The History and Legacy of Project Mercury

Mercury 7 monument
The monument to Project Mercury, which honors the original 7 Mercury astronauts. It's located at Launch Complex 14 at Cape Canaveral/Kennedy Space Center. NASA

Space is the place!  That became the rallying cry for a generation of explorers and other people intersted in the exploration of space. That cry took on new meaning when the Soviet Union beat the U.S. into space with the Sputnik mission in 1957 and with the first man into orbit in 1961.  The race was on. The Mercury space program was U.S.'s first organized effort to send first astronauts to space in the early years of the Space Race.

The program goals were fairly simple, although the missions were quite challenging. The aims were to orbit a person in a spacecraft around Earth, investigate a human's ability to function in space, and to recover both astronaut and spacecraft safely. It was a formidable challenge to achieve something long dreamed about by would-be explorers.

The Origins of Space Travel and the Mercury Program

No one is exactly sure when humans first dreamed of space travel. Perhaps it began when Johannes Kepler wrote and published his book Somnium. Perhaps it was earlier. However, it wasn't until the middle of the 20th century that technology developed to the point where people could actually transform ideas into hardware to achieve space flight. Initiated in 1958, completed in 1963, Project Mercury was the United States' first man-in-space program.

Creating the Mercury Missions

After setting  goals for the project, NASA adopted guidelines for the technology that would be used in the space launch systems and crew capsules.

The agency mandated that (wherever it was practical), existing technology and off-the-shelf equipment should be used. Engineers were required to take the simplest and most reliable approaches to system design. This meant that existing rockets would be used to take the capsules into orbit.

Finally, the agency set up a progressive and logical test program for the missions.

The spacecraft had to be built tough enough to withstand a great deal of wear and tear during launch, flight, and return. It also had to have a reliable launch-escape system to separate the spacecraft and its crew from the launch vehicle in case of impending failure. This meant that the pilot had to have manual control of the craft, the spacecraft had to have a retrorocket system capable of reliably providing the necessary impulse to bring the spacecraft out of orbit, and its design would allow it to use drag braking for re-entry. The spacecraft also had to be able to withstand a water landing. 

Although most of this was accomplished with off-the-shelf equipment or through the direct application of existing technology, two new technologies needed to be developed. They were an automatic blood-pressure measuring system for use in flight, and instruments to sense the partial pressures of oxygen and carbon dioxide in the oxygen atmosphere of the cabin and space suits.

Mercury's Astronauts

The Mercury program leaders decided that the military services would provide the pilots for this new endeavor. After screening more than 500 service records in early 1959, 110 men were found that met the minimum standards.By the middle of April America's first seven astronauts were selected, and they became known as the Mercury 7.

They were Scott Carpenter, L. Gordon Cooper, John H. Glenn Jr., Virgil I. "Gus" Grissom, Walter H. "Wally" Schirra Jr., Alan B. Shepard Jr., amd Donald K. "Deke" Slayton

The Mercury Missions

The Mercury Project consisted of several unmanned test missions as well as a number of manned missions. The first one to fly was Freedom 7, carrying Alan B. Shepard into a suborbital flight,on May 5, 1961. He was followed by Virgil Grissom, who piloted the Liberty Bell 7 into a suborbital flight on July 21, 1961. The next Mercury mission flew on February 20, 1962, carrying John Glenn into a three-orbit flight aboard Friendship 7.  Following Glenn's historic flight, astronaut Scott Carpenter rode Aurora 7 into orbit on May 24, 1962, followed by Wally Schirra aboard Sigma 7 on October 3, 1962. Schirra's mission lasted six orbits.

The final Mercury mission took Gordon Cooper into a 22-orbit track around Earth aboard Faith 7 on May 15-16, 1963.

At the end of the Mercury era, NASA prepared to move forward with the Gemini missions, in preparation for the Apollo missions to the Moon. The astronauts and ground teams for the Mercury missions proved that people could fly safely to space and return, and laid the groundwork for much of the technology and mission practices followed by NASA to this day. 

Edited and updated by Carolyn Collins Petersen.

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Greene, Nick. "The History and Legacy of Project Mercury." ThoughtCo, Mar. 2, 2017, Greene, Nick. (2017, March 2). The History and Legacy of Project Mercury. Retrieved from Greene, Nick. "The History and Legacy of Project Mercury." ThoughtCo. (accessed June 18, 2018).