The Mercury Capsule

The Mercury Capsule

Following World War II, America’s economy boomed and with this new found prosperity came a great deal of improvements. During the 1950s suburbs quickly sprouted up around major U.S. cities, highways were being developed and Americans generally shared in comfort that they had not seen in much time. America’s advantageous position also allowed for another interest to gain notoriety–space. The late 1950s was characterized by a great deal of spending on programs to realize America’s goals of space investigation. This was never truer than in the case of the Project Mercury, which was dedicated to the goal of placing the first man in space.

Project Mercury was the first of its kind and in order to safely allow the first human to orbit the Earth, Project Mercury had to do extensive testing and trial runs. Scientists spent years developing designs and technology that would be able to achieve the seemingly impossible task of safely sending a man into the Earth’s orbit and returning him safely. In the end, scientists and engineers came together to design, what would be known as, the Mercury capsule. The Mercury capsule was very small, without the luxury of much room for the pilot and as a result, the first astronauts could not be more than 5’11’‘tall in order to fit in the capsule. Upon launch, the capsule was placed on top of a booster rocket system that would propel the capsule into space, where it could then disengage and enter orbit. Though six of the Mercury flights were eventually piloted by humans, 20 flights were unmanned and some contained monkeys and chimpanzees. In total the program cost nearly $400 million dollars, which reaches a present day equivalent well into the billion dollar range.

When Project Mercury was deemed safe enough to use human pilots, the program began to inch more steadily to its goal. On May 5, 1961, the Project Mercury launched Mercury-Redstone 3, which resulted in the first American in suborbital space flight. Another successful manned suborbital flight in July of the same year allowed the program to have the confidence to move on. On February 20, 1962, Mercury-Atlas 6 was launched and within hours, John Glenn became the first American to orbit the Earth. He did three complete rotations before returning into the atmosphere. Project Mercury would have a total of three more manned flights with the final flight, Mercury-Atlas 9, leading to Gordan Cooper becoming the first American in space for over a day with 22 orbits around the planet.

Project Mercury would go on to have its last three missions canceled, but the program was considered to be largely successful. After producing a long list of firsts, such as first American in suborbital and orbital flight, the program gave the United States space program confidence to flourish. The American people could sit in awe as their country sent men into space and dreamt of future possibilities. In fact, the future would be bright for NASA, as Project Mercury would be the stepping stone for the Apollo missions that would soon send the first man to the moon.

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