Major Events Leading to Project Mercury

March 1944 through December 1957


March 16

At a National Advisory Committee for Aeronautics (NACA) seminar, in Washington, D.C., with Air Force and Navy personnel attending, NACA personnel proposed a jet-propelled transonic research airplane be developed. This proposal ultimately led to the "X" series research airplane projects.

December 9

A meeting was held at the Langley Aeronautical Laboratory, Langley Air Force Base, Virginia, to discuss the formation of an organization that would devote its efforts to the study of stability and maneuverability of high-speed weapons (guided missiles). From the outset, work was pointed toward supersonic flight testing. In early 1945, Congress was asked for a supplemental appropriation to fund the activation of such a unit, and in the spring of that year the Auxiliary Flight Research Station (AFRS - later known as the Pilotless Aircraft Research Division) was opened on Wallops Island, Virginia, with Robert R. Gilruth as its director. On July 4, 1945, the AFRS launched its first test vehicle, a small two-stage, solid-fuel rocket to check out the installation's instrumentation.

1944 (during the year)

Congress appropriated funds to carry out a rocket aircraft research program. The National Advisory Committee for Aeronautics, the Air Force, and the Navy were designated participating members.



The Army Air Forces established Project RAND, which in part included the study of satellite applications.

May 8

The Chief of Naval Operations directed the Navy's Bureau of Aeronautics to make preliminary investigations in the field of earth satellite vehicles.

May 12

Project RAND filed a report entitled "Preliminary Design of an Experimental World Circling Space Ship," which indicated the technical feasibility of building and launching an artificial satellite.


October 14

The XS-1 rocket plane made the first supersonic manned flight by traveling 700 miles per hour (mach 1.06 at 43,000 feet altitude) over Muroc Dry Lake, California, with Captain Charles E. Yeager at the controls. The sound barrier was broken.

October (during the month)

Due to the number of competing study contracts on satellites that were being submitted, the Department of Defense assigned responsibility to coordinate this work to the Committee on Guided Missiles of the Research and Development Board.


January 15

General Hoyt S. Vandenberg, Vice Chief of Staff, United States Air Force, approved a policy calling for the development of earth satellites at the proper time.

June 11

A V-2 designated "Albert" in honor of its passenger was launched at White Sands, New Mexico. Albert, the first American primate in space, died of suffocation. On June 6, 1949, Albert II was launched into space but died on impact. During 1949 two other flights of this type were conducted. In each case, the primate survived the flight, but succumbed before his capsule was located.

July 13

Convair's MX-774 test vehicle, later designated the Atlas and used as a launch vehicle in the Mercury program, was test-fired for the first time.

December 29

The first Secretary of Defense, James V. Forrestal, in his initial report to President Harry Truman, included a brief item indicating that the earth satellite program, which was being carried out independently by the military services, was assigned to the Committee on Guided Missiles for coordination.


May 11

President Harry S. Truman signed a bill authorizing the missile test range, which is now the Atlantic Missile Range at Cape Canaveral, Florida.


January 16

The Government decided to resume MX-774 studies, and the project was then designated the Atlas. Several test vehicles had been fired in 1948 and 1949, after which the Convair MX-774 (Atlas) missile project had been shelved. The company, however, had continued to fund a research program.

September 20

The first successful recovery of animals from rocket flight in the Western Hemisphere was made when a monkey and 11 mice survived an Aerobee launch to an altitude of 236,000 feet.


January 30

An NACA report was issued covering several projects and proposals for the flight of manned and unmanned vehicles to altitudes above the earth where atmospheric density was very low. The substance of these reports was presented at the June 24, 1952, meeting of the Committee on Aerodynamics. After the presentation, committee member Robert J. Woods recommended that basic research be initiated on the problems of space flight and stated that the NACA was the logical organization to carry on this work. To accomplish this task, a small working group was established to analyze the available information on the subject of space flight. The objective of this group was to arrive at a concept of a suitable manned test vehicle that could be constructed within 2 years.

May 16

The Special Committee for the International Polar Year (later designated the International Geophysical Year), was established.

June 18

H. Julian Allen of the NACA Ames Aeronautical Laboratory, Moffett Field, California, conceived of the blunt nose principle for reentry vehicles. On this date Allen stated he had determined that the blunt form would be suitable for any body reentering the earth's atmosphere. This principle was first used on the intercontinental ballistic missile nose cone and was later incorporated into the configuration of the Mercury spacecraft.

