Major Events Leading to Project Mercury

January 1958 through October 1, 1958


January 4

The American Rocket Society and the Rocket and Satellite Research Panel issued a summary of their proposals for a National Space Establishment. The consensus was that the new agency should be independent of the Department of Defense and not, in any event, under one of the military services.

January 10

A successful limited flight was made by the fourth Atlas fired from Cape Canaveral.

January 12

President Eisenhower, answering a December 10, 1957, letter from Soviet Premier Nikolai A. Bulganin regarding a summit conference on disarmament, proposed that Russia and the United States ". . . agree that outer space should be used for peaceful purposes." This proposal was compared dedicate atomic energy to peaceful uses, an offer which The Soviets rejected.

January 15

The Air Force received 11 unsolicited industry proposals for Project 7969, and technical evaluation was started. Observers from NACA participated. (See March 1956 entry.)

January 16

A resolution was adopted by NACA stating that NACA had an important responsibility for coordinating and conducting research in space technology, either in its own laboratories or by contract. (See November 19, 1957, entry.)

Paul E. Purser and Maxime A. Faget conceived of a solid-fuel launch vehicle design for the research and development phase of a manned satellite vehicle project. This launch vehicle was later designated Little Joe. When Project Mecury began in October 1958, the purposeof the Little Joe phase was to propel a full-scale, full-weight developmental version of the manned spacecraft to some of the flight conditions that would be encountered during exit from the atmosphere on an orbital mission. Also, Little Joe tests were used to perfect the escape maneuver in the event of an aborted mission.

January 29-31

A conference was held at Wright-Patterson Air Force Base, Ohio, to review concepts for manned orbital vehicles. The NACA informally presented two concepts then under study at Langley Aeronautical Laboratory: the one proposed by Maxime A. Faget involved a ballistic, high-drag capsule with heat shield on which the pilot lies prone during reentry, with reentry being accomplished by reverse thrust at the apogee of the elliptical orbit involving a deceleration load of about 8g, and proceeding to impact by a parachute landing; the other Langley proposal called for the development of a triangular planform vehicle with a flat bottom having some lift during reentry. At this same meeting there were several Air Force contractor presentations. These were as follows: Northrop, boost-glide buildup to orbital speed; Martin, zero-lift vehicle launched by a Titan with controlled flight estimated to be possible by mid-1961; McDonnell, ballistic vehicle resembling Faget's proposal, weighing 2,400 pounds and launched by an Atlas with a Polaris second stage; Lockheed, a 20 degree semiapex angle cone with a hemispherical tip of 1-foot radius, pilot in sitting position facing rearward, to be launched by an Atlas-Hustler combination; Convair reviewed a previous proposal for a large-scale manned space station, but stated a minimum vehicle - a 1,000-pound sphere - could be launched by an Atlas within a year; Aeronutronics, cone-shaped vehicle with spherical tip of 1-foot radius, with man enclosed in sphere inside vehicle and rotated to line the pilot up with accelerations, and launched by one of several two-stage vehicles; Republic, the Ferri sled vehicle, a 4,000 pound, triangular plan with a two-foot diameter tube running continuous around the leading and trailing edge and serving as a fuel tank for final-stage, solid-propellant rockets located in each wing tip, with a man in small compartment on top side, and with a heat-transfer ring in the front of the nose for a glide reentry of 3,600 miles per hour with pilot ejecting from capsule and parachuting down, and the launch vehicle comprising three stages (also see July 31, 1958 entry); AVCO, a 1,500-pound vehicle sphere launched by a Titan, equipped with a stainless-steel-cloth parachute whose diameter would be controlled by compessed air bellows and which would orient the vehicle in orbit, provide deceleration for reentry, and control drag during reentry; Bell, reviewed proposals for boost-glide vehicles, but considered briefly a minimum vehicle, spherical in shape, weighing about 3,000 pounds; Goodyear, a spherical vehicle with a rearward facing tail cone and ablative surface, with flaps deflected from the cone during reentry for increased drag and control, and launched by an Atlas or a Titan plus a Vanguard second stage; North American, extend the X-15 program by using the X-15 with a three-stage launch vehicle to achieve a single orbit with an apogee of 400,000 feet and a perigee of 250,000, range about 500 to 600 miles and landing in the Gulf of Mexico, and the pilot ejecting and landing by parachute with the aircraft being lost.

