The history of space travel – NASA

In the mid-20th century, NASA made history with an ambitious and complex program. Project Mercury, named after its spacecraft, was the United States’ first manned mission to space. Its goal was to send astronauts into orbit. The mission, beginning in 1958 and completing in 1963, was successful and launched NASA into their series of manned space programs. The project is no longer operational, but to this day, is very significant. Had the program failed, it’s possible that NASA wouldn’t have advanced as quickly as they did, including achieving the Moon landing towards the end of the 1960s.

During the 1950s and 1960s, the United States and Russia were in constant competition. This was otherwise known as the “Space Race”, which started when the U.S.S.R. successfully launched the satellite “Sputnik 1” into orbit on October 4, 1957. Just over a year later, the United States established its own program, Project Mercury, on October 7, 1958. Its location and launch site were in Florida, at the Cape Canaveral Air Force Station. The main purpose of its creation was to achieve a first-ever manned space flight. It was going to be risky, as the country had never done this before; many precautions, guidelines, and test launches were necessary. By taking on this challenge, NASA was going to get the opportunity to study human capability in a non-Earth environment. If the mission proved to be successful, it would allow them to understand just how much man could do away from their home planet. The project would be completed in approximately 4 ⅔ years, with the help of over 2 million participants from the government and aerospace industry. Since it was so challenging, it required assistance and skill contributed from these large groups. Overall, it would end up costing about $277 million. Project Mercury was going to be a national effort.


The mission to send man into space involved a few broad, main objectives. First and foremost, NASA wanted to put the spacecraft in orbital flight, going around the Earth. Once that was achieved, they wanted to observe human potential to function well in an environment completely foreign and unfamiliar to them. Following the observation, they would complete the mission by safely bringing them back home.

Once this plan was set in stone, NASA had to create a list of guidelines and requirements for both the spacecraft and the astronaut. These would ensure that they were using the safest and most efficient methods possible. Most of the guidelines were in regards to the design of the spacecraft as it would make or break the mission. NASA originally came up with two sets of guidelines. In the first set, they were basic. The design of the project was supposed to be made in a way that was reliable and simple; technology for the project was to be used reasonably. In addition, they were to use a launch vehicle to send the spacecraft into orbit. They also wanted properly create an efficient test program before putting astronauts in space. The other set of guidelines were more detailed, including the ability for a water landing. Furthermore, the spacecraft must be built so the astronaut could control it manually.

Participants and the Selection Process

Due to the fact that the United States had never sent man into space before, selecting the right people to become astronauts was very important. Those people would fall under very specific categories and qualifications. The men chosen, first of all, had to be in extremely good health, both mentally and physically. Not only would they be tested on their physical capability, they would be taking a psychological evaluation. An average American just wasn’t going to fit the part; being in an extreme environment like space, even if it was only for a few minutes, was not ideal for a man of average overall health or of mostly sound mind. The men were also selected based on very particular physical measurements. Due to the size of the Mercury spacecraft, the astronauts could not be taller than 5’11 and could not weigh more than 180 pounds. It was also important that all participants were under the age of 40.

Aside from external qualities, the men chosen were highly experienced in aviation and working with aircrafts. President Eisenhower, at this point in the process, became pretty involved. He required that all of potential participants be test pilots. In response, NASA made it mandatory that the participants had at least 1500 hours of flying time as well as a significant amount of time using high performance jets. They had to have at least a Bachelor’s degree or professional experience in engineering or physical science. Under Eisenhower’s request, they additionally had to have graduated from military test pilot school; part of the national effort would be the military providing their most qualified pilots to NASA.

Once standards had been put in place, and word had gotten out, the selection process began in 1959. Over 500 people reached out and applied. Many were considered, but a large percentage of them did not graduate from test pilot school. NASA, with the assistance of an evaluation committee, managed to narrow it down to 110, all which fit into the categories. Of those 110 men, 5 were from the Marines, 47 were from the Navy, and 58 were from the Air Force. From that point, NASA was going to continue to make cuts so they would end up with a small but most qualified group of participants. The large group of 110 men was split into 3 smaller groups, each of which would come to Washington D.C. to be interviewed and further evaluated.

Surprisingly, it became unnecessary for the third group to come to D.C. Among the first two groups, a significant amount of people were excited and willing to go through the program’s selection process. Additionally, another group of pilots came to D.C., and almost everyone volunteered to participate. At this point it got down to nitpicking the candidates, eliminating those who were too tall or too heavy, for example. The men were given several physical and psychiatric tests/interviews, written tests, technical interviews, and had their medical history evaluated. By March of 1959, they were down to 36 people, which became 32 after being told they were going to go through a series of extreme physical and mental environmental testing. Choosing the best possible participants based on their results was up to the NASA selection committee.

