX rating under the Defense Production Act), which meant that Mercury had to wait in line behind military projects for materials; however, this rating was granted in May 1959, a little more than a year and a half after Sputnik was launched.[31]

Contractors and facilities

Twelve companies bid to build the Mercury spacecraft on a $20 million ($172 million adjusted for inflation) contract.[32] In January 1959, McDonnell Aircraft Corporation was chosen to be prime contractor for the spacecraft.[33] 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.[34][n 4] The World Wide Tracking Network for communication between the ground and spacecraft during a flight was awarded to the Western Electric Company.[35] Redstone rockets for suborbital launches were manufactured in Huntsville, Alabama by the Chrysler Corporation[36] and Atlas rockets by Convair in San Diego, California.[37] For manned launches, the Atlantic Missile Range at Cape Canaveral Air Force Station in Florida was made available by the USAF.[38] This was also the site of the Mercury Control Center while the computing center of the communication network was in Goddard Space Center, Maryland.[39] Little Joe rockets were launched from Wallops Island, Virginia.[40] Astronaut training took place at Langley Research Center in Virginia, Lewis Flight Propulsion Laboratory in Cleveland, Ohio, and Naval Air Development Center Johnsville in Warminster, PA.[41] Langley wind tunnels[42] together with a rocket sled track at Holloman Air Force Base at Alamogordo, New Mexico were used for aerodynamic studies.[43] Both Navy and Air Force aircraft were made available for the development of the spacecraft's landing system,[44] and Navy ships and Navy and Marine Corps helicopters were made available for recovery.[n 5] South of Cape Canaveral the town of Cocoa Beach boomed.[46] From here, 75,000 people watched the first American orbital flight being launched in 1962.[46]

Wallops Island - GPN-2000-001888

Wallops Island test facility, 1961

Mercury control center 4june1963

Mercury Control Center, Cape Canaveral, 1963


Location of production and operational facilities of Project Mercury


The Mercury spacecraft's principal designer was Maxime Faget, who started research for manned spaceflight during the time of the NACA.[47] It 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).[48] With 100 cubic feet (2.8 m3) of habitable volume, the capsule was just large enough for a single crew member.[49] Inside were 120 controls: 55 electrical switches, 30 fuses and 35 mechanical levers.[50] The heaviest spacecraft, Mercury-Atlas 9, weighed 3,000 pounds (1,400 kg) fully loaded.[51] Its outer skin was made of René 41, a nickel alloy able to withstand high temperatures.[52]

The spacecraft was cone shaped, with a neck at the narrow end.[48] It had a convex base, which carried a heat shield (Item 2 in the diagram below)[53] consisting of an aluminum honeycomb covered with multiple layers of fiberglass.[54] Strapped to it was a retropack (1)[55] consisting of three rockets deployed to brake the spacecraft during reentry.[56] Between these were three minor rockets for separating the spacecraft from the launch vehicle at orbital insertion.[57] The straps that held the package could be severed when it was no longer needed.[58] Next to the heat shield was the pressurized crew compartment (3).[59] Inside, an astronaut would be strapped to a form-fitting seat with instruments in front of him and with his back to the heat shield.[60] Underneath the seat was the environmental control system supplying oxygen and heat,[61] scrubbing the air of CO2, vapor and odors, and (on orbital flights) collecting urine.[62][n 6] The recovery compartment (4)[64] at the narrow end of the spacecraft contained three parachutes: a drogue to stabilize free fall and two main chutes, a primary and reserve.[65] Between the heat shield and inner wall of the crew compartment was a landing skirt, deployed by letting down the heat shield before landing.[66] On top of the recovery compartment was the antenna section (5)[67] containing both antennas for communication and scanners for guiding spacecraft orientation.[68] Attached was a flap used to ensure the spacecraft was faced heat shield first during reentry.[69] A launch escape system (6) was mounted to the narrow end of the spacecraft[70] containing three small solid-fueled rockets which could be fired briefly in a launch failure to separate the capsule safely from its booster. It would deploy the capsule's parachute for a landing nearby at sea.[71] (See also Mission profile for details.)

The Mercury spacecraft did not have an on-board computer, instead relying on all computation for reentry to be calculated by computers on the ground, with their results (retrofire times and firing attitude) then transmitted to the spacecraft by radio while in flight.[72][73] All computer systems used in the Mercury space program were housed in NASA facilities on Earth.[72] The computer systems were IBM 701 computers.[74][75] (See also Ground control for details.)


1. Retropack. 2. Heatshield. 3. Crew compartment. 4. Recovery compartment. 5. Antenna section. 6. Launch escape system.


Retropack: Retrorockets with red posigrade rockets


Landing skirt (or bag) deployment: skirt is inflated; on impact the air is pressed out (like an airbag)

Pilot accommodations

John Glenn wearing his Mercury space suit

The astronaut lay in a sitting position with his back to the heat shield, which was found to be the position that best enabled a human to withstand the high g-forces of launch and reentry. A fiberglass seat was custom-molded from each astronaut's space-suited body for maximum support. Near his left hand was a manual abort handle to activate the launch escape system if necessary prior to or during liftoff, in case the automatic trigger failed.[76]

To supplement the onboard environmental control system, he wore a pressure suit with its own oxygen supply, which would also cool him.[77] A cabin atmosphere of pure oxygen at a low pressure of 5.5 psi (equivalent to an altitude of 24,800 feet (7,600 m)) was chosen, rather than one with the same composition as air (nitrogen/oxygen) at sea level.[78] This was easier to control,[79] avoided the risk of decompression sickness ("the bends"),[80][n 7] and also saved on spacecraft weight. Fires (which never occurred) would have to be extinguished by emptying the cabin of oxygen.[62] In such case, or failure of the cabin pressure for any reason, the astronaut could make an emergency return to Earth, relying on his suit for survival.[81][62] The astronauts normally flew with their visor up, which meant that the suit was not inflated.[62] 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.[82]

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 was replaced by an oral thermometer on the last flight).[83] Data from these was sent to the ground during the flight.[77] The astronaut normally drank water and ate food pellets.[84][n 8]

Once in orbit, the spacecraft could be rotated in yaw, pitch, and roll:[85] Along its longitudinal axis (roll), left to right from the astronaut's point of view (yaw), and up or down (pitch).[86] Movement was created by rocket-propelled thrusters which used hydrogen peroxide as a fuel.[87][88] For orientation, the pilot could look through the window in front of him or he could look at a screen connected to a periscope with a camera which could be turned 360°.[89]

The Mercury astronauts had taken part in the development of their spacecraft, and insisted that manual control, and a window, be elements of its design.[90] As a result, spacecraft movement and other functions could be controlled three ways: remotely from the ground when passing over a ground station, automatically guided by onboard instruments, or manually by the astronaut, who could replace or override the two other methods. Experience validated the astronauts' insistence on manual controls. Without them, Gordon Cooper's manual reentry during the last flight would not have been possible.[91]

Mercury Spacecraft

Interior of spacecraft


The three axes of rotation for the spacecraft: yaw, pitch and roll


Temperature profile for spacecraft in Fahrenheit

Control panels mercury atlas 6

The control panels of Friendship 7.[92] The panels changed between flights, among others the periscope screen that dominates the center of these panels was dropped for the final flight together with the periscope itself.