January 31

An Army Jupiter-C missile boosted Explorer I, America's first artificial earth satellite, into orbit. Other than the achievement of orbital conditions, one of the more significant contributions of this flight was the discovery of the Van Allen Radiation Belt, named for Dr. James A. Van Allen, head of the physics department at the State University of Iowa.

Lieutenant General Donald Putt, Air Force Director of Research and Development, sent a letter to Dr. Hugh Dryden, Director of NACA, inviting NACA participation in the Air Force effort in the manned ballistic rocket program. Dr. Dryden informed the Air Force that NACA was preparing manned spacecraft designs for submission in March 1958.

February 6

The Senate passed a resolution (S Res 256) creating a special Committee on Space and Astronautics to frame legislation for a national program for space exploration.

February 7

The Secretary of Defense issued a directive establishing the Advanced Research Projects Agency, an organization under consideration since November 15, 1957. It was to be a centralized group capable of handling direction of both outer space and antimissile-missile projects, whose duties in the space field were to bridge the gap until Congress could consider legislative proposals for the establishment of a National Space Agency.

February 10

A study entitled, "A Program for Expansion of NACA Research Space Flight Technology with Estimates of the Staff and Facilities Required" was published by the NACA staff. The study pointed out the urgent need for a rapid buildup of a national capability in space technology leading to early flights of manned space vehicles. Besides devoting some of its laboratory facilities, NACA would integrate into the program the talent and competence of qualified scientific groups outside its organization by a greatly expanded program of contracted research. To support a program of this scope, NACA estimated an additional annual budget of $100 million and 9,000 additional personnel were required. It was also recommended that over the next five years (1958 - 1962) $55 million be expended in new facility construction to support space research projects. In regard to the contracted research facet of the proposal, NACA estimated $10 million a year would be needed at the outset of the program. Besides these recommendations, NACA reviewed the following specific research projects for active consideration: space propulsion systems for launching and flight; materials and structures; space flight research involving launching, rendezvous, reentry, recovery, flight simulation, navigation, guidance, and control; space mechanics and communications; and space environment.

February 13

The Special Committee on Space Technology, established by NACA on November 21, 1957, to study and delineate problem areas that must be resolved to make space flight a practical reality and to consider recommended means for attacking these problems, met for the first time. At the meeting the new committee established seven working groups: (1) objectives, (2) vehicular program, (3) reentry, (4) range, launch, and tracking facilities, (5) instrumentation, (6) space surveillance, and (7) human factors and training. The objectives group was to draft a complete national program for space research. Other than this specific assignment, the remainder of the meeting was largely devoted to organizing the working groups. These groups were to present their first reports at the next meeting.

February 14

A report entitled, "Basic Objectives of a Continuing Program of Scientific Research in Outer Space," was presented by the IGY Committee. The committee was of the opinion that the need for space research would be required far past the close of the IGY in December 1958.

February 20

The name of the NACA Committee on Aerodynamics was changed to Committee on Aircraft, Missile, and Spacecraft Aerodynamics to indicate clearly the committee's cognizance over problems applicable to spacecraft and missiles as well as aircraft. The Aerodynamics Committee had been studying spacecraft research problems for the past 6 years.

February 27

Experience with the X-15 design indicated that many of the weight figures advanced by the Langley Aeronautical Laboratory for the drag or lift configurations of the reentry vehicle (later to become the Mercury spacecraft) were too low, according to Walter C. Williams, Chief of the NACA High-Speed Flight Station. Weights of auxiliary-power fuel, research instrumentation, and cockpit equipment as set by Langley were too low in terms of X-15 experience. Williams stated the total weight should be 2,300 pounds for the drag configuration and 2,500 pounds for the lifting configuration.