June 24

The NACA Committee on Aerodynamics recommended that NACA increase its research efforts on the problem of manned and unmanned flight at altitudes between 12 and 50 miles and at speeds of mach 4 through 10. As a result of this recommendation, the Langley Aeronautical Laboratory began preliminary studies on this project and immediately identified several problem areas. Two of these areas were aerodynamic heating and the achievement of stability and control at very high altitudes and speeds. Of the two, Langley considered aerodynamic heating to be the more serious, and, until this problem was resolved, the design of practical spacecraft impractical. (See January 30, 1952, entry).

June (during the month)

The Navy's Johnsville, Pennsylvania, human centrifuge began operations. This installation was later designated the Aviation Medical Acceleration Laboratory (AMAL) and was used extensively in the training of the Mercury astronauts.

1952 (during the year)

The NACA Langley Aeronautical Laboratory Pilotless Aircraft Research Division started the development of multistage, hypersonic-speed, solid-fuel, rocket vehicles. These vehicles were used primarily in aerodynamic heating tests at first and were then directed toward a reentry physics research program.

Between 1952 - 1956

Personnel of NACA Langley and Ames Aeronautical Laboratories were engaged in research on aerodynamic characteristics of reentry configurations. Knowledge acquired from these efforts along with those of industry and the military services was used in Project Mercury, proved the ablation theory for the Army's Jupiter missile development program, and was used in the Air Force intercontinental ballistic missile nose cone reentry program.


July 30

Preliminary studies were completed by C. E. Brown, W. J. O'Sullivan, Jr., and C. H. Zimmerman at the Langley Aeronautical Laboratory relative to the study of the problems of manned space flight and a suggested test vehicle to investigate these problems. One of the possibilities considered from the outset of the effort in mid-1952 was modification of the X-2 airplane to attain greater speeds and altitudes of the order of 200,000 feet. It was believed that such a vehicle could not only resolve some of the aerodynamic heating problems, but also that the altitude objective would provide an environment with a minimum atmospheric density, representing many problems of outer space flight. However, there was already a feeling among many NACA scientists that the speed and altitude exploratory area should be raised. In fact, a resolution to this effect, presented as early as July 1952, stated that ". . . the NACA devote . . . effort to problems of unmanned and manned flights at altitudes from 50 miles to infinity and at speeds from mach 10 to the velocity of escape from the earth's gravity." The Executive Committee of NACA actually adopted this resolution as an objective on July 14, 1952.

August 20

The first Redstone missile was test-fired by the Army at Cape Canaveral, Florida. The Redstone, on which research and development had begun in 1950, was later used as a launch vehicle in the manned suborbital flights and in other development flights in Project Mercury.



The NACA determined the characteristics of what later became the X-15 rocket aircraft, one of the steps to manned space flight.

June 25

In a meeting, Dr. Wernher von Braun, Frederick C. Durant III, Alexander Satin, David Young, Dr. Fred L. Whipple, Dr. S. Fred Singer, and Commander George W. Hoover agreed that a Redstone rocket with a Loki cluster as the second stage could launch a satellite into a 200-mile orbit without major new developments. Project Orbiter was a later outgrowth of this proposal and resulted in the launching of Explorer I on January 31, 1958.

July 9

After 2 years' study of problems that might be encountered in manned space flight, a joint group - NACA, Air Force, and Navy - met in Washington to discuss the need for a hypersonic research vehicle and to decide on the type of aircraft that could attain these objectives. The NACA proposal was accepted in December 1954, and a formal memorandum of understanding was signed to initiate the X-15 project. Technical direction of the project was assigned to the NACA. On November 9, 1961, the X-15 reached its design speed of over 4,000 miles per hour and achieved partial space conditions on July 17, 1962, when it reached an altitude of 314,750 feet. By the latter date, the Mercury spacecraft had made two manned orbital flights.

August 7

The Air Force School of Aviation Medicine at Randolph Field, Texas, received the first specifically built space cabin simulator.

October 14

The first American four-stage rocket was launched by the Pilotless Aircraft Research Division of NACA's Langley Laboratory at Wallops Island.



Dr. Alan T. Waterman of the National Science Foundation presented President Dwight Eisenhower with a plan to implement the United States' portion of the International Geophysical Year satellite experiment.

