NASA announced the seven Project Mercury Astronauts on April 9, 1959, only six months later. They are: (front, l to r) Walter H. Schirra, Jr., Donald K. Slayton, John H. Glenn, Jr., and Scott Carpenter; (back, l to r) Alan B. Shepard, Jr., Virgil I. Gus Grissom, and L. Gordon Cooper. (Image credit: NASA)
NASA announced the seven Project Mercury Astronauts on April 9, 1959, only six months later. They are: (front, l to r) Walter H. Schirra, Jr., Donald K. Slayton, John H. Glenn, Jr., and Scott Carpenter; (back, l to r) Alan B. Shepard, Jr., Virgil I. Gus Grissom, and L. Gordon Cooper. (Image credit: NASA)

Mercury was NASA's inaugural human spaceflight program. The program had two aims: to see if humans could function effectively in space, and to put a man in space before the Soviet Union did. While Mercury failed in the second aim, it did provide the technological basis for more challenging missions in the Gemini and Apollo programs. It also turned the seven original astronauts into superstars.

History of Project Mercury

There were some calls to create a military astronaut space program, building on the high-altitude flights that test pilots were already conducting. President Dwight Eisenhower initially agreed, but upon speaking with some advisors, he ultimately backed a proposal for a non-military space agency called NASA that would send the first astronauts into space. NASA was formed in 1958 from the former National Advisory Committee on Astronautics (NACA), and several other centers.

Photo: NASA
Photo: NASA

NASA screened 500 records, and decided that an initial group of 110 men were qualified. These men were divided equally and arbitrarily into three groups, which would receive a confidential briefing advising them of the opportunity to fly into space. However, because so many men from the first two groups agreed to participate in the astronaut program if chosen, the third group of military personnel was never called upon.

From there, the semi-finalists underwent extensive psychological and physical testing to winnow down the field. The selected seven astronauts were announced to the world on April 9, 1959. They and their families instantly became worldwide celebrities. Their fame was further enhanced with an exclusive contract with Life magazine for $500,000 (or about $4.3 million today). The stories painted the astronauts as American heroes fighting communism with their space missions.

What Spacecraft Was Used for Project Mercury?

The Mercury spacecraft was designed for this project. It was a small capsule with room for one astronaut. The astronaut stayed in his seat during the flight.

Two types of rockets were used for Project Mercury. The first two of the six flights with an astronaut on board used a Redstone rocket. The four manned flights that orbited Earth used an Atlas rocket. Both of these rockets were originally designed as missiles for the United States military.

The project was named Mercury after a Roman god who was very fast. Each astronaut named his spacecraft. Alan Shepard included a 7 in the name of his Mercury capsule. This was because it was the seventh one made. The other astronauts included a 7 also. This was in honor of the seven astronauts chosen for the project.

Alan Shepard became the first American in space

On May 5, 1961, Navy Commander Alan Bartlett Shepard Jr. is launched into space aboard the Freedom 7 space capsule, becoming the first American astronaut to travel into space. The suborbital flight, which lasted 15 minutes and reached a height of 116 miles into the atmosphere, was a major triumph for the National Aeronautics and Space Administration (NASA).

NASA was established in 1958 to keep U.S. space efforts abreast of recent Soviet achievements, such as the launching of the world’s first artificial satellite—Sputnik 1—in 1957. In the late 1950s and early 1960s, the two superpowers raced to become the first country to put a man in space and return him to Earth. On April 12, 1961, the Soviet space program won the race when cosmonaut Yuri Gagarin was launched into space, put in orbit around the planet, and safely returned to Earth. One month later, Shepard’s suborbital flight restored faith in the U.S. space program.

NASA continued to trail the Soviets closely until the late 1960s and the successes of the Apollo lunar program. In July 1969, the Americans took a giant leap forward with Apollo 11, a three-stage spacecraft that took U.S. astronauts to the surface of the moon and returned them to Earth. On February 5, 1971, Alan Shepard, the first American in space, became the fifth astronaut to walk on the moon as part of the Apollo 14 lunar landing mission.