March 10

Reports were made on recoverable manned satellite configurations being considered by NACA. One involved a blunt, high-drag, zero-lift vehicle that would depend on a parachute landing for final deceleration. Another was a winged vehicle that would glide to a landing after reentering the atmosphere. The third proposal involved features of each of the above. Besides the configuration studies, significant reports were completed relative to motion and heating, stabilization, and attitude control.

March 10-12

A working conference in support of the Air Force "Man-in-Space Soonest" (MISS) was held at the Air Force Ballistic Missile Division in Los Angeles, California. General Bernard Schriever, opening the conference, stated that events were moving faster than expected. By this statement he meant that Roy Johnson, the new head of the Advanced Research Projects Agency, had asked the Air Force to report to him on its approach to putting a man in space soonest. Johnson indicated that the Air Force would be assigned the task, and the purpose of the conference was to produce a rough-draft proposal. At that time the Air Force concept consisted of three stages: a high-drag, no-lift, blunt-shaped spacecraft to get man in space soonest, with landing to be accomplished by a parachute; a more sophisticated approach by possibly employing a lifting vehicle or one with a modified drag; and a long-range program that might end in a space station or a trip to the moon.

March 12

The NACA staff completed a program outline for conducting the manned satellite program. At that time, NACA was already actively engaged in research and study of several phases. For example, in the basic studies category effort had been expended on the study of orbits and orbit control, space physical characteristics, configuration studies, propulsion system research, human factors, structures and materials, satellite instrumentation, range requirements, and noise and vibration during reentry and exit. In addition, NACA outlined the complete program covering full-scale studies of mockups, simulators, and detail designs; full-scale vertical and orbiting flights involving unmanned, animal, and manned flights and recovery; and exploitation of the program to increase the payloads. As to the design concepts for such a program, NACA believed that the Atlas launch vehicle was adequate to meet launch-vehicle requirements for manned orbital flights; that retrograde and vernier controllable thrust could be used for orbital control; that heat-sink or lighter material could be used against reentry heating; that guidance should be ground programed with provisions for the pilot to make final adjustments; that recovery should be accomplished at sea with parachutes used for letdown; that a network of radar stations should be established to furnish continuous tracking; and that launchings be made from Cape Canaveral. It was estimated that with a simple ballistic shape accelerations would be within tolerable limits for the pilot. Temperature control, oxygen supply, noise, and vibration were considered engineering development problems, which could be solved without any special breakthroughs.

March 17

The NACA Special Committee on Space Technology held its second meeting at the Ames Aeronautical Laboratory, and preliminary reports were presented by the committee working groups on objectives and vehicular programs. The committee as a whole was briefed on the work that had been accomplished by the former NACA Committee on Aerodynamics over the past 6 years. It was stated that between 1952 and 1956, approximately 10 percent of NACA's research efforts were applicable directly or indirectly to astronautics. In 1957, the percentage of space flight research rose to 23; and at the time of the meeting, 30 percent of the aerodynamic effort and 20 percent of propulsion research was applicable to astronautics problems. The committee also heard special papers on research being conducted in fluid mechanics, satellite studies, spacecraft design proposals, boost-glide and hypersonic vehicle studies, and missiles.

March 18

An NACA report was published entitled, "Preliminary Studies of Manned Satellites, Wingless Configuration, Non-Lifting," by Maxime A. Faget, Benjamine Garland, and James J. Buglia. Later this document became the basic working paper for the Project Mercury development program, and was reissued as NASA Technical Note D-1254, March 1962.

March 18-20

An "NACA Conference on High-Speed Aerodynamics" was held at the Ames Aeronautical Laboratory, Moffett Field, California, to acquaint the military services and industrial contractors interested in aerospace projects with the results of recent research conducted by the NACA laboratories on the subject of space flight. The conference was attended by more than 500 representatives from the NACA, industry, the military services, and other appropriate government agencies. Some 46 technical papers were presented by NACA personnel, and included specific proposals for manned space flight vehicle projects. One of these was presented by Maxime A. Faget. (See March 18, 1958, entry.) Other papers within the category of manned orbital satellites included: "Preliminary Studies of Manned Satellites, Wingless Configuration, Lifting Body" by Thomas J. Wong and others; "Preliminary Studies of Manned Satellites, Winged Configurations" by John V. Becker; "Preliminary Aerodynamic Data Pertinent to Manned Satellite Reentry Configurations" by Jim A. Penland and William O. Armstrong; and "Structural Design Considerations for Boost-Glide and Orbital Reentry Vehicles" by William A. Brooks and others.

