Lost in Space: Part 2 – Project Mercury

Project Mercury

1958 – 1963



Lost in Space: Part 2 – America’s Manned Space Programs – Project Mercury 

The United States has had six manned space programs. First up was Project Mercury, which began in 1961. The current program is the International Space Station program. Between the two, we saw Gemini, Apollo, Skylab, and the Space Shuttle. This is Part 2 of this series and focuses on Project Mercury.

If America was going to win the Space Race, it would need the most talented workers it could find. They would come from America, but from other countries as well. These workers would bring with them many skills. They would also bring a commitment to help the United States beat the Soviets to the moon. Ironically, some were refugees from the Nazi military. As World War II was ending, both the United States and Russian militaries were searching war-ravaged Europe for the German scientists at the heart of the successful Nazi missile program. America and Russia had the same goal—putting those scientists to work for their own space programs. One of the most important German scientists, Wernher von Braun, would become the most prominent scientist in the American space program.

A Matter of Pride

It was the Spring of 1961, but American’s were feeling the chill of the Cold War.  The Russians had beaten America into space with the launch of their Sputnik 1 satellite in October 1957.  It had taken the U.S. 3 months to match that feat by orbiting Explorer 1.

Now the Russians had beaten us again.  This time, by successfully putting the first human into space. Lofting cosmonaut Yuri Gagarin into low Earth orbit, the Vostok 1 rocket came to life on April 12, 1961. Standing only 5′ 2″ tall, Gagarin was a Soviet Air Force pilot, but on this flight, he was a simple observer.  Automatic flight controls and ground controllers took care of flying the spacecraft for him. Strapped into his Vostok space capsule, he would spend only one hour and 48 minutes in space, completing just one orbit of the Earth.  But it was enough to beat America, and another first for the Soviet Space program. The Soviets had grabbed another space race first.  For his flight, Gagarin won the Hero of the Soviet Union medal. He became an international sensation, and in 2011, 50 years after his flight, April 12th, became the United Nations’ International Day of Human Space Flight, in honor of his achievement.

But back on that April day in 1961, as Gagarin’s capsule was streaking overhead at 17,000 mph, crossing the U.S. in just about 9 minutes, NASA scientists and astronauts were working feverishly in a desperate effort to catch up with the Soviets. It wasn’t only pride at stake though. Many Americans were fearful space would become the Soviets secret weapon.

Project Mercury Lays the Foundation

Just one month later, in May 1961, astronaut and US Navy pilot Alan Shepard rocketed skyward from Cape Canaveral aboard a Redstone launcher. America’s first man in space, Shepherd’s Freedom 7 capsule would spend only 15 minutes there, and unlike the Soviet Gagarin, would not complete a single orbit of the Earth. Freedom 7 was only a sub-orbital flight, but with it NASA restored America’s pride. In doing so, it put America’s manned space program on-track.  Project Mercury was underway.

Then, only three months later, in August 1961, with America still only able to complete a sub-orbital flight, the Russians would claim another space first. This time with Soviet cosmonaut Gherman Titov being the first human to spend a full day in space.  As a “not so much” first, he would be the first human to suffer from space sickness.  More importantly, he would be the first human to fly a space capsule manually.  He was only 25 years old when he flew aboard his Vostok 2 space capsule, and to this day he remains the youngest person ever to fly in space.

Not until February 1962, would America launch an American astronaut into orbit.  It was John Glenn, a Marine Corps aviator, piloting his Friendship 7 space capsule, who finally and fully matched the Russian Gagarin’s feat.  To achieve this, the new American Atlas launch vehicle had to push Glenn to low Earth orbital velocity – 17,480 mph. If you are wondering just how fast that is, the supersonic Concorde airliner could fly only 1,354 mph.  This space stuff is hard.

Mercury began in 1958 and would end in 1963. Named for a Roman God, it would comprise six flights with each of the astronauts naming their space capsule, and then adding the number 7 after the name (‘Freedom 7’).  The only one of the “Original 7” Mercury astronauts to not fly in the program was Deke Slayton. Grounded for medical reasons he would not fly until 17 years later as a member of the 1975 (US/Russian) Apollo-Soyuz Test Project flight.

From its outset, Mercury was to meet three goals. The first was to show our ability to get safely into orbit. Second, our ability to work while we were there. Finally, to return safely to Earth both the ship and astronauts. By the time it ended, Mercury achieved all three goals. Along the way, over 2 million Americans would contribute in some way to the program. Those workers began the process of building upon military technology and laying a foundation for our civilian national space effort.  The early steps into space by Mercury, though small, would lead to 12 Americans walking upon the surface of the moon.

It was the age of ‘The Right Stuff,” when 7 U.S. astronauts became the public face of American technology and know-how. They embodied our national space race with the Soviet Union.  They were the Original 7 astronauts of Project Mercury.


Project Mercury

1958 – 1963

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