During the Cold War, when the United States found themselves locked in a race for space supremacy with the Soviet Union, the Mercury Project emerged as a defining chapter in American space exploration. The name derives from Mercurio, the Roman god protector of merchants and traders.
The project and initial research were carried out by NACA (National Advisory Committee for Aeronautics), while the program was officially carried out by NASA,
newly formed in those years in 1958, that was trying to send the first American
astronauts into space, laying the foundation for future manned missions. Central to
the success of the Mercury Project were the seven courageous astronauts known as the “Mercury Seven“.
The mercury project takes flight
Intending to place humans into space first, and orbit around the Earth then, the
Mercury Project faced numerous technical and logistical challenges.
The engineers and scientists at NASA worked tirelessly to develop the necessary technologies, including the Mercury spacecraft, the Redstone and Atlas rockets, which would have carried the astronauts into space. After years of meticulous planning and testing, the project was ready to launch its human spaceflight missions.
Meet the Mighty Seven
The first Americans to venture into space were selected from a group of 110 military pilots with rigorous requirements. Testing and training for candidates began in February 1959, and in April of the same year, seven of these 110 officially became astronauts.
The Mercury Seven were the incarnation of American courage and determination. Consisting of:
- Alan Shepard
- Gus Grissom
- John Glenn
- Scott Carpenter
- Wally Schirra
- Gordon Cooper
- Deke Slayton.
These astronauts would have become national heroes and pioneers of space exploration.
Meanwhile, it is engineering time
At the same time as the astronauts were chosen, between February and March
1959, several launches were carried out and tested, not even one succeeded as
hoped. However, the capsule’s rescue system worked perfectly during the second
launch, attempted in April 1959.
The capsule was pushed, as planned, towards the waters of the Ocean. To ensure the complete safety of the astronauts, numerous launches were carried out using primates on board the capsules to test all the life support systems and conditions inside Mercury.
Alan Shepard: the first american in space
On May 5, 1961, Alan Shepard became the first American to journey into space
aboard the Freedom 7 spacecraft. After the launch, The Redstone-type rocket was
detached from the capsule at about two and a half minutes into the flight. His suborbital flight lasted only 15 minutes but marked a significant milestone for the United States in the space race.
The capsule landed in the ocean and was loaded with helicopters aboard the aircraft carrier USS Lake Champlain. Alan B. Shepard later served in the Apollo program, landing on the moon as commander of the Apollo 14 mission.
John Glenn: the Friendship 7 and orbital flight
Less than a year later, on February 20, 1962, launched on a Mercury Atlas, John
Glenn piloted the Friendship 7 spacecraft, becoming the first American to orbit the Earth. Glenn’s historic flight lasted nearly five hours (4 hours, 55 minutes, and 23 seconds), and his expedition circled the globe three times, cementing the United States’ position in the global space race.
The return of Friendship 7 was quite exciting, the capsule began to move so much
that the fuel to maintain its balance was soon exhausted. Afterward, the parachute
opened much earlier than expected. This, however, helped stabilize the capsule and allowed a landing, although the expected landing point was missed by more than 60 kilometers.
John Glenn flew into space again in 1998, at the age of 77: he participated in the Space Shuttle mission STS-95 for studies on the physiology of man in old age and their problems in space. The mission was a success.
Scott Carpenter, Wally Schirra, and Gordon Cooper
Scott Carpenter, Wally Schirra, and Gordon Cooper followed in the footsteps of
Shepard and Glenn, each making their mark in the Mercury Project.
Carpenter’s Aurora 7 flight focused on scientific experiments, while Schirra’s Sigma 7 mission aimed to test longer-duration spaceflights making a flight of 9 hours and 13 minutes. Cooper’s Faith 7 mission, the final flight of the Mercury Project, lasted over a day – precisely 34 hours and 19 minutes – and further expanded the understanding of human endurance in space.
Deke Slayton: the astronaut who waited
Deke Slayton, one of the original Mercury Seven astronauts, was grounded due to a
heart condition that prevented him from flying during the early stages of the
However, Slayton persevered and later played a vital role in the Apollo
program, eventually flying aboard the Apollo-Soyuz Test Project mission in 1975.
The legacy of the Mercury Project and the Mighty Seven
The Mercury Project and the accomplishments of the Mercury Seven astronauts
placed the groundwork for subsequent manned space missions, including the future Gemini and Apollo programs that would have ultimately land humans on the Moon.
The bravery and determination of these pioneers inspired generations, and propelled the United States to the forefront of space exploration.