March (during the month)

At the Langley Aeronautical Laboratory, a working committee studied various manned satellite development plans and concluded that a ballistic-entry vehicle launched with an existing intercontinental ballistic missile propulsion system could be utilized fpr the first manned satellite project.

Robert R. Gilruth, Clotaire Wood, and Hartley A. Soule of NACA transmitted a document to the Air Research and Development Command, which listed the design concepts NACA believed should be followed to achieve manned orbital flights at the earliest possible date. These were: (1) design and develop a simple ballistic vehicle, (2) use existing intercontinental ballistic missile propulsion systems, and (3) use the heat sink method for reentry from orbital conditions.

April 2

President Eisenhower submitted to Congress a special message calling for the creation of a special civilian space agency, with NACA serving as a nucleus, to conduct federal aeronautic and space activities.

April (during the month)

Maxime A. Faget and associates conceived the idea of using a contour couch to withstand the high g-loads attendant to acceleration and reentry forces of manned space flight. Fabrication of test-model contour couches was started in the Langley shops in May 1958, and the concept was proved feasible on July 30 (see entry) of that same year.

June 5

After serving as a liaison officer of NACA and as a participating member of an Advanced Research Projects Agency panel, Maxime A. Faget reported to Dr. Hugh Dryden on resulting studies and attending recommendations on the subject of manned space flight. He stated that the Advanced Research Projects Agency panel was quite aware that the responsibility for such a program might be placed with the soon-to-be-created civilian space agency, although they recommended program management be placed with the Air Force under executive control of NACA and the Advanced Research Projects Agency. The panel also recommended that the program start immediately even though the specific manager was, as yet, unassigned. Several of the proposals put forth by the panel on the proposed development were rather similar to the subsequent evolvement. The system suggested by the Advanced Research Projects Agency was to be based on the use of the Atlas launch vehicle with the Atlas-Sentry system serving as backup; retrorockets were to be used to initiate the return from orbit; the spacecraft was to be nonlifting, ballistic type, and the crew was to be selected from qualified volunteers in the Army, Navy, and Air Force.

June 22

NACA personnel discussed the proposed space agency budget, including the manned satellite project, with Bureau of Budget officials.

June 26

Meetings were held with NACA, AVCO, and Lockheed representatives in attendance to consider materials for thermal protection of satellite reentry vehicles.

June (during the month)

Preliminary specifications of the first manned satellite vehicle were drafted by Langley Aeronautical Laboratory personnel under the supervision of Maxime Faget and Charles W. Mathews. After a number of revisions and additions, these specifications were used for the Project Mercury spacecraft contract with McDonnell Aircraft Corporation. A working group of representatives from the Langley Aeronautical Laboratory and the Lewis Flight Propulsion Laboratory was formed for the purpose of outlining a manned satellite program.

NACA representatives were assigned to the Advanced Research Projects Agency, Manned Satellite Committee.

July 9

General Electric Company personnel presented a briefing at NACA headquarters on studies related to manned space flight. The company held contracts let by the Wright Air Development Center for study and mock-up of a manned spacecraft. NACA made no official comment.

July 15

Cook Electric Company submitted a proposal to the McDonnell Aircraft Corporation as a part of a preliminary study and design effort by McDonnell for a manned satellite. McDonnell, prior to being awarded the Mercury prime development contract in February 1959, spent 11 months under a company research budget working on a manned orbital spacecraft concept.

July 16

Congress passed the National Aeronautics and Space Act of 1958.