Reaching orbit

Photo: White Eagle Aerospace
Photo: White Eagle Aerospace

While the Mercury missions were technological feats for NASA and its contractors, they were quite short — only 15-minute arcs between Florida and the Atlantic Ocean. The Soviets, meanwhile, had already done orbital missions that circled the Earth several times – including Gagarin's historic first human spaceflight. Getting the Americans to orbit would require a more powerful rocket, among other mission changes.

So when John Glenn blasted off to circle Earth three times, his Friendship 7 spacecraft did it aboard a more powerful Mercury-Atlas rocket combination. Glenn's Feb. 20, 1962, mission was another checkout of the spacecraft, and how a human would react to several hours in space. During his five-hour mission, he also saw strange "fireflies" that were appearing to follow his spacecraft, a phenomenon later explained as ice crystals coming off the hull.

Controllers on the ground saw an indication that his landing bag had prematurely deployed. They waited to tell Glenn, then close to re-entry instructed Glenn to keep his retrorocket package strapped on to his spacecraft as a precaution. The indication turned out to be false, and Glenn was upset that he had not been told as soon as the problem arose. Glenn became a public hero following his flight; he wanted to return to space, but then-U.S. president John F. Kennedy (among others) considered him too valuable, according to the New York Times. (Glenn eventually became a senator for Ohio, then returned to space at age 77 aboard shuttle mission STS-95 in 1998.)

The next Mercury mission, Aurora 7, again ran into splashdown problems on May 24, 1962. Pilot Scott Carpenter landed about 250 miles (400 kilometers) off course after about five hours in space. Some space program officials, notably flight director Chris Kraft, blamed the problem on Carpenter's inattention during the mission.

In two oral interviews with NASA, Carpenter said it was a combination of technical problems (some sensors were malfunctioning) and excessive fuel use as Carpenter worked to solve Glenn's firefly mystery.

How Did NASA Make Sure Mercury Was Safe?

Before astronauts flew in Project Mercury, NASA conducted several test flights. These launches did not have people aboard. The test flights helped NASA find and fix problems.

The first Atlas rocket launched with a Mercury capsule exploded. The first Mercury-Redstone launch only went about four inches off the ground. From these flights, NASA learned how to fix the rockets and make them safer.

Three other "astronauts" also helped make sure Mercury was safer. A rhesus monkey, Sam, and two chimpanzees, Ham and Enos, flew in Mercury capsules. Sam and Ham made suborbital flights. Sam flew on a "Little Joe" rocket. Ham flew on a Redstone rocket. Enos launched on an Atlas rocket. He made two orbits around Earth. Since all three primates made it home safely, NASA knew it was safe for astronauts.

Why Was Project Mercury Important?

NASA learned a lot from Project Mercury. The agency learned how to put astronauts in orbit around Earth. It learned how people could live and work in space. It learned how to operate a spacecraft in orbit. These lessons were very important. NASA used them in later space programs.

After Mercury, came the Gemini program. The Gemini spacecraft had room for two astronauts. NASA learned even more with Gemini. Together, Mercury and Gemini prepared NASA for the Apollo program. During Apollo, NASA landed human beings on the moon for the first time.

What is TikTok What is TikTok's 'Tech-To-Speech': Best Ways to Use, New Features

TikTok has released a new feature, Text-To-Speech, that excited a lot of TikTokers. Keep reading to know what it is, and how to use this ...

What is My Zodiac Sign: Dates and Characteristics Explained What is My Zodiac Sign: Dates and Characteristics Explained

If you don't know your zodiac sign, check out this article. To read about the unique characteristics of zodiac signs, scroll down and pick your ...

What is Full Buck Moon (July 23): Meaning and How To See What is Full Buck Moon (July 23): Meaning and How To See

July’s full Buck Moon is coming up— rising after sunset on Friday, July 23. Keep reading the article below to learn more about this full ...

What is Covid-19 Oral Drug Molnupiravir: Latest News, Treating for Patients and Results What is Covid-19 Oral Drug Molnupiravir: Latest News, Treating for Patients and Results

Covid-19 Oral Drug Molnupiravir showed that the antiviral drug resulted in statistically significant fewer hospital admissions, faster recovery time.