Project Mercury

From NasaCRgis

Jump to: navigation, search
Project Mercury
The Mercury Seven

Center: Langley Research Center
Location: Hampton, Virginia
Year Built: 1958-1963
Historic Eligibility:
Important Tests:

Back Arrow.jpg Back To Programs and Projects


[top] History

During the final years of World War II, NACA became interested in the possibility of high-speed guided missiles and space flight. The Pilotless Aircraft Research Divison (PARD) was created, led by a young, promising engineer, Robert 'Bob' Gilruth. Although Gilruth experimented in launch technology, he became very interested in human spaceflight. After the launch of the Soviet Sputnik in 1957, NACA proceded with efforts to advance human spaceflight. When President Eisenhower created NASA to replace NACA, it was decided that the program would be a civilian rather than military effort under the management of the new agency.

A panel was created for Manned Spaceflight, also know as the Joint Manned Satellite Panel, in September 1958. The panel was chaired by Bob Gilruth. Six days after the establishment of NASA, plans for a piloted satellite program were approved and the final specifications for the capsule emerged. Within days, the Space Task Group was established with Gilruth as the director and Charles J. Donlan as the assistant director. Named Project Mercury in November of that year, the philosophy was "to use known technologies, extending the state of the art as little as necessary." [1]

An important step was the selection and training of the astronaut corps. Although NASA assumed this role, President Eisenhower directed that they be selected from the military test pilot force. The national security implications as well as experience of test pilots were sensible reasons to rely on the military. It also ensured that the original astronauts would be males. A total of 508 applications were received on the original advertisement. Of this, 110 men met the minimum standards established by the Space Task Group:

1. Less than 40 years old
2. Less than 5'11" tall
3. Excellent physical condition
4. Bachelor's degree or equivalent
5. Test pilot school graduate
6. Minimum 1,500 hours flying time
7. Qualified jet pilot

The final selection of the Mercury Seven was unveiled in the spring of 1959 (see NASA Releases for 1959 for more information.) Emotions ran high as "certainly they carried on their shoulders all of the hopes and dreams and best wishes of a nation as they engaged in single combat the ominous specter of communism." [2] Following their selection, the seven were assigned to the Space Task Group at Langley Research Center. Each assumed a responsibility: Scott Carpenter handled communication and navigation, Gordon Cooper served as liaison with the team developing the launch systems, John Glenn worked cockpit and instrument panel design, Gus Grisson developed the control systems, Wally Schirra worked on spacesuits and other life-support, Alan Shepard took tracking and capsule recovery, and Deke Slayton worked on integrating the Mercury capsule with the Atlas rocket.

The fundamental purpose of the program was to determine if humans could survive liftoff and orbit in space. Maxime 'Max' Faget, became the chief designer in creating the Mercury spacecraft, basing his design on the aerodynamic work of Harvey Allen. After briefing aerospace firms in November 1958, eleven proposals were received from which McDonnell Aircraft Corporation was chosen. The final capsule was a mere 115 inches high with a tapering cylinder from 74 inches at its base. Astronauts would sit in individually molded contour seats for the duration of the flight (see photos below).

The first test flight took place in August 1959 when a capsule carrying two rhesus monkeys was launched using a cluster of Little Joe rockets. After several more test flights, Alan Shepard made the first manned flight in May 1961. The suborbital flight lasted 15 minutes and 22 seconds. A second flight in July was not as successful. The hatch blew off prematurely and the capsule sank into the Atlantic Ocean.

Mercury model in Back River

The training at Langley also included a regimen of physical exercise and scuba-diving operations designed to simulate weightlessness and the types of sensory disorientation that they might experience during reentry from space. In Langley's large hydrodynamics tank and in the Back River behind the Langley East Area, the Mercury astronauts also learned how to get out of the space capsule as it floated in the water.

Final preparation for an orbital flight lasting as long as three days was already begun. In November 1961, the final test flight saw Enos the chimpanzee completing two orbits before being recovered in the Atlantic. By February 1962, an astronaut was launched and John Glenn became the first American to circle the Earth, completing three orbits. In may 1962, Scott Carpenter also completed three orbits and in October of that year, Wally Schirra flew six. The capstone of the project was in May 1963 when Gordon Cooper circled the Earth twenty-two times. The program was deemed a success.