July 18

In a memorandum to Dr. James R. Killian, Jr., Special Assistant to the President for Science and Technology, Dr. Hugh L. Dryden, Director of NACA, pointed out that NASA would inherit from NACA a rich technical background, competence, and leadership in driving toward the objective of a manned satellite program. For years NACA groups had been involved in research on such items as stabilization of ultra-high speed vehicles, provision of suitable controls, high temperature structural designs, and all the problems of reentry. In fact, a part of this work had been directed specifically toward the problem of designing a manned satellite. Also, the X-15 program had provided much experience in human factors applicable to the orbital flight of man. Therefore, Dr. Dryden concluded, in consonance with the intent of the Space Act of 1958, the assignment of the program to the NACA would be consistent.

July 29

The National Aeronautic and Space Act of 1958 was signed into a law by President Eisenhower.

July 30

By using the development model of the Mercury contour couch designed by Maxime A. Faget and associates, Carter C. Collins withstood a 20g load on the centrifuge at Johnsville, Pennsylvania. This test proved that the reentry accelerations of manned space flight could be withstood.

July 31

Republic Aviation representatives briefed NACA Headquarters personnel on the man-in-space studies in which the company had been engaged since the first of the year. They envisioned a four-stage solid launch vehicle system and a lifting reentry vehicle, which was termed a sled. The vehicle was to be of triangular shape with a 75 degree leading-edge sweep. Aerodynamic and reaction controls would be available to the pilot. For the launch vehicle, Republic proposed a Minuteman first stage, a Polaris first stage, a Minuteman upper stage, and a Jumbo rocket fourth stage. Other details relative to reentry and recovery were included in the briefing.

July (during the month)

The initial concept of the use of a tractor rocket for an escape device was suggested by Maxime A. Faget - an idea which developed into the Mercury escape rocket. (see fig. 1.)

Recruit escape rocket
Figure 1. Closeup view of Recruit escape rocket and full-scale spacecraft.

August 1

Dr. Hugh L. Dryden, NACA Director, presented a program on the technology of manned space flight vehicles to the Select Committees of Congress on Astronautics and Space Exploration.

August 8

A memorandum from the Secretary of the Army to the Secretary of Defense recommended Project Adam for a manned space flight program. This plan proposed a ballistic suborbital flight using existing Redstone hardware as a national political-psychological demonstration. This memo proposed that funds in the amount of $9 million and $2.5 million for fiscal years 1959 and 1960, respectively, be approved for program execution.

August (during the month)

President Eisenhower assigned the responsibility for the development and execution of a manned space flight program to the National Aeronautics and Space Administration. However, NASA did not become operational until October 1, 1958.

September 11

At an Army Advanced Research Projects Agency conference, the Army was advised there was little chance for approval of Project Adam.

September 17

A joint National Aeronautics and Space Administration/Advanced Research Projects Agency Manned Satellite Panel was formed. This panel, with the aid of technical studies prepared by the Langley and Lewis Research Centers and assistance from the military services, drafted specific plans for a program of research leading to manned space flight.

September 25

Dr. T. Keith Glennan, NASA Administrator, announced publicly that NASA would be activated on October 1, 1958.

September (during the month)

Study was started on the tracking and ground instrumentation networks for the manned satellite project.

September 24-October 1

A series of meetings were held in Washington, with Robert R. Gilruth serving as chairman to draft a manned satellite program and provide a basic plan for meeting the objectives of this program. Others attending included S. B. Batdorf, A. J. Eggers, Maxime A. Faget, George Low, Warren North, Walter C. Williams, and Robert C. Youngquist.

October 1

NASA was activated in accordance with the terms of Public Law 85-568, and the nonmilitary space projects which had been conducted by the Advanced Research Projects Agency were transferred to the jurisdiction of the NASA. Concurrently, NACA, after a 43-year tenure, was inactivated, and its facilities and personnel became a part of NASA.

1958 (during the year)

The Navy space proposal to the Advanced Research Projects Agency, during the tenure of that organization's interim surveillance over national space projects, was known as Project Mer. This plan involved sending a man into orbit in a collapsible pneumatic glider. The glider and its occupant would be launched in the nose of a giant launch vehicle. After the glider had been placed in orbit, it would be inflated, and then flown down to a water landing.

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