Three-axis hand controller mercury project

3-axis handle for attitude control

Development and production

Technicians working in the McDonnell White Room on the Mercury-crop
Spacecraft production in clean room at McDonnell Aircraft, St. Louis, 1960

The Mercury spacecraft design was modified three times by NASA between 1958 and 1959.[93] After bidding by potential contractors had been completed, NASA selected the design submitted as "C" in November 1958.[94] After it failed a test flight in July 1959, a final configuration, "D", emerged.[95] The heat shield shape had been developed earlier in the 1950s through experiments with ballistic missiles, which had shown a blunt profile would create a shock wave that would lead most of the heat around the spacecraft.[96] To further protect against heat, either a heat sink, or an ablative material, could be added to the shield.[97] 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.[98] After unmanned tests, the latter was chosen for manned flights.[99] Apart from the capsule design, a rocket plane similar to the existing X-15 was considered.[100] This approach was still too far from being able to make a spaceflight, and was consequently dropped.[101][n 9] The heat shield and the stability of the spacecraft were tested in wind tunnels,[42] and later in flight.[105] The launch escape system was developed through unmanned flights.[106] During a period of problems with development of the landing parachutes, alternative landing systems such as the Rogallo glider wing were considered, but ultimately scrapped.[107]

The spacecraft were produced at McDonnell Aircraft, St. Louis, Missouri in clean rooms and tested in vacuum chambers at the McDonnell plant.[108] The spacecraft had close to 600 subcontractors, such as Garrett AiResearch which built the spacecraft's environmental control system.[33][61] Final quality control and preparations of the spacecraft were made at Hangar S at Cape Canaveral.[109][n 10] NASA ordered 20 production spacecraft, numbered 1 through 20.[33] Five of the 20, Nos. 10, 12, 15, 17, and 19, were not flown.[112] Spacecraft No. 3 and No. 4 were destroyed during unmanned test flights.[112] Spacecraft No. 11 sank and was recovered from the bottom of the Atlantic Ocean after 38 years.[112][113] Some spacecraft were modified after initial production (refurbished after launch abort, modified for longer missions, etc.).[n 11] A number of Mercury boilerplate spacecraft (made from non-flight materials or lacking production spacecraft systems) were also made by NASA and McDonnell.[116] They were designed and used to test spacecraft recovery systems and the escape tower.[117] McDonnell also built the spacecraft simulators used by the astronauts during training.[118]


Shadowgraph of the reentry shock wave simulated in a wind tunnel, 1957


Evolution of capsule design, 1958–59

Mercury Space Capsule-wind-tunnel

Experiment with boilerplate spacecraft, 1959


Drop of boilerplate spacecraft in training of landing and recovery. 56 such qualification tests were made together with tests of individual steps of the system.[119]

Launch vehicles

Launch vehicles: 1. Mercury-Atlas (orbital flights). 2. Mercury-Redstone (suborbital flights). 3. Little Joe (unmanned tests)

Launch escape system testing

A small launch vehicle (55 feet (17 m) long) called Little Joe was used for unmanned tests of the launch escape system, using a Mercury capsule with an escape tower mounted on it.[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.[106] 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]

Suborbital flight

The Mercury-Redstone Launch Vehicle, an 83-foot (25 m) tall (with capsule and escape system) single-stage launch vehicle used for suborbital (ballistic) flights.[127] 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.[127] It was a descendant of the German V-2,[36] 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.[128] 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).[36] 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.[129] The Jupiter rocket, also developed by Von Braun's team at the Redstone Arsenal in Huntsville, was considered as well for intermediate Mercury suborbital flights at a higher speed and altitude than Redstone, but this plan was dropped when it turned out that man-rating Jupiter for the Mercury program would actually cost more than flying an Atlas due to economics of scale.[130][131] Jupiter's only use other than as a missile system was for the short-lived Juno II launch vehicle and keeping a full staff of technical personnel around solely to fly a few Mercury capsules would result in excessively high costs.

Orbital flight

Orbital missions required use of the Atlas LV-3B, a man-rated version of the Atlas D which was originally developed as the United States' first operational intercontinental ballistic missile (ICBM)[132] by Convair for the Air Force during the mid-1950s.[133] The Atlas was a "one-and-one-half-stage" rocket fueled by kerosene and liquid oxygen (LOX).[132] The rocket by itself stood 67 feet (20 m) high; total height of the Atlas-Mercury space vehicle at launch was 95 feet (29 m).[134]

The Atlas first stage was a booster skirt with two engines burning liquid fuel.[135][n 12] This together with the larger sustainer second stage gave it sufficient power to launch a Mercury spacecraft into orbit.[132] Both stages fired from lift-off with the thrust from the second stage sustainer engine passing through an opening in the first stage. After separation from the first stage, the sustainer stage continued alone. The sustainer also steered the rocket by thrusters guided by gyroscopes.[136] Smaller vernier rockets were added on its sides for precise control of maneuvers.[132]


Little Joe 5B capsule mating

Little Joe assembling at Wallops Island

Mercury-Redstone 4 booster erectionWB

Erection of Redstone at Launch Complex 5

Unloading Atlas Launch Vehicle - GPN-2003-00041

Unloading Atlas at Cape Canaveral

Launch Complex 14-MA-9

Atlas - with spacecraft mounted - on launch pad at Launch Complex 14


Project Mercury-Mercury Seven-Astronauts
Left to right: Grissom, Shepard, Carpenter, Schirra, Slayton, Glenn and Cooper, 1962

NASA announced the following seven astronauts – known as the Mercury Seven – on April 9, 1959:[137][138]

Name Rank Unit Born Died
M. Scott Carpenter Lt (later Cdr) USN 1925 2013
L. Gordon Cooper Capt (later Col) USAF 1927 2004
John H. Glenn, Jr. Maj (later Col) USMC 1921 2016
Virgil I. Grissom Capt (later Lt Col) USAF 1926 1967
Walter M. Schirra, Jr. Lt Cdr (later Capt) USN 1923 2007
Alan B. Shepard, Jr. Lt Cdr (later Radm) USN 1923 1998
Donald K. Slayton Maj USAF 1924 1993

Shepard became the first American in space by making a suborbital flight in May 1961.[139] He went on to fly in the Apollo program and became the only Mercury astronaut to walk on the Moon.[140] 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.[141] Glenn became the first American to orbit the Earth in February 1962, then quit NASA and went into politics, serving as a US Senator from 1974 to 1999, and returned to space in 1998 as a Payload Specialist aboard STS-95.[142] Deke Slayton was grounded in 1962, but remained with NASA and was appointed Chief Astronaut at the beginning of Project Gemini. He remained in the position of senior astronaut, in charge of space crew flight assignments among many other responsibilities, until towards the end of Project Apollo, when he resigned and began training to fly on the Apollo-Soyuz Test Project in 1975, which he successfully did.[143] Gordon Cooper became the last to fly in Mercury and made its longest flight, and also flew a Gemini mission.[144] Carpenter's Mercury flight was his only trip into space. Schirra flew the third orbital Mercury mission, and then flew a Gemini mission. Three years later, he commanded the first manned Apollo mission, becoming the only person to fly in all three of those programs.

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.[145] To make their travels easier, they requested and got jet fighters for personal use.[146] The press was especially fond of John Glenn, who was considered the best speaker of the seven.[147] They sold their personal stories to Life magazine which portrayed them as patriotic, God-fearing family men.[148] Life was also allowed to be at home with the families while the astronauts were in space.[148] 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.

Other than Grissom, who was killed in the 1967 Apollo 1 fire, the other six survived past retirement[149] and died between 1993 and 2016.


Mercury 7 astronaut assignments. Schirra had the most flights with three; Glenn, though being the first to leave NASA, had the last with a Space Shuttle mission in 1998.[150] Shepard was the only one to walk on the Moon.