July 29

President Eisenhower endorsed the IGY proposal for the launching of small earth-circling satellites.

The United States announced that it would launch earth satellites during the 18-month IGY (July 1957 through December 1958).

September 9

Project Vanguard began operations. On this date the Department of Defense wrote a letter to the Department of Navy authorizing the Navy Research Laboratory to proceed with the Vanguard proposal. The objective of the program was to place a satellite in orbit during the IGY, and responsibility for carrying out the program was placed with the Office of Naval Research.

The Department of Defense's Stewart Committee reviewed the alternatives for an IGY satellite program: wait for the development of an Atlas launcher, use a modified Redstone, or develop a rocket derived from the Viking missile. The committee voted seven to two in favor of abandoning Project Orbiter (Redstone) and developing Vanguard (the Viking derivative). Secretary Donald Quarles ruled with the committee majority in the Department of Defense Policy Committee, which approved the decision.

October 2

The National Academy of Sciences established a Technical Panel for Earth Satellite Program, with Richard E. Porter serving as chairman.

During 1955 - 1956

The NACA Langley and Ames Aeronautical Laboratories developed high-temperature jets, wind tunnels, and other facilities for use in materials and structures research at hypersonic speeds. These facilities provided, among other things, data proving that ablation was an efficient heat-protection method for reentry vehicles.


February 1

The Army Ballistic Missile Agency (ABMA) was activated at Redstone Arsenal, Huntsville, Alabama, to complete the development of the Redstone missile and to develop the Jupiter missile. The Redstone was later used in two Mercury manned suborbital flights, and in other research and development flights.


Project 7969, entitled "Manned Ballistic Rocket Research System," was initiated by the Air Force with a stated task of recovering a manned capsule from orbital conditions. By December of that year, proposal studies were received from two companies, and the Air Force eventually received some 11 proposals. The basis for the program was to start with small recoverable satellites and work up to larger versions. The Air Force Discoverer firings, which effected a successful recovery in January 1960, could be considered as the first phase of the proposed program. The Air Force program was based upon a requirement that forces no higher than 12g be imposed upon the occupant of the capsule. This concept required an additional stage on the basic or "bare" Atlas, and the Hustler, now known as the Agena, was contemplated. It was proposed that the spacecraft be designed to remain forward during all phases of the flight, requiring a gimballed seat for the pilot. Although the Air Force effort in manned orbital flight during the period 1956-58 was a study project without an approved program leading to the design of hardware, the effort contributed to manned space flight. Their sponsored studies on such items as the life-support system were used by companies submitting proposals for the Mercury spacecraft design and development program. Also, during the 2-year study, there was a considerable interchange of information between the NACA and the Air Force.

May 3

The Air Force disclosed that a $41 million guided missile production facility would be built at Sorrento, California, for the Atlas launch vehicle. Convair was announced as the prime contractor.

August 24

A five-stage, solid-fuel rocket test vehicle, the world's first, was launched to a speed of mach 15 by the NACA Langley Aeronautical Laboratory's Pilotless Aircraft Research Division.


NACA scientists were engaged in preliminary studies of the need for a follow-on, manned-rocket research vehicle to the X-15.


Personnel of the Air Research and Development Command approached NACA officials on the possible cooperation of NACA in a research airplane project as a follow-on to the X-15 project. NACA agreed to consider the plan and directed its laboratories to initiate feasibility studies relative to the range of speed for the proposed vehicle and an estimate of the time frame in which the vehicle could be developed.

1956 (during the year)

Personnel of the NACA were studying the possibilities of utilizing existing ballistic missile boosters, which were then under development, for manned orbital space flight.


January 14

The United States proposed before the United Nations Assembly that study be initiated toward international agreements assuring the use of outer space for peaceful purposes only.

June 11

The first launch attempt of the Atlas was made at Cape Canaveral, Florida, but the missile exploded shortly after takeoff at an altitude of about 10,000 feet.

June 20

Two NACA groups focused their efforts on the problems involved in manned space flight. One group concerned themselves with performance of aircraft at high speeds and altitudes and with rocket research; the other group, with problems associated with hypersonic flight and reentry.