By 1961, it became apparent that the spaceflight program was outgrowing the facility at Langley Research Center. In September 1961, a decision was made to establish a separate center devoted to human spaceflight, and Rice University granted land to NASA in Houston, Texas.

Even while the Mercury program was underway, NASA program managers identified a gap in the capability for human spaceflight and what would be required for a lunar landing. Five major mission requirements were defined, and became the bases for the Gemini program.

[top] Local Impact

The City of Hampton and other local communities have a firm place in the nation’s history. Route 258, which runs through Hampton and neighboring Newport News, was renamed in 1962 to Mercury Boulevard after the first man-in-space program. This road was initially built in 1942 to connect the James River Bridge with Fort Monroe and the Chesapeake Ferry Company docks at Old Point Comfort. [3] In addition to Mercury Boulevard, Commander Shepard Boulevard was named for Alan B. Shepard. This road passes in front of NASA’s main gate. The Virgil I. Grissom Bridge across the Hampton River, on Rt. 258 in Hampton, VA, is one of the six bridges named after the original 7 Mercury astronauts, who trained in the area. [4] City managers considered Project Mercury a promotional boost for the city. [5] Four of the astronauts set up house on the Peninsula, but Shepard preferred Virginia Beach and Glenn kept his main residence in Northern Virginia.

  1. T. Keith Glennan, The Birth of NASA: The Diary of T. Keith Glennan, (Washington, DC: NASA SP-4105, 1993), p.13.
  2. Roger D. Launius, Exploring the Unknown: Selected Documents in the History of the U.S. Civil Space Program, (Washington, DC:NASA SP-2008-4407, 2008), p.16.

[top] Photos

1959 Models Astronaut Couches - NASA Employees1959 Actual Astronaut Couch Molds1959 Astronaut couch for Guthrie US Navy1959 Astronauts inspect seatsAstronauts try out new seats (Patterson*)1959 Fiberglass couch made by contractor for John Glenn (Smithsonian photo)1959 Pilots in couches at Johnsville1959 Charles Donlan, Robert Gilruth, and "Max" Faget inspect Mercury Capsule ModelModel in Wind Tunnel (Patterson*)Touring Facility (Patterson*)1961 CapsuleLD-110908.jpgAlan Shepard (Patterson*)(Patterson*)(Patterson*)Scott CarpenterJohnsville CentrifugeGus GrissomG-60-2702.jpgWally SchirraG-60-2711.jpg(Patterson*)(Patterson*)G-60-2721.jpgGus GrissomAlan ShepardJohn Glenn at Langley ALFA trainerGlenn, Shepard, and Grissom(Patterson*)Photo 6a.jpg(L-R) Leroy Spearman and Charles J. Donlan brief visitor (Patterson*)(Patterson*)Bob Gilruth with John Glenn (Patterson*)Alan Shepard at banquet (Patterson*)Autographed publicity photo to seamstress Beulah 'Boots' Barger1989 Mercury Astronauts2013 PR Poster

* Images were personal photos found in the effects of Claude Patterson and provided by his daughter, Claudia Dryden.

[top] Freedom 7 (Mercury-Redstone 3)

The first manned Mercury flight was a brief suborbital launch that took place on May 5, 1961. Astronaut Alan B. Shepard, aboard the Freedom 7 Mercury capsule, launched from launch pad LC-5 at Cape Canaveral, Florida at 9:34 a.m. EST. The entire flight, from liftoff to splashdown, lasted just fifteen minutes and twenty-eight seconds. Shepard flew 303 statute miles, landing in the Atlantic Ocean in the vicinity of the Bahamas. During his flight, Shepard reached a maximum altitude of 116.5 statute miles and a maximum speed of 5,134 miles per hour. [1]

61-MR3-60.jpg61-MR3-103A.jpg61-MR3-77.jpg61-MR3-27.jpg61-MR3-86.jpg61-MR3-53.jpgFreedom 7 Launch.jpg61-MR3-93.jpg61-MR3-76.jpg61-MR3-96B.jpg61-MR3-107.jpg61-MR3-88.jpg


[top] Liberty Bell 7 (Mercury-Redstone 4)