Selection and training

Prior to Project Mercury, there was no protocol for selecting astronauts so NASA would set a far reaching precedent with both their selection process and initial choices for astronaut. At the end of 1958, various ideas for the selection pool were discussed privately within the national government and the civilian space program, and also among the public at large. Initially, there was the idea to issue a widespread public call to volunteers. Thrill seekers such as rock climbers and acrobats would have been allowed to apply but this idea was quickly shot down by NASA officials who understood that an undertaking such as space flight required individuals with professional training and education in flight engineering. By late 1958, NASA officials decided to move forward with test pilots being the heart of their selection pool.[151] On President Eisenhower's insistence, the group was further narrowed down to active duty military test pilots, which set the number of candidates at 508 men.[152] who were either USN or USMC naval aviation pilots (NAPs), or USAF pilots of Senior or Command rating. These men had long military records which would give NASA officials more background information to base their decisions on. Furthermore, these men were adept at flying the most advanced aircraft to date, giving them the best qualifications for the new position of astronaut.[151] However, this selection excluded women since there were no female military test pilots at the time.[7] It also excluded civilian NASA X-15 pilot Neil Armstrong, though he had been selected by the US Air Force in 1958 for its Man in Space Soonest program, which was replaced by Mercury.[153] Although Armstrong had been a combat-experienced NAP during the Korean War, he left active duty in 1952.[7][n 13] Armstrong became NASA's first civilian astronaut in 1962 when he was selected for NASA's second group,[155] and became the first man on the Moon in 1969.[156]

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 a STEM subject.[7] The college degree requirement excluded the USAF's X-1 pilot, then-Lt Col (later Brig Gen) Chuck Yeager, the first person to exceed the speed of sound.[157] He later became a critic of the project, ridiculing the civilian space program, labeling astronauts as "spam in a can."[158] John Glenn did not have a college degree either, but used influential friends to make the selection committee accept him.[159] USAF Capt (later Col) Joseph Kittinger, a USAF fighter pilot and stratosphere balloonist, met all the requirements but preferred to stay in his contemporary project.[157] Other potential candidates declined because they did not believe that manned spaceflight had a future beyond Project Mercury.[157][n 14] From the original 508, 110 candidates were selected for an interview, and from the interviews, 32 were selected for further physical and mental testing.[161] Their health, vision, and hearing were examined, together with their tolerance to noise, vibrations, g-forces, personal isolation, and heat.[162][163] In a special chamber, they were tested to see if they could perform their tasks under confusing conditions.[162] The candidates had to answer more than 500 questions about themselves and describe what they saw in different images.[162] Navy Lt (later Capt) Jim Lovell, who was later an astronaut in the Gemini and Apollo programs, did not pass the physical tests.[157] After these tests it was intended to narrow the group down to six astronauts, but in the end it was decided to keep seven.[164]

The astronauts went through a training program covering some of the same exercises that were used in their selection.[41] 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.[146] Weightlessness training took place in aircraft, first on the rear seat of a two-seater fighter and later inside converted and padded cargo aircraft.[165] 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.[166][167] A further measure for finding the right attitude in orbit was star and Earth recognition training in planetaria and simulators.[168] Communication and flight procedures were practiced in flight simulators, first together with a single person assisting them and later with the Mission Control Center.[169] Recovery was practiced in pools at Langley, and later at sea with frogmen and helicopter crews.[170]

Johnsville Centrifuge

G-force training, Johnsville, 1960

Mercury Astronauts in Weightless Flight on C-131 Aircraft - GPN-2002-000039

Weightlessness simulation in a C-131

Shepard in trainer before launch

Flight trainer at Cape Canaveral

B60 285b

Egress training at Langley

Mission profile


Profile. See timetable for explanation. Dashed line: region of weightlessness.

A Redstone rocket was used to boost the capsule for 2 minutes and 30 seconds to an altitude of 32 nautical miles (59 km); the capsule continued ascending on a ballistic curve after booster separation.[171][172] The launch escape system was jettisoned at the same time. At the top of the curve, the spacecraft's retrorockets were fired for testing purposes; they were not necessary for reentry because orbital speed had not been attained. The spacecraft landed in the Atlantic Ocean.[173] The suborbital mission took about 15 minutes, had an apogee altitude of 102–103 nautical miles (189–191 km), and a downrange distance of 262 nautical miles (485 km).[144][174] From the time of booster-spacecraft separation until reentry where air started to slow down the spacecraft, the pilot would experience weightlessness as shown on the image.[n 15] The recovery procedure would be the same as an orbital mission.


Launch Complex 14 just before launch (service tower rolled aside). Preparations for launch were made in the blockhouse.

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.[175] For three days prior to launch, the astronaut went through a special diet to minimize his need for defecating during the flight.[176] On the morning of the trip he typically ate a steak breakfast.[176] 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.[177] He arrived at the launch pad, took the elevator up the launch tower and entered the spacecraft two hours before launch.[178][n 16] Once the astronaut was secured inside, the hatch was bolted, the launch area evacuated and the mobile tower rolled back.[179] After this, the launch vehicle was filled with liquid oxygen.[179] 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).[178][n 17]

Profile. A-C: launch. D: insert into orbit. E-K: reentry and landing

On an orbital mission, the Atlas' rocket engines were ignited four 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).[181] After 30 seconds of flight, the point of maximum dynamic pressure against the vehicle was reached, at which the astronaut felt heavy vibrations.[182] After 2 minutes and 10 seconds, the two outboard booster engines shut down and were released with the aft skirt, leaving the center sustainer engine running (B).[178] At this point, the launch escape system was no longer needed, and was separated from the spacecraft by its jettison rocket (C).[56][n 18] The space vehicle moved gradually to a horizontal attitude until, at an altitude of 87 nautical miles (161 km), the sustainer engine shut down and the spacecraft was inserted into orbit (D).[184] 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.[185][n 19] Here the spacecraft fired the three posigrade rockets for a second to separate it from the launch vehicle.[187][n 20] Just before orbital insertion and sustainer engine cutoff, g-loads peaked at 8 g (6 g for a suborbital flight).[182][189] 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.[190][191][n 21]

Once in orbit, it was not possible for the spacecraft to change its trajectory except by initiating reentry.[193] Each orbit would typically take 88 minutes to complete.[194] The lowest point of the orbit, called perigee, was at about 87 nautical miles (161 km) altitude, and the highest point, called apogee, was about 150 nautical miles (280 km) altitude.[174] When leaving orbit (E), the angle of retrofire was 34° downward from the flight path angle.[190] Retrorockets fired for 10 seconds each (F) in a sequence where one started 5 seconds after the other.[187][195] During reentry (G), the astronaut would experience about 8 g (11–12 g on a suborbital mission).[196] The temperature around the heat shield rose to 3,000 °F (1,600 °C) and at the same time, there was a two-minute radio blackout due to ionization of the air around the spacecraft.[197][58]

After reentry, a small, drogue parachute (H) was deployed at 21,000 ft (6,400 m) for stabilizing the spacecraft's descent.[68] 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.[198] Just before hitting the water, the landing bag inflated from behind the heat shield to reduce the force of impact (J).[198] Upon landing the parachutes were released.[65] An antenna (K) was raised and sent out signals that could be traced by ships and helicopters.[65] Further, a green marker dye was spread around the spacecraft to make its location more visible from the air.[65][n 22] Frogmen brought in by helicopters inflated a collar around the craft to keep it upright in the water.[200][n 23] The recovery helicopter hooked onto the spacecraft and the astronaut blew the escape hatch to exit the capsule.[64] He was then hoisted aboard the helicopter that finally brought both him and the spacecraft to the ship.[n 24]