July (during the month)

A study was initiated by the Langley Aeronautical Laboratory on the use of solid-fuel upper stages to achieve a payload orbit with as simple a launch vehicle as possible. This was the beginning of the Scout test-vehicle concept.

July - August

Alfred J. Eggers, Jr., of the NACA Ames Aeronautical Laboratory, worked out a semiballistic design for a manned reentry spacecraft.

August 7

A Jupiter-C (test vehicle in the Jupiter missile development program), with a scale-model nose cone, was fired 1,200 miles down the Atlantic Missile Range. The nose cone, an ablative type, reached a peak altitude of over 600 miles, and its recovery was one of the proving steps of the ablative reentry principle. The nose cone was displayed by President Eisenhower to a nation-wide television audience on November 7, 1957.

September 25

The second Atlas launch vehicle was destroyed in a launching attempt at Cape Canaveral, Florida.

October 4

The Union of Soviet Socialist Republics launched Sputnik I, the first artificial earth satellite. This event galvanized interest and action on the part of the American public to support an active role in space research, technology, and exploration.

October 14

The American Rocket Society presented President Eisenhower with a suggested program for outer space exploration. They proposed the establishment of an Astronautical Research and Development Agency similar to NACA and the Atomic Energy Commission. This agency would have responsibility for all space projects except those directly related to the military services. A list of proposed projects was presented at an estimated cost of $100 million per annum.

October 15-21

A "Round 3" conference involving studies for a follow-on to the X-15 program, which subsequently led to the X-20 Dyna Soar, was held at the Ames Aeronautical Laboratory. During the course of the meeting, Alfred J. Eggers, Jr., of Ames advanced several proposals for possible manned satellite vehicle development projects.

November 8

Secretary of Defense Neil McElroy directed the Army to proceed with the launching of the Explorer earth satellites. This order, in effect, resumed the Orbiter project that had been eliminated from the IGY satellite planning program on September 9, 1955.

November 12-13

At a meeting of the NACA Subcommittee on Fluid Mechanics, it was stated that many aspects of space flight and astronautics would depend heavily on research advances in the field that had been broadly termed fluid mechanics. Research in this area involved internal and external gas flows associated with high-speed flights within the atmosphere and reentry into the atmosphere of spacecraft vehicles. The subcommittee recommended to NACA that research in these matters be intensified.

November 19

Preston R. Bassett of the NACA Committee on Aerodynamics presented a resolution urging NACA to adopt an aggressive program in space research technology.

November 21

The National Advisory Committee for Aeronautics established a Special Committee on Space Technology to study and delineate problem areas that must be solved to make space flight a practical reality and to consider and recommend means for attacking these problems. Dr. H. Guyford Stever of the Massachusetts Institute of Technology was named chairman.

The Rocket and Satellite Research Panel recommended the creation of a National Space Establishment in the Executive Branch of the Government. According to the proposal, activities of this agency would be under civilian leadership, and the organization would be charged with formulating and supervising a space research program. An annual budget of $1 billion for a period of 10 years was recommended.

November 21-22

Over one-half of the NACA Propulsion Conference was devoted to the discussion of possible space propulsion systems. Three particular systems appeared to afford excellent choices for such purposes. These were: the chemical rocket, the nuclear rocket, and the nuclear-electric rocket. It was the considered opinion of the conference members that the chemical rocket would be quite adequate for a round trip to the moon.

November (during the month)

A presentation on manned orbital flight was made by Maxime A. Faget. The concept included the use of existing ballistic missiles for propulsion, solid-fuel retrorockets for reentry initiation, and a nonlifting ballistic shape for the reentering capsule. This concept was considered to be the quickest and safest approach for initial manned flights into orbit.

December 4

The American Rocket Society's proposal for an Astronautical Research and Development Agency, formally presented to President Eisenhower on October 14, 1957, was publicly announced.

December 5

An announcement was made that an Advanced Research Projects Agency would be created in the Department of Defense to direct its space projects.

December 6

IGY Vanguard (TV-3), the first with three live stages, failed to launch a test satellite.

December 10

The Air Force created a Directorate of Astronautics to manage and coordinate astronautical research programs, including work on satellites and antimissile-missile weapons. Brigadier General Homer A. Boushey was named to head the office. Later in the month the order was rescinded by James H. Douglas, Secretary of the Air Force, who considered the creation of such a group before the activation of the Advanced Research Projects Agency to be premature.

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