In the Beginning: Project Mercury
In October 1958, just six days after NASA formally organized, America’s first human spaceflight program was born. Project Mercury’s manned flights spanned just two years -- from May 1961 to May 1963 -- making history with its six missions launched from Cape Canaveral.
The American public first met the seven men chosen to be this country’s first human space voyagers on April 9, 1959, at a press conference in Washington, D.C. The men were dubbed "astronauts." The term was a cross between "aeronauts," as ballooning pioneers were called, and "Argonauts," the legendary Greeks in search of the Golden Fleece. These new explorers prepared to sail into the new, uncharted vastness of space.
The Mercury 7 were: Walter M. Schirra Jr., Donald K. “Deke” Slayton, John H. Glenn Jr., Scott Carpenter, Alan B. Shepard Jr., Virgil I. “Gus” Grissom and L. Gordon Cooper.
These seven adventurers -- and a quiet cape that juts out from Florida’s east coast -- were destined to become the focus of the new Space Age in which the designation of "first" was to become the norm.
The first U.S. spaceship was a cone-shaped, one-man capsule. The blunt end was covered with a heat shield to protect it against the 3,000 degree heat of reentry into the atmosphere. Slowed by parachutes, the capsules were designed to splash down in the ocean allowing recovery of the astronaut and vehicle by ship. Each astronaut named his capsule and added the numeral "7" to symbolize the team of seven astronauts.
The program used two launch vehicles: a Redstone for suborbital flights and an Atlas for orbital flights. Unmanned tests of the booster and capsule preceded the first human flight.
Alan Shepard was chosen for the first manned Mercury launch, becoming the first American to fly in space on May 5, 1961. His Freedom 7 capsule launched from Complex 5 at Cape Canaveral aboard a Redstone rocket. The capsule reached an altitude of 116 miles during his suborbital flight and splashed down 304 miles out into the Atlantic. The flight lasted just over 15 minutes.
Another major first was achieved during the third Mercury mission on February 20, 1962, when John Glenn became the first American to orbit Earth. His Friendship 7 capsule launched aboard a Mercury-Atlas rocket, and during his almost five-hour flight he circled Earth three times before splashing down in the Atlantic 800 miles southeast of Bermuda.
Among the original Mercury 7 astronauts, only Deke Slayton didn’t make a Mercury flight, but he did go on to fly in space as part of the Apollo-Soyuz Test Project crew. Three members of the Mercury 7 also flew in the Gemini program, and three were part of Apollo missions, with Shepard setting foot on the moon. Glenn’s return to space came 36 years after his first flight. He lifted off aboard space shuttle Discovery for mission STS-95 in 1998.
Many of the physical reminders of the Project Mercury days have disappeared, and mission control was moved to Houston early in the Gemini program, but it was the pioneering legacy of Project Mercury and all those who worked on it that propelled America’s space program forward to the astounding feat of reaching the moon by the summer of 1969.
Cheryl L. Mansfield
NASA's John F. Kennedy Space Center