Mercury profile

Mercury manned launches


John Glenn in orbit (Mercury-Atlas 6)

Shepard Hoisted into Recovery Helicopter - GPN-2000-001361-crop

Recovery seen from helicopter (Mercury-Redstone 3)

Ground control

Mercury Control crop
Inside Control Center at Cape Canaveral (Mercury-Atlas 8)

The number of personnel supporting a Mercury mission was typically around 18,000, with about 15,000 people associated with recovery.[2][201][n 25] 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 satellites and made ready in 1960.[203] It collected data from the spacecraft and provided two-way communication between the astronaut and the ground.[204] Each station had a range of 700 nautical miles (1,300 km) and a pass typically lasted 7 minutes.[205] Mercury astronauts on the ground would take part of the Capsule Communicator or CAPCOM who communicated with the astronaut in orbit.[206][207][n 26] 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.[208] 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.[191]

The World Wide Tracking Network went on to serve subsequent space programs, until it was replaced by a satellite relay system in the 1980s[209] Mission Control Center was moved from Cape Canaveral to Houston in 1965.[210]

Mercury Tracking Network 2

Ground track and tracking stations for Mercury-Atlas 8. Spacecraft starts from Cape Canaveral in Florida and moves east; each new orbit-track is displaced to the left due to the rotation of the Earth. It moves between latitudes 32.5° north and 32.5° south.[211] Key: 1–6: orbit number. Yellow: launch. Black dot: tracking station. Red: range of station; Blue: landing.


Project Mercury landing sites

On April 12, 1961 the Soviet cosmonaut Yuri Gagarin became the first person in space on an orbital flight.[212] Alan Shepard became the first American in space on a suborbital flight three weeks later, on May 5, 1961.[139] John Glenn, the third Mercury astronaut to fly, became the first American to reach orbit on February 20, 1962, but only after the Soviets had launched a second cosmonaut, Gherman Titov, into a day-long flight in August 1961.[213] Three more Mercury orbital flights were made, ending on May 16, 1963 with a day-long, 22 orbit flight.[144] 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.[214]


All of the six manned Mercury flights were successful, though some planned flights were canceled during the project (see below).[144] The main medical problems encountered were simple personal hygiene, and post-flight symptoms of low blood pressure.[2] The launch vehicles had been tested through unmanned flights, therefore the numbering of manned missions did not start with 1.[215] Also, there were two separately 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.[56][138] Times given are Universal Coordinated Time, local time + 5 hours. MA = Mercury-Atlas, MR = Mercury-Redstone, LC = Launch Complex. Source:[n 27]

Mission Call-sign Pilot Launch Duration Orbits Apogee
mi (km)
mi (km)
Max. velocity
mph (km/h)
mi (km)
time site
MR-3 Freedom 7 Shepard 14:34 on May 5, 1961 LC-5 15 m 22 s 0 117 (188) 5,134 (8,262) 3.5 (5.6)
MR-4 Liberty Bell 7 Grissom 12:20 on Jul. 21, 1961 LC-5 15 m 37 s 0 118 (190) 5,168 (8,317) 5.8 (9.3)
MA-6 Friendship 7 Glenn 14:47 on Feb. 20, 1962 LC-14 4 h 55 m 23 s 3 162 (261) 100 (161) 17,544 (28,234) 46 (74)
MA-7 Aurora 7 Carpenter 12:45 on May 24, 1962 LC-14 4 h 56 m 5 s 3 167 (269) 100 (161) 17,549 (28,242) 248 (400)
MA-8 Sigma 7 Schirra 12:15 on Oct. 3, 1962 LC-14 9 h 13 m 15 s 6 176 (283) 100 (161) 17,558 (28,257) 4.6 (7.4)
MA-9 Faith 7 Cooper 13:04 on May 15, 1963 LC-14 1 d 10 h 19 m 49 s 22 166 (267) 100 (161) 17,547 (28,239) 5.0 (8.1)
Kennedy, Johnson, and others watching flight of Astronaut Shepard on television, 05 May 1961

Shepard's flight watched on TV in the White House. May 1961.

Astronaut John Glenn being Honored - GPN-2000-000607

John Glenn honored by the President. February 1962.

USS Kearsarge (CVS-33) crew spells out 'Mercury 9' on the flight deck, 15 May 1963 (GPN-2000-001403)

USS Kearsarge with crew spelling Mercury-9. May 1963.


The 20 unmanned flights used Little Joe, Redstone, and Atlas launch vehicles.[138] They were used to develop the launch vehicles, launch escape system, spacecraft and tracking network.[215] 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.[232][176]

Mission[n 33] Launch Duration Purpose Result
Little Joe 1 August 21, 1959 20 s Test of launch escape system during flight. Failure
Big Joe 1 September 9, 1959 13 m 00 s Test of heat shield and Atlas/spacecraft interface. Partly success
Little Joe 6 October 4, 1959 5 m 10 s Test of spacecraft aerodynamics and integrity. Partly success
Little Joe 1A November 4, 1959 8 m 11 s Test of launch escape system during flight with boiler plate capsule. Partly success
Little Joe 2 December 4, 1959 11 m 6 s Escape system test with primate at high altitude. Success
Little Joe 1B January 21, 1960 8 m 35 s Maximum-q abort and escape test with primate with boiler plate capsule. Success
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 spacecraft / Atlas combination. Failure
Little Joe 5 November 8, 1960 2 m 22 s First test of escape system with a production spacecraft. Failure
Mercury-Redstone 1 November 21, 1960 2 s Test of production spacecraft at max-q. Failure
Mercury-Redstone 1A December 19, 1960 15 m 45 s Qualification of spacecraft / Redstone combination. Success
Mercury-Redstone 2 January 31, 1961 16 m 39 s Qualification of spacecraft with chimpanzee named Ham. Success
Mercury-Atlas 2 February 21, 1961 17 m 56 s Qualified Mercury/Atlas interface. Success
Little Joe 5A March 18, 1961 23 m 48 s Second test of escape system with a production Mercury spacecraft. Partly success
Mercury-Redstone BD March 24, 1961 8 m 23 s Final Redstone test flight. Success
Mercury-Atlas 3 April 25, 1961 7 m 19 s Orbital flight with robot astronaut.[233][234][n 34] Failure
Little Joe 5B April 28, 1961 5 m 25 s Third test of escape system with a production spacecraft. Success
Mercury-Atlas 4 September 13, 1961 1 h 49 m 20 s Test of environmental control system with robot astronaut in orbit. Success
Mercury-Scout 1 November 1, 1961 44 s Test of Mercury tracking network. Failure
Mercury-Atlas 5 November 29, 1961 3 h 20 m 59 s Test of environmental control system in orbit with chimpanzee named Enos. Success
Launch of Little Joe 1B, January 21, 1960

Little Joe 1B at launch with Miss Sam, 1960

Escape rocket of Mercury-Redstone 1-crop

Mercury-Redstone 1: launch escape system lift-off after 4'' launch, 1960

Chimpanzee Ham in Biopack Couch for MR-2 flight MSFC-6100114

Mercury-Redstone 2: Ham, 1961

Chimpanzee Enos before the flight of Mercury-Atlas 5 (cropped)

Mercury-Atlas 5: Enos, 1961


Nine of the planned flights were canceled. Suborbital flights were planned for four other astronauts but the number of flights was cut down gradually and finally all remaining were canceled after Titov's flight.[263][264][n 38] Mercury-Atlas 9 was intended to be followed by more one-day flights and even a three-day flight but with the coming of the Gemini Project it seemed unnecessary. The Jupiter booster was, as mentioned above, intended to be used for different purposes.

