Project Mercury – Facts About NASA’s First Space Missions
NASA’s First Space Program
Project Mercury was the first manned space program managed by the newly created National Aeronautics Space Administration (NASA) between 1958 & 1963. The project conducted 20 development flights and 6 successful manned missions achieving its goal of placing an American in Earth orbit and returning him safely.
Who Were The Astronauts?
In early 1959 NASA selected seven former test pilots to be the first group of astronauts – known as the Mercury Seven! They were Malcolm Carpenter, Leroy "Gordo" Cooper, John Glenn, Virgil "Gus" Grissom, Walter "Wally" Schirra, Alan Shepard and Donald "Deke" Slayton. All but Donald Slayton would fly a Project Mercury mission.
What Spacecraft & Rockets Were Used?
The capsule designed for the Mercury program was small and could only accommodate one astronaut who had to remain seated throughout. Each astronaut named his capsule and included the number ‘7’ in its name. It was launched on one of two different rockets (which were designed as missiles for the Military) used during the program, the Mercury-Redstone and the more powerful Atlas rocket.
Facts About The Manned Mercury Spaceflights
Following many development flights, including a few dramatic failures, NASA launched a monkey and 2 chimpanzees into space and returned them safely proving that spaceflight was safe for humans.
Alan Shepard made the first manned spaceflight aboard ‘Freedom 7’ becoming the first American in space. Gus Grissom flew the second suborbital flight atop the Mercury-Redstone rocket before the advent of the more powerful Atlas rocket required to reach orbital speeds.
John Glenn’s Atlas rocket launched his ‘Friendship 7’ into low Earth orbit on February 20 1962, becoming the second human to orbit the Earth after Yuri Gagarin. The second American to orbit Earth was astronaut Scott Carpenter who flew in the Aurora 7 capsule. Wally Schirra flew next in the Sigma 7 capsule. Gordon Cooper would fly the last Project Mercury mission, spending the longest in Earth orbit - a total of over 34 hours strapped into his Faith 7 capsule! You can view Project Mercury's mission insignia's here!
Bigger And Better To Come!
Once NASA had learnt how to launch, fly and return humans safely from space the next challenge was to develop a two-person spacecraft to fly during the following Gemini Program to continue the development of space technology and train astronauts for eventually going to the Moon!