The Mercury program was the United States's first successful manned spaceflight program. It ran from 1959 through 1963 with the goal of putting a man in orbit around the Earth. Early planning and research was carried out by NACA, while the program was officially carried out by the newly created NASA. The name Mercury comes from the Roman god (it is also the name of the innermost planet of the solar system).
Mercury spacecraft were very small one-man vehicles; it was said that the Mercury spacecraft were not ridden, they were worn. The spacecraft had only attitude and reentry thrusters. They could not effect any orbital changes apart from the reentry burn. The spacecraft were designed to be totally controllable from the ground in the event that the space environment impaired the pilot's ability to function. Suborbital Mercury capsules used beryllium heat-sink heat shields, orbital ones used ablative shields.
The Mercury program used three boosters: Little Joe, Redstone, and Atlas. Little Joe and Redstone were used for suborbital flights, Atlas for orbital ones. The Atlas boosters required extra strengthening in order to handle the increased weight of the Mercury capsules beyond that of the nuclear warheads they were designed to carry. Little Joe was a solid-propellant booster designed specially for the Mercury program.
Mercury had seven prime astronauts, all former military test pilots, known as the "Mercury 7."
The program included 20 unmanned launches. Not all of these were intended to reach space and not all were successful in completing their objectives. The fifth flight in 1959 launched a monkey named Sam into space. Other non-human space-farers were Miss Sam the monkey and Ham
and Enos, both chimpanzees.
- Little Joe 1 - test of launch escape system during flight
- Big Joe 1 - test of heat shield
- Little Joe 6 - Test of capsule aerodynamics and integrity
- Little Joe 1A - same as Litte Joe 1
- Little Joe 2 - carried Sam the monkey to 85 kilometres in altitude
- Little Joe 1B - carried Miss Sam the monkey to 14 kilometres in altitude
- Beach Abort - test of the Off-The-Pad abort system
- Mercury-Atlas 1 - first flight of Mercury spacecraft and Atlas Booster
- Little Joe 5 - first flight of a production Mercury spacecraft
- Mercury-Redstone 1 - the day they launched the tower
- Mercury-Redstone 1A - first flight of Mercury spacecraft and Redstone booster
- Mercury-Redstone 2 - carried Ham the Chimpanzee on suborbital flight
- Mercury-Atlas 2 - test of Mercury spacecraft and Atlas Booster
- Little Joe 5A - test of the launch escape system during the most severe conditions of a launch
- Mercury BD - test of redstone booster
- Mercury-Atlas 3 - test of Mercury spacecraft and Atlas Booster
- Little Joe 5B - test of the launch escape system during the most severe conditions of a launch
- Mercury-Atlas 4 - test of Mercury spacecraft and Atlas Booster
- Mercury-Scout 1 - test of Mercury tracking network
- Mercury-Atlas 5 - carried Enos the Chimpanzee on a two orbit flight
(Mercury 5 was an orbital flight manned by Enos the chimp.) A seventh flight (MA-10) was cancelled due to a need to move onto the Gemini program but would have probably been flown by Alan Shepard. On June 12, 1963 NASA Administrator James Webb told Congress the program was complete.
Follow On Programs
- Gene Kranz, Failure is Not an Option. Factual, from the standpoint of a chief flight controller during the Mercury, Gemini, and Apollo space programs. ISBN 0743200799
- Tom Wolfe, The Right Stuff. Sentimental, from the astronaut viewpoint, not meant to be taken as a strict history, but fascinating anyway.
- James M. Grimwood, This New Ocean: A History of Project Mercury
- James M. Grimwood, Project Mercury - A Chronology
- Mae Mills Link, Space Medicine In Project Mercury