Mission Pilot Planned Launch Cancellation
Mercury-Jupiter 1 July 1, 1959[266]
Mercury-Jupiter 2 Chimpanzee First quarter, 1960 July 1, 1959[266][n 39]
Mercury-Redstone 5 Glenn (likely) March 1960[264] August 1961[268]
Mercury-Redstone 6 April 1960[264] July 1961[269]
Mercury-Redstone 7 May 1960[264]
Mercury-Redstone 8 June 1960[264]
Mercury-Atlas 10 Shepard October 1963 June 13, 1963[n 40]
Mercury-Atlas 11 Grissom Fourth quarter, 1963 October 1962[271]
Mercury-Atlas 12 Schirra Fourth quarter, 1963 October 1962[272]


Gordon cooper ticker tape
Ticker tape parade for Gordon Cooper, 1963

Today the Mercury program is commemorated as the first manned American space program.[273] 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.[274][n 41]

During the 1950s, some experts doubted that manned spaceflight was possible.[n 42] Still when John F. Kennedy was elected president, many including he had doubts about the project.[277] As president he chose to support the programs a few months before the launch of Freedom 7,[278] which became a public success.[279][n 43] 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.[283]

The six astronauts who flew were awarded medals,[284] driven in parades and two of them were invited to address a joint session of the US Congress.[285] 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.[286] It was named Mercury 13 by the media[287][n 44] Despite this effort, NASA did not select female astronauts until 1978 for the Space Shuttle.[288]

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.[289] 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.[290][n 45] On film, the program was portrayed in The Right Stuff a 1983 adaptation of Tom Wolfe's 1979 book of the same name.[292] 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.[293][n 46]

Project Mercury Pad14

Mercury monument at Launch Complex 14, 1964


The spacecraft that flew, together with some that did not, are on display in the United States. Friendship 7 (capsule No. 13) went on a global tour, popularly known as its "fourth orbit". [294]

Freedom 7 U.S. Naval Academy

Freedom 7 at the United States Naval Academy, 2010

Liberty Bell 7 The Kansas Cosmosphere and Space Center

Liberty Bell 7 at the Kansas Cosmosphere and Space Center, 2010

Friendship 7 the National Air and Space Museum

Friendship 7 at the National Air and Space Museum, 2009

MA-9 Faith 7 Space Center Houston, Houston, TX

Faith 7 at Space Center Houston, 2011


Commemorative patches were designed by entrepreneurs after the Mercury program to satisfy collectors.[295][n 48]

Mercury 3 - Patch
Mercury 4 - Patch
Mercury 6 - Patch
Aurora 7 patch
Mercury 9 - Patch


John Glenn documentary from 50th Anniversary of Friendship 7, 2012.

Space program comparison

NASA spacecraft comparison

NASA illustration comparing boosters and spacecraft from Apollo (biggest), Gemini and Mercury (smallest).


  1. ^ Designed in 1964 from Mercury Seven astronaut memorial
  2. ^ The project was delayed by 22 months, counting from the beginning until the first orbital mission.[2] It had a dozen prime contractors, 75 major subcontractors, and about 7200 third-tier subcontractors.[2] The cost estimate made by NASA in 1969 was $392.6 million, 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.[3][4]
  3. ^ Man in Space Soonest was the first part of a four-phase Moon landing program estimated to finish in 1965, cost a total of $1.5 billion ($12.9 billion adjusted for inflation), and be launched by a "Super Titan" rocket.[9]
  4. ^ 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.[34]
  5. ^ 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.[45]
  6. ^ On the first suborbital flight there was no urine collection whereas on the other, the astronaut had a reservoir added to the space suit[63]
  7. ^ The decision to eliminate the use of any gas but oxygen was crystalized when a serious accident occurred on April 21, 1960, in which McDonnell Aircraft test pilot G.B. North passed out and was seriously injured when testing a Mercury cabin/spacesuit atmosphere system in a vacuum chamber. The problem was found to be nitrogen-rich (oxygen-poor) air leaking from the cabin into his spacesuit feed.[80]
  8. ^ Moisture and urine was reclycled into drinking water.[49]
  9. ^ The rocket plane approach to manned space flight was pursued by the Air Force with their Dyna-Soar project, which was canceled in 1963[102] Toward the end of the 1960s, NASA began the development of a reusable space plane, which was ultimately developed into the Space Shuttle program.[103] The first rocket plane to enter space was an X-15 in 1963.[104]
  10. ^ Test and rework of Mercury-Redstone 2 at the Hangar required 110 days.[110] Hangar S was also the place where the chimpanzees were trained.[111]
  11. ^ They received a letter designation after their number, examples 2B, 15B.[114] Some were modified twice; for example, spacecraft 15 became 15A and then 15B.[115]
  12. ^ At the time word booster was sometimes used for the first stage of the launch stack. Later the word booster came to refer to additional single-stage rockets attached to the sides of the main launch vehicle, as in Space Shuttle boosters.
  13. ^ Armstrong left the Navy as a Lieutenant, Junior Grade in the US Naval Reserve, until resigning his commission 1960.[154]
  14. ^ At the beginning of the project both President Eisenhower and NASA's first administrator T. K. Glennan believed that US would put the first man in space, and that this would be the end of the Space Race.[160]
  15. ^ With the exception of the 20 seconds of retrofire during which the pilot would experience g-force.
  16. ^ Inside the spacecraft the other astronauts had usually prepared a practical joke, such as a sign saying "No handball playing".[179]
  17. ^ 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.[180]
  18. ^ 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.[71] At this point, the spacecraft could be separated from the launch vehicle and land using its parachute.[183]
  19. ^ The direction of insertion was east and slightly to the north, this meant that on at three orbit flight the tracking network was used best possible and a landing could take place in the North Atlantic Ocean.[186]
  20. ^ The sustainer would disintegrate and fall down; after the launch of Friendship 7 a part of the sustainer was found in South Africa.[188]
  21. ^ The capsule's tendency to drift was countered automatically by the attitude control system (ASCS) which used small hydrogen peroxide thrusters. To save fuel, however, the spacecraft would be allowed to drift from time to time, especially on longer missions.[192]
  22. ^ 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.[199]
  23. ^ The collar was not ready for suborbital missions.[200]
  24. ^ It was also possible to exit the capsule through the nose cylinder; only Carpenter did this.[30][68]
  25. ^ 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.[202]
  26. ^ Occasionally this communication was broadcast on live TV while the spacecraft was passing over the United States.
  27. ^ Alexander & al., 1966, pp. 638–641.
  28. ^ It was recovered in 1999.[113]
  29. ^ 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".[220]
  30. ^ 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[223]
  31. ^ 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 a Senate hearing about the incident.[225]
  32. ^ Likely to be so according to Alexander & al.[230]
  33. ^ Source: Alexander & al., 1966, pp. 638–641 when nothing else is mentioned.
  34. ^ A machine that produced the same heat, vapor and CO2 as an astronaut.[235]
  35. ^ The clamp was subsequently tested by a rocket sled.[43]
  36. ^ 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 ft (1,200 m) and landed about 400 yd (370 m) away. Three seconds after the escape rocket fired, the capsule deployed its drogue parachute; it then deployed the main and reserve parachutes.[247]
  37. ^ 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.[260]
  38. ^ Within the Mercury Project organization the suborbital flights were from the start criticized as being of little value and even compared to a circus act.[265]
  39. ^ Proposed maximum dynamic pressure test for capsule.[267]
  40. ^ Mercury-Atlas 10 was intended to be a three-day mission in November 1962 with extra supplies attached to the heat shield. Call-sign Freedom 7-II. By January 1963, it was changed to a one-day back up mission for Mercury-Atlas 9. It was canceled after the success of the latter.[270]
  41. ^ 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.[275]
  42. ^ 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.[276]
  43. ^ Along the roads in the US, 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.[280] The launch of Sigma 7 and Faith 7 were relayed live via communication satellite to television audiences in Western Europe.[281] Two of the three major US networks covered Sigma 7-minute-by-minute, the rest were showing the opening of the World Series.[282]
  44. ^ It gave Soviet leader Khrushchev the idea of launching the first women cosmonaut Valentina Tereshkova on 16 June 1963.[230]
  45. ^ The stamp first went on sale in Cape Canaveral, Florida on February 20, 1962, the same day as the first manned orbital flight.[290] On May 4, 2011, the Postal Service released a stamp commemorating the 50th anniversary of Freedom 7, the first manned flight of the project.[291]
  46. ^ 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."[293]
  47. ^ 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.
  48. ^ The only patches the Mercury astronauts wore, were the NASA logo and a name tag.[295] Each manned Mercury spacecraft was painted black and decorated with a flight insignia, its call-sign, an American flag and the words United States.[56]


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External links

Atlas LV-3B

The Atlas LV-3B, Atlas D Mercury Launch Vehicle or Mercury-Atlas Launch Vehicle, was a man-rated expendable launch system used as part of the United States Project Mercury to send astronauts into low Earth orbit. Manufactured by American aircraft manufacturing company Convair, it was derived from the SM-65D Atlas missile, and was a member of the Atlas family of rockets.

The Atlas D missile was the natural choice for Project Mercury since it was the only launch vehicle in the US arsenal that could put the spacecraft into orbit and also had a large number of flights from which to gather data. But its reliability was far from perfect and Atlas launches ending in explosions were an all-too common sight at Cape Canaveral. The Atlas had also been originally designed as a weapon system, thus its design and reliability did not need to necessarily be 100% perfect. As such, significant steps had to be taken to human-rate the missile and make it safe and reliable unless NASA wished to spend several years developing a dedicated launch vehicle for crewed programs or else wait for the next-generation Titan II ICBM to become operational. Atlas's stage-and-a-half configuration was seen as preferable to the two stage Titan in that all engines were ignited at liftoff, making it easier to test for hardware problems during prelaunch checks.

Shortly after being chosen for the program in early 1959, the Mercury astronauts were taken to watch the second D-series Atlas test, which exploded a minute into launch. This was the fifth straight complete or partial Atlas failure and the booster was at this point nowhere near reliable enough to carry a nuclear warhead or an uncrewed satellite, let alone a human passenger. Plans to human-rate Atlas were effectively still on the drawing board and Convair estimated that 75% reliability would be achieved by early 1961 and 85% reliability by the end of the year. Despite the Atlas's developmental problems, NASA had the benefit of conducting Project Mercury simultaneously with the Atlas R&D program which gave plenty of test flights to draw data from as well as test modified equipment for Mercury.

Big Joe (Project Mercury)

Big Joe was a subprogram of America's Project Mercury space program. It launched a single flight using an Atlas launch vehicle with a boilerplate Mercury capsule. The purpose of the Big Joe program was to prove the ablative heat shield which would be needed for the re-entry of orbital Mercury missions. The flight, Big Joe 1, occurred on September 9, 1959.The Big Joe name has been attributed to Maxime Faget at NASA's Langley Research Center in Hampton, Virginia. It was a progression of the smaller test booster Little Joe. Faget also coined the Little Joe name basing it on its four large fins which reminded him a roll of four in craps.

Cape Canaveral Air Force Station Launch Complex 14

Launch Complex 14 (LC-14) is a launch site at Cape Canaveral Air Force Station in Florida. LC-14 was used for various manned and unmanned Atlas launches, including the Friendship 7 flight aboard which John Glenn became the first American to orbit the Earth.

Cape Canaveral Air Force Station Launch Complex 5

Launch Complex 5 (LC-5) was a launch site at Cape Canaveral Air Force Station, Florida used for various Redstone and Jupiter launches.

It is most well known as the launch site for NASA's 1961 suborbital Mercury-Redstone 3 flight, which made Alan Shepard the first American in space. It was also the launch site of Gus Grissom’s Mercury-Redstone 4 flight. The Mercury-Redstone 1 pad abort, Mercury-Redstone 1A, and Mercury-Redstone 2, with chimpanzee Ham aboard, also used LC-5.

A total of 23 launches were conducted from LC-5: one Jupiter-A, six Jupiter IRBMs, one Jupiter-C, four Juno Is, four Juno IIs and seven Redstones. The first launch from the complex was a Jupiter-A on July 19, 1956 and the final launch was Gus Grissom's Liberty Bell 7 capsule on July 21, 1961.LC-5 is located next to the Air Force Space & Missile Museum. The original consoles used to launch the Mercury-Redstone rockets are on display in the blockhouse. As of 2011 a tour of the blockhouse (and the museum) can be arranged through the Kennedy Space Center Visitor Complex's "Cape Canaveral: Then and Now" tour. One tour is offered daily, so the number of visitors is limited by the size of the tour.

List of United States Marine Corps astronauts

This is a list of United States Marine Corps members who have served as NASA astronauts.

Little Joe 1B

The Little Joe 1B was a launch escape system test of the Mercury spacecraft, conducted as part of the U.S. Mercury program. The mission also carried a female rhesus monkey (Macaca mulatta) named Miss Sam in the Mercury spacecraft. The mission was launched January 21, 1960, from Wallops Island, Virginia. The Little Joe 1B flew to an apogee of 9.3 statute miles (15.0 km) and a range of 11.7 miles (18.9 km) out to sea. Miss Sam survived the 8 minute 35 second flight in good condition. The spacecraft was recovered by a Marine helicopter and returned to Wallops Island within about 45 minutes. Miss Sam was one of many monkeys used in space travel research.


Mercury-Atlas was a subprogram of Project Mercury that included most of the flights and tests using the Atlas LV-3B launch vehicle. The Atlas was also used for one Mercury flight under the Big Joe subprogram.

The Mercury mission numbering system was: a two-letter designation marking the launch vehicle type, followed by a dash, then a number designating the flight/test number. The Atlas launch vehicles used for Project Mercury were given a two- or three-digit number followed by a "-D", indicating that they were the "D" version of the Atlas.

