Mercury capsule integration during Mercury-Redstone 2 mission. Credits: Dan Beaumont Space Museum

Launching the Dream: The Redstone and Atlas Rockets Behind NASA’s Mercury Projects

Redstone and Atlas rockets: Cornerstones of Mercury missions, propelling human space exploration and achieving historic milestones in astronautics

Rockets that Propelled the Mercury Projects to the Stars

Mercury Projects, the first manned space missions conducted by NASA during the early years of the Space Age, marked a significant milestone in human space exploration. Two special rockets played a crucial role in launching these historic missions: the Redstone and the Atlas. Let’s explore into the fascinating story of these rockets and their contributions to the success of the Mercury Projects.

Redstone Rocket

The Redstone rocket was developed by the U.S. Army at the Redstone Arsenal in Huntsville, Alabama, with the close collaboration of German technicians directed by Walter Dornberger and Wernher von Braun. It served as the launch vehicle for the initial Mercury-Redstone missions. 

Mercury/Redstone on the launchpad. Credits: Dan Beaumont Space Museum
Mercury/Redstone on the launchpad. Credits: Dan Beaumont Space Museum

Originally designed as a ballistic missile, the Redstone became NASA’s first choice for manned spaceflights due to its reliability and capability to carry heavy payloads into space. Standing at about 25 meters tall and weighing approximately 29.000 kg, the Redstone played a fundamental role in the early stages of the Mercury Projects.

Mercury capsule integration during Mercury-Redstone 2 mission. Credits: Dan Beaumont Space Museum
Mercury capsule integration during Mercury-Redstone 2 mission. Credits: Dan Beaumont Space Museum

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Anatomy of a rocket.

The Redstone was a single-stage rocket powered by a cluster of engines, including a main engine called Rocketdyne A-7 and four smaller vernier engines. It provides a thrust of 350 kN and utilizes a liquid-fueled propulsion system, with a mixture of liquid oxygen (LOX) and alcohol as its propellant. This combination provided the necessary propulsion to lift the Mercury spacecraft off the ground and into suborbital flights.

During his service, one of the most important missions launched by the Redstone rocket was the historic flight of Alan Shepard, who became the first American to travel into space on May 5, 1961. Shepard’s 15-minute suborbital journey aboard the Freedom 7 capsule marked a significant achievement for NASA and put the foundation for future manned space missions.

Mercury-Redstone Liftoff. Credits: NASA
Mercury-Redstone Liftoff. Credits: NASA

Atlas Rocket

Atlas launchers are a family of non-reusable launch vehicles. The first rocket used during the Mercury projects was the Atlas LV-38, originally ideated as an intercontinental ballistic missile (ICBM) equipped with a nuclear warhead, after it was converted for use in space manned mission due to his high payload capacity and reliability. 

The Atlas was studied as early as the 1940s and developed by the Convair Division of General Dynamics, it was a groundbreaking launch vehicle that played a crucial role in the later Mercury-Atlas missions. The Atlas has considerable dimensions: it is approximately 25 meters tall and weighs around 118.000 kg.

Mercury-Atlas Liftoff. Credits: NASA
Mercury-Atlas Liftoff. Credits: NASA

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Dividi et impera

Unlike the Redstone, the Atlas was a multistage rocket, consisting of two stages. The first stage was powered by a cluster of engines, the main, a Rocketdyne XLR-105-5, and two boosters equipped with 2 Rocketdyne XLR-89-5 engines. These beasts burned a combination of liquid oxygen (LOX) and kerosene (RP-1) as propellant. 

In his history, the basic architecture of the Atlas vector was updated with two different second stages, Agena and Centaur. Designed to greatly increase performance, the Agena module was 6 meters high and provided a thrust of 71 kN, thanks to his Bell Aerospace 8247 engine. It was used to launch the first five Mariner uncrewed probes to the planets Venus and Mars starting in 1961.

Atlas Agena target vehicle liftoff for Gemini 11. Credits: NASA on The Commons
Atlas Agena target vehicle liftoff for Gemini 11. Credits: NASA on The Commons

The Centaur stage was used for long-range missions as mariner 6 in 1969, this second stage was the first high-energy upper stage, burning liquid oxygen (LOX) and liquid hydrogen (LH2) as propellant, it enabled the launch of some of NASA’s most important science missions in its more than 60-year history, making it one of the longest-lived and most prestigious upper stages in the history of space exploration.

Atlas Centaur on the launchpad. Credits: SDASM Archives
Atlas Centaur on the launchpad. Credits: SDASM Archives

First time in orbit

The Mercury-Atlas missions represented an important step forward in the Mercury Projects, as they aimed to achieve orbital flights. John Glenn’s historic flight on February 20, 1962, aboard the Friendship 7 capsule mounted on an SM-65D Atlas, marked the first successful American manned orbital mission. The Atlas rocket’s reliability and capability to deliver payloads to orbit played a decisive role in this significant achievement.

John Glenn entering the Friendship 7 spacecraft. Credits: NASA on The Commons
John Glenn entering the Friendship 7 spacecraft. Credits: NASA on The Commons

From little waste to the stars

The Redstone and Atlas rockets played essential roles in forcing the early manned space missions of the Mercury Projects. These rockets showcased the power of human ingenuity and technological advancements during a time of intense space race competition. Also helped by the Cold War arms race. The success of these missions laid the groundwork for subsequent manned space programs, including the Gemini and Apollo missions, which ultimately led to the historic moon landing in 1969.


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Federico Coppola

Federico Coppola

A third-year student of Histoy and Italian Modern literature at Federico II in Naples, passionate about space, writing, and with an incurable dream of flying up through the clouds to reach the stars.
Admin of the Instagram page Italian_space_meme

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