After extensive testing, only 1 out of the 32 people were considering not healthy enough. Following this part of the process, NASA conducted even more tests. Instead of just checking on the participants’ physical health, these tests were going to be more rigorous. Their purpose was to test physical and psychological endurance in stressful situations, similar to what they’d experience in space. Everything was squeezed into a single week for this 4th phase. By the final phase, 31 people had been narrowed down to 18. Due to the fact that these 18 men were so close in terms of results, the committee had no choice but to officially pick based on technical qualifications. They were originally going to choose 6 men, but it became so difficult to decide that they ended up with 7. Each man happily accepted. The official group included John Glenn, Gus Grissom, Alan Shepard, Gordon Cooper, Scott Carpenter, Wally Schirra, and Deke Slayton, all of whom were military pilots. This mission was about to change their lives forever.*

The Mercury Spacecraft

The design of the spaceship was a major factor in the overall success in the mission. It was vital that NASA sent into orbit fully knowledgeable of what could go wrong or what needed to be changed before putting a human being in it. The basic design of Project Mercury was cone shaped with a long cylinder on top of it. The capsule was only meant to fit one astronaut, so each of the 7 men would be taking on their journey individually. It was 2 meters long and 1.9 meters wide. On top of the cylinder, there was an escape tower that measured about 5.8 meters. The end of the escape tower had a special heat shield to keep it from deteriorating while the spacecraft was entering orbit. To send it into space, they used two different launch vehicles; one of them was called Redstone, which was used in suborbital flight. The other was called Atlas, which was used for the 4 orbital flights. Both were fueled with liquid oxygen. Redstone did not produce enough thrust for orbital flight, so Atlas took on that responsibility.

Testing the spacecraft

Before any manned flights, NASA had to test the spacecraft several times. Any incidents during these short missions showed NASA what worked and what needed to be changed. All of the tests were unmanned, for safety purposes. Many of the objectives were to see if everything was working properly, so that it could be used in the official flights. They began by testing functionality of different pieces on the ship. The escape rocket, heat shield, and capsule were all tested, to name a few. Some of the earlier missions were complete or partial failures; a couple barely lasted 10 seconds while being tested. The first unmanned mission, known as Little Joe 1, was supposed to test out the escape rocket’s capability while entering orbit. However, the spacecraft launched itself a half hour too soon, and only half of the entire spacecraft left the ground (the capsule with the tower). Had an astronaut been inside, they would’ve blasted into without its booster, which would’ve greatly impacted the ability of the spacecraft. It was concluded as a failure, so NASA had to continue testing until everything was right.

Other failed missions were recorded as full or partial failures due to technical difficulties and malfunctions. All were to be fixed before official flights. NASA’s first fully successful test mission was Little Joe 2. This was the first one to be carrying a live creature; Sam, a rhesus monkey, was used in place of a human. They launched him into space on December 4, 1959, to see if he could handle the extreme conditions of being in orbit for a short period of time. The entire time in orbit was 11 minutes and 6 seconds. Sam survived, and also achieved weightlessness for 3 minutes and 13 seconds. NASA conducted several more test missions, both successful and failed. Some of the technicalities just had to be fixed or changed in order to keep the spacecraft from exploding, leaking or crashing. As time went on, more changes had been made to the spacecraft to ensure highest quality.

Chimpanzee Missions

After the success of Sam the monkey, NASA used chimpanzees to test other missions. They were trained for 3 weeks and had to be put in simulation. Missions RM-2 and MA-5 both involved a chimpanzee. NASA chose them because of their close similarities to humans, in terms of size, physical structure, and cognition/stimulus response. During MR-2, a chimp named Ham was scheduled to take flight. He was chosen out of a group of 6 finalists, and had been trained to pull the levers inside the capsule to test their capability at different phases during the trip (ex: weightlessness). Ham was also there to test if the life support system was working properly. He went into orbit on January 31, 1961- his trip did not go as smoothly as expected, and was declared only partially successful. There were technical difficulties that caused the spacecraft to go faster and higher in altitude than predicted; it landed in the ocean and flooded, but Ham was recovered and found in good spirits. Aside from being tired and dehydrated, he was okay and was able to function normally.

Ham’s mission was still considered successful, because his performance while in orbit was good. His reaction times were slower, but he was still able to complete tasks correctly. This meant that a human would also be able to perform tasks effectively, which was a major breakthrough for NASA. Additionally, the fact that Ham was able to survive the capsule’s fall into the ocean proved that there was a high possibility for the astronauts to survive as well. He became a national celebrity, and brought NASA even closer to safely sending a man into space.**


After Ham, NASA decided to send a second chimp into space. His name was Enos, and while he was the second chimp in space, he was the first to go into orbit, which was just as historical. However, Enos experienced the trip differently than Ham. He was used on the mission MA-5, where he had to spend a couple of hours in orbit, rather than a couple of minutes. Enos, like Ham, was trained to pull levers and push buttons to control the system. He was launched into space on November 29, 1961.

These pre-astronaut missions were not always perfect. This was one of their last practices before they eventually put a human in space; while they had done several tests already to achieve success, there was still some failures. Enos was able to spend about 3 hours and 20 minutes in orbit, but not without mishaps. The electric console that was instructed to shock him if he pushed the wrong button went haywire and shocked him even if he chose correctly. Secondly, one of the rocket thrusters malfunctioned, and it completely altered MA-5’s length and trajectory time. Enos still did very well and managed to make 2 orbits around the Earth. He landed into the ocean and was found in great health/spirit. Despite some issues, the flight ended up being successful, and NASA was finally fully confident in putting an astronaut in space.