The missions flown in Mercury-Atlas were:

MA-1 using Atlas launch vehicle "50-D"

MA-2 using Atlas launch vehicle "67-D"

MA-3 using Atlas launch vehicle "100-D"

MA-4 using Atlas launch vehicle "88-D"

MA-5 using Atlas launch vehicle "93-D"

MA-6 using Atlas launch vehicle "109-D"

MA-7 using Atlas launch vehicle "107-D"

MA-8 using Atlas launch vehicle "113-D"

MA-9 using Atlas launch vehicle "130-D"

Mercury-Atlas 6

Mercury-Atlas 6 (MA-6) was the first American orbital spaceflight, which took place on February 20, 1962. Piloted by astronaut John Glenn and operated by NASA as part of Project Mercury, it was the fifth human spaceflight, preceded by Soviet orbital flights Vostok 1 and 2 and American sub-orbital flights Mercury-Redstone 3 and 4.The Mercury spacecraft, named Friendship 7, was carried to orbit by an Atlas LV-3B launch vehicle lifting off from Launch Complex 14 at Cape Canaveral, Florida. After three orbits, the spacecraft re-entered the Earth's atmosphere, splashed down in the North Atlantic Ocean, and was safely taken aboard USS Noa. Total mission flight time was four hours 55 minutes and 23 seconds.

The event was named an IEEE Milestone in 2011.

Mercury-Atlas 7

Mercury-Atlas 7, launched May 24, 1962, was the fourth flight of Project Mercury, the first manned space program of the United States. The Mercury spacecraft, named Aurora 7, made three Earth orbits, piloted by astronaut Scott Carpenter. He was the sixth human and the fourth American in space.

A targeting error during reentry took the spacecraft 250 miles (about 400 km) off-course, delaying recovery of Carpenter and the spacecraft. The mission used Mercury spacecraft No. 18 and Atlas launch vehicle No. 107-D.

Mercury-Atlas 9

Mercury-Atlas 9 was the final manned space mission of the U.S. Mercury program, launched on May 15, 1963 from Launch Complex 14 at Cape Canaveral, Florida. The spacecraft, named Faith 7, completed 22 Earth orbits before splashing down in the Pacific Ocean, piloted by astronaut Gordon Cooper, then an Air Force major. The Atlas rocket was No. 130-D, and the Mercury spacecraft was No. 20. This mission marks the last time an American was launched alone to conduct an entirely solo orbital mission.


Mercury-Jupiter was a proposed suborbital launch configuration consisting of a Jupiter missile carrying a Mercury capsule. Two flights were planned in support of Project Mercury. On July 1, 1959, less than a year after the October, 1958 program start date, the flights were canceled due to budget constraints. The MJ-1 flight would have been a heat shield test. The MJ-2 flight was planned as a maximum dynamic pressure qualification test of the production Mercury spacecraft with a chimpanzee on board.

Mercury-Redstone 2

Mercury-Redstone 2 (MR-2) was the penultimate test flight of the Mercury-Redstone Launch Vehicle prior to the first manned American space mission in Project Mercury. It was launched at 16:55 UTC on January 31, 1961 from LC-5 at Cape Canaveral, Florida. Mercury spacecraft No. 5 carried Ham the Chimp a chimpanzee on a suborbital flight, landing in the Atlantic Ocean 16 minutes and 39 seconds after launch.

Mercury-Redstone 3

Mercury-Redstone 3, or Freedom 7, was the first United States human spaceflight, on May 5, 1961, piloted by astronaut Alan Shepard. It was the first manned flight of Project Mercury, the objective of which was to put an astronaut into orbit around the Earth and return him safely. Shepard's mission was a 15-minute suborbital flight with the primary objective of demonstrating his ability to withstand the high g-forces of launch and atmospheric re-entry.

Shepard named his space capsule Freedom 7, setting a precedent for the remaining six Mercury astronauts naming their spacecraft. The number 7 was included in all the manned Mercury spacecraft names to honor NASA's first group of seven astronauts. His spacecraft reached an altitude of 101.2 nautical miles (116.5 statute miles, 187.5 km) and traveled a downrange distance of 263.1 nautical miles (302.8 statute miles, 487.3 km). It was the fourth Mercury flight launched with the Mercury-Redstone Launch Vehicle, from Cape Canaveral, Florida, close to the Atlantic Ocean.

During the flight, Shepard observed the Earth and tested the capsule's attitude control system, turning the capsule around to face its blunt heat shield forward for atmospheric re-entry. He also tested the retrorockets which would return later missions from orbit, though the capsule did not have enough energy to remain in orbit. After re-entry, the capsule landed by parachute on the North Atlantic Ocean off the Bahamas. Shepard and the capsule were picked up by helicopter and brought to U.S. Navy aircraft carrier USS Lake Champlain.

The mission was a technical success, though American pride in the accomplishment was dampened by the fact that just three weeks before, the Soviet Union had launched the first man in space, Yuri Gagarin, who completed one orbit on Vostok 1. In 2017 the first National Astronaut Day was held on May 5 to pay tribute to this first flight.

Mercury-Redstone Launch Vehicle

The Mercury-Redstone Launch Vehicle, designed for NASA's Project Mercury, was the first American manned space booster. It was used for six sub-orbital Mercury flights from 1960–61; culminating with the launch of the first, and 11 weeks later, the second American (and the second and third humans) in space. The fourth subsequent Mercury human spaceflights used the more powerful Atlas booster to enter low Earth orbit.

A member of the Redstone rocket family, it was derived from the U.S. Army's Redstone ballistic missile and the first stage of the related Jupiter-C launch vehicle; but to human-rate it, the structure and systems were modified to improve safety and reliability.

Mercury-Scout 1

Mercury-Scout 1, or MS-1, was a United States spacecraft intended to test tracking stations for Project Mercury flights. It grew out of a May 5, 1961 NASA proposal to use Scout rockets to launch small satellites to evaluate the worldwide Mercury Tracking Network in preparation for manned orbital missions. The launch of Mercury-Scout 1 on November 1, 1961 was unsuccessful, and the satellite failed to achieve orbit.

Electricity came from 1500 watt-hours stored in chemical batteries.

Mercury Seven

The Mercury Seven were the group of seven astronauts for Project Mercury announced by NASA on April 9, 1959. They are also referred to as the Original Seven and Astronaut Group 1. They piloted all the manned spaceflights of the Mercury program from May 1961 to May 1963. These seven original American astronauts were Scott Carpenter, Gordon Cooper, John Glenn, Gus Grissom, Wally Schirra, Alan Shepard, and Deke Slayton.

Members of the group flew on all of the NASA crewed orbital programs of the 20th century – Mercury, Gemini, Apollo, and the Space Shuttle. Gus Grissom died in 1967, in the Apollo 1 fire; the others all survived past retirement from service. Alan Shepard became the first American in space in 1961, and walked on the Moon on Apollo 14 in 1971. John Glenn became the first American in orbit in 1962, and went on to become a U.S. senator. He flew on the Shuttle in 1998 to become the oldest person to fly in space. He was the last living member of the Mercury Seven when he died in 2016 at the age of 95.

Scott Carpenter

Malcolm Scott Carpenter (May 1, 1925 – October 10, 2013), (Commander, USN), was an American naval officer and aviator, test pilot, aeronautical engineer, astronaut, and aquanaut. He was one of the Mercury Seven astronauts selected for NASA's Project Mercury in April 1959. Carpenter was the second American (after John Glenn) to orbit the Earth and the fourth American in space, after Alan Shepard, Gus Grissom, and Glenn.

Commissioned into the U.S. Navy in 1949, Carpenter became a naval aviator, flying a Lockheed P-2 Neptune with Patrol Squadron 6 (VP-6) on reconnaissance and anti-submarine warfare missions along the coasts of Russia and China during the Korean War and the Cold War. In 1954, he attended the U.S. Naval Test Pilot School at NAS Patuxent River, Maryland in 1954 and became a test pilot. In 1958 he was named Air Intelligence Officer of the USS Hornet, which was then in dry dock at the Bremerton Navy Yard.