The second manned Mercury flight on July 21, 1961, followed a path that closely resembled that of the first. Astronaut Virgil I. "Gus" Grissom and his Mercury spacecraft Liberty Bell 7 launched from launch pad LC-5 at Cape Canaveral, Florida at 7:20 a.m. local time and splashed down fifteen minutes, 37 seconds later. Grissom traveled 118.3 statue miles, landing just a few miles away from the impact point of Alan Shepard and Freedom 7. During his flight, Grissom reached an altitude of 118.3 statue miles and a velocity of 5,134 miles per hour. [1]



[top] Friendship 7 (Mercury-Atlas 6)

Astronaut John H. Glenn, Jr., commanded the third manned Mercury flight, which was also the first manned orbital flight, on February 20, 1962. Glenn's Friendship 7 Mercury capsule launched atop an Atlas booster from launch pad LC-14 at Cape Canaveral, Florida at 9:47 a.m. local time. Glenn completed three orbits of the earth, during which his altitude varied from 100 to 162.2 statue miles. The flight of Friendship 7 lasted four hours, fifty-five minutes, and twenty-three seconds, during which the spacecraft reached a maximum speed of 17,544 miles per hour. Glenn's spacecraft splashed down at 2:43 p.m. Eastern Standard Time 800 miles southeast of Bermuda.[1]

The images below were all taken in the Mercury Control Center (Building 1385) at Cape Canaveral, Florida. During the mission, controllers received a false indication that a clamp holding the spacecraft's heat shield in place had prematurely released.[2] This news considerably added to the tension in the control center during re-entry.



[top] Films

1959:Drogue Parachute Used for Stabilization of the Project Mercury Capsule

1959: Drogue Parachute Tests for a Project Mercury Capsule

Project Mercury Shingle Tests

1960: Landing Characteristic and Flotation Properties of a Reentry Capsule.

Report by Victor L. Vaughan, Jr.

Dr. Patrick Laughlin, Physician to the Astronauts

[top] Documents

Langley Programs in Support of Project Mercury

Project Mercury Diagrams

1958-1960 Project Schedule

January 1959 Project Mercury Discussion

May 1959 Project Mercury Discussion

1960 Project Mercury Astronaut Training Program

1961 Special Report. Special inset to the 28 July 1961 issue of Langley Air Scoop

1961 NASA STG Liberty Bell 7 Souvenir Book

1961 Conference Proceedings on Results of the First U.S. Manned Suborbital Space Flight

Proceedings of the National Meeting on Manned Space Flight. 1962. Institute of the Aerospace Sciences and NASA. St. Louis, MO.

1962 Results of the First U.S. Manned Suborbital Space Flight

1961 Results of the Second U.S. Manned Suborbital Space Flight

Medics Value Glenn's Space Reports Highly. The Plain Dealer. 11 February 1962. pg 16-AA.

Effects of Weightlessness in Ballistic and Orbital Flight. 1962. James P. Henry, et. al. Aerospace Medicine.

Space Physiology, Some Results and Prospects of Experimental Investigations. O.G. Gazenko, et al. 1964. NASA Technical Translation TT F-305.

Project Mercury Fact Sheet

LaRC Historian Jim Hansen on Mercury Space Capsule Design

The following magazine issues contain copyright articles.

Aviation Week 2-26-62Aviation Week 3-5-62National Geographic 2-62National Geographic 7-60National Geographic 6-62Time 4-21-61Time 5-12-61Time 3-62

[top] For Students and Teachers

NASA Langley Research Center hosted most training for the Mercury Astronauts. Most engineers and scientists who worked on Project Mercury were Langley employees and were available to train and work with the astronauts prior to their flights. Simulator training took place in the large hanger on the Langley Campus. The trainers were suspended from the hanger's ceiling and astronauts sitting in the trainers would maneuver the modules, simulating their future space experiences. The seven Mercury astronauts took graduate space science courses, learning about reentry from space, astronomy, and how to navigate using stars. A large tank, the hydrodynamic tank, was used to practice exiting the capsule. Once techniques were perfected in the tank, the astronauts took the capsule into the river behind the Center for practice in the elements.

More on Astronaut Training

Personal tools