Manned Missions

After a couple years of extensive testing, the astronauts were finally ready to be sent into space. Mercury-Redstone 3, also known as “Freedom 7” was the first official U.S. human space flight. Its pilot was Alan Shepard, who earned the title of being the first American in space. The objectives were as stated in the early process of the program; to send an astronaut into space, and test human ability in an unfamiliar environment through the duration of the trip. Not only were they going to evaluate task performance and capability, but they were going to make sure all systems and controls worked as they were built to.

The 1st American Manned Mission

On May 5, 1961, Alan Shepard made history when he boarded the Freedom 7 and launched into space for the very first time. Over 45 million people watched a live broadcast of it on TV. A significantly large team of people worked behind the scenes as a team to make sure everything went well. He did not go into orbit, but managed to stay in suborbital for about 15 minutes and 28 seconds. After being initially launched, he had the opportunity to manually test out and control parts of the spacecraft, to see what worked and what did not. He also got to report his observations, what he could see from above Earth, such as large land masses. Shepard was able to use almost all of the controls properly. The last step was to bring him back to Earth; Freedom 7 crash landed into the Atlantic Ocean, but there were no signs of leaking or damage. The spacecraft and Shepard himself had been recovered safely and were in very good condition. The mission was a success and was a huge breakthrough event for America.

After Alan Shepard and Freedom 7, 5 other missions were made with 5 different astronauts in the program. Since NASA had already accomplished putting a man in space, they wanted to make the other missions more challenging. The goal this time was not only to safely send them to and from space in the capsule, but also achieve orbital flight. The remaining 5 missions all went as follows:

Mission #2- Liberty Bell 7

Liberty Bell 7, also known as Mercury Redstone 4, was the second human spaceflight. It would be yet another suborbital flight, controlled by astronaut Gus Grissom. It is notable that every single astronaut chose the name of the spacecraft they piloted; Grissom called his “Liberty Bell” because he thought the capsule was shaped like a bell. This one, unlike the first mission, had extra assistance, with John Glenn working as the backup pilot. The MR-4 spacecraft had an explosive side hatch and a large window added to it. The purpose of the window was so the astronauts could simply see more, in contrast to the smaller windows that the MR-3 had. The point of the explosive hatch was for a quicker emergency escape, if necessary. It used 70 titanium bolts that were quite strong, but was designed to become weak and give into pressure. An MDF (mild detonating fuse) was also included in the design; once it was ignited, the resulting gas pressure assisted in breaking down the bolts, which would allow the hatch to release.

Liberty Bell 7 was launched on July 21, 1961. Its plan was similar to the of Mercury-Redstone 3. It spent approximately 15 minutes and 37 seconds in suborbital flight. Grissom was able to work with the environmental control system and said it was doing very well. He also greatly enjoyed the view of Earth from space.

The mission went well, but the Liberty 7 had a bit of a rocky landing. The entry into Earth’s atmosphere was fine, and the spacecraft landed into the Atlantic Ocean. Unfortunately, the capsule began to sink; the explosive hatch had activated too early, and Grissom claimed that he didn’t plan for it to go off. The capsule filled with water and sank into the ocean. Luckily, Gus was unharmed and was able to exit in just enough time. MR-4 was only a partial success, since they were unable to properly recover the spacecraft.**

Mission #3- Friendship 7

Otherwise known as Mercury-Atlas 6, Friendship 7 was the third American human spaceflight, piloted by John Glenn. This mission was going to strive for a bigger accomplishment than before; to send a human into orbital flight for the first time. Once in orbit, NASA would observe and record Glenn’s response to the space environment and ability to complete tasks. Even though this was the basic objective for most of the Mercury Missions, this was was significant because none of the American astronauts had achieved orbital flight. If Glenn was able to go through with this, and both he and the capsule could be recovered, NASA could continue making orbital trips.

Glenn launched into space aboard Friendship 7 on February 20, 1962. The total time on the flight was 4 hours, 55 minutes, and 23 seconds. Glenn made an extraordinary trip and was able to complete 3 full orbits around the Earth. All of the system mechanics and controls worked properly, allowing Glenn to accomplish such a trip. The recovery of also went well, landing in the Atlantic Ocean where both Glenn and MA-6 were found in good shape.

Other than two issues that occurred during the flight, it went very well. One issue was due to a clamp in the heat shield malfunctioning, and the other was a jam in one of the control jets which he had to switch control systems for.* Once he returned to Earth, John Glenn was considered a national hero. He had his very own parade dedicated to him and also earned the “Space Congressional medal” from President Kennedy. At this point it was considered that the U.S. had finally caught up to the U.S.S.R. in the space race.

Mission #4- Aurora 7

Mercury-Atlas 7, or Aurora 7, was the 