The following year, Carpenter was selected as one of the Mercury Seven astronauts. He was backup to Glenn during the latter's Mercury Atlas 6 orbital mission. He flew the next mission, Mercury Atlas 7 himself, in the spacecraft he named Aurora 7. Due to a series of malfunctions, the spacecraft landed 250-mile (400 km) downrange from its intended splashdown point, but both pilot and spacecraft were retrieved.

Carpenter obtained permission from NASA to take a leave of absence to join the U.S. Navy SEALAB project as an aquanaut. During training he suffered injuries which grounded him, making him unavailable for further spaceflights. In 1965, he spent 28 days living on the ocean floor off the coast of California as part of SEALAB II. He returned to NASA as Executive Assistant to the Director of the Manned Spacecraft Center, then joined the Navy's Deep Submergence Systems Project in 1967 as Director of Aquanaut Operations for SEALAB III. He retired from NASA in 1967, and from the Navy in 1969.

Space Task Group

The Space Task Group was a working group of NASA engineers created in 1958, tasked with managing America's manned spaceflight programs. Headed by Robert Gilruth and based at the Langley Research Center in Hampton, Virginia, it managed Project Mercury and follow-on plans. After President John F. Kennedy set the goal in 1961 for the Apollo Program to land men on the Moon, NASA decided a much larger organization and a new facility was required to perform the Task Group's function, and it was transformed into the Manned Spacecraft Center (now the Lyndon B. Johnson Space Center), located in Houston, Texas.

In later years, the term Space Task Group was ambiguously reused to refer to an ad hoc committee appointed by the President to recommend manned spaceflight programs, usually chaired by the Vice President. For instance, President Richard Nixon appointed such a group in February 1969 to outline a post-Apollo spaceflight strategy, chaired by Vice President Spiro T. Agnew.

U.S. space exploration history on U.S. stamps

With the advent of unmanned and manned space flight a new era of American history had presented itself. Keeping with the tradition of honoring the country's history on U.S. postage stamps, the U.S. Post Office began honoring the various events with its commemorative postage stamp issues. The first U.S. Postage issue to depict a U.S. space vehicle was issued in 1948, the Fort Bliss issue. The first issue to commemorate a space project by name was the ECHO I communications satellite commemorative issue of 1960. Next was the Project Mercury issue of 1962. As U.S. space exploration progressed a variety of other commemorative issues followed, many of which bear accurate depictions of satellites, space capsules, Apollo Lunar Modules, space suits, and other items of interest.Space exploration history is a popular topic, as record numbers of First-Day covers for postage stamps with space themes will attest. The Project Mercury issue of 1962 had more than three million 'First Day of Issue' cancellations, while the average number of First-Day cancels for other commemorative issues at that time was around half a million. In 1969, the Apollo VIII issue received 900,000 First-Day cancels while others received less than half this amount. As the advent of U.S. space exploration grew, so did the topic of Space Exploration on stamps.

Timetable (min:sec.)
0:00 Launch
2:22 Launch vehicle cut-off and tower separation
2:32 Spacecraft separation
2:37 Turnaround
5:14 Retrofire
6:14 Retropack jettisoned
7:48 Reentry
9:38 Drogue deployed
10:15 Main chute deployed
15:22 Landing
Mercury-Redstone 3 First American in space.[139] Recovered by carrier USS Lake Champlain.[21]
Mercury-Redstone 4 Spacecraft sank during recovery when hatch unexpectedly blew off.[216][n 28] Astronaut recovered by carrier USS Randolph.[217]
Mercury-Atlas 6 First American in orbit.[218] Retropack retained during reentry.[219][n 29] Recovered by destroyer USS Noa.[221]
Mercury-Atlas 7 Carpenter replaced Deke Slayton.[222][n 30] Recovered by destroyer USS Farragut.[224] Biggest miss.[n 31]
Mercury-Atlas 8 The flight closest to plan.[226] Carried out maneuvering tests.[227] Recovered by carrier USS Kearsarge.[228]
Mercury-Atlas 9 First American in space for over a day.[229] Last American solo mission.[n 32] Recovered by USS Kearsarge.[91]
Recovery variations MA6) spacecraft and astronaut hoist onboard directly; MA8) spacecraft and astronaut towed by boat to ship; MA9) spacecraft with astronaut inside flown to ship.[231]
Little Joe 1 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.[236]
Big Joe 1 Actually the first Mercury-Atlas flight.[138] Recovered by USS Strong 2,407 km SE of Cape Canaveral.[237] Altitude: 65 mi (105 km) Qualified ablative heatshield.[105]
Little Joe 6 No additional tests[238]
Little Joe 1A The rescue tower rocket ignited 10 seconds too late.[239] Recovered by USS Opportune 11.5 mi (18.5 km) SE of Wallops Island.[240]
Little Joe 2 Carried Sam, a rhesus macaque.[239] Recovered by USS Borie 194 mi (312 km) SE of Wallops Island, Virginia; altitude: 53 mi (85 km).[241]
Little Joe 1B Carried a female rhesus monkey named Miss Sam.[242]
Beach Abort A boilerplate spacecraft was lifted from the ground by the launch escape system alone at Wallops Island. It reached an apogee of 0.751 kilometres (2,465 ft) and was recovered after landing. Top velocity: 436 metres per second (976 mph). Total payload: 1,154 kg.
Mercury-Atlas 1 Exploded while passing through max-q[243] To save weight, the airframe had been made thinner since Big Joe, which led to a collapse. The next Atlas was strengthened by a temporary solution while the rest were made from the same specifications as Big Joe.[244]
Little Joe 5 The clamp holding the spacecraft was deflected by air pressure; due to this and an incorrect wiring, the escape tower ignited too early and further failed to separate spacecraft from launch vehicle.[43][n 35] Altitude: 10 mi (16 km)[245]
Mercury-Redstone 1 Engine shutdown caused by improper separation of electrical cables;[246] vehicle rose 4 in (10 cm) and settled back on the pad.[247][n 36]
Mercury-Redstone 1A First flight of Mercury / Redstone. Recovered by USS Valley Forge[248] Altitude: 130 mi (210 km)[110]
Mercury-Redstone 2 Carried the chimpanzee Ham on suborbital flight. Recovered by USS Donner[249] 422 mi (679 km) SE of Cape Canaveral; altitude: 157 mi (253 km)[250]
Mercury-Atlas 2 Recovered by USS Donner[251] 1,432 mi (2,305 km) SE of Cape Canaveral.
Little Joe 5A Tower fired 14 seconds too soon; it failed to separate the spacecraft from the rocket.[252]
Mercury-Redstone BD BD: Booster Development)[253]
Mercury-Atlas 3 Upgraded from suborbital flight. Was aborted when it did not go into orbit; boiler plate capsule recovered and reused in Mercury-Atlas 4.[254]
Little Joe 5B Concluded Little Joe program.
Mercury-Atlas 4 Completed one orbit and sent data to the ground; first orbital flight of the project.[255] Recovery by USS Decatur 176 mi (283 km) east of Bermuda.[256]
Mercury-Scout 1 Was aborted after malfunction of guidance system;[257] results of Mercury-Atlas 4 and Mercury-Atlas 5 were used instead.[258]
Mercury-Atlas 5 Chimpanzee Enos completed a two-orbit flight, performing tasks to prove it possible for a person to function during a flight.[259][n 37] Last Mercury-Atlas test flight. Recovery by USS Stormes[261] 255 mi (410 km) SE of Bermuda.[262]
In development
Project Mercury
Test animals
Launch sites
and Control Center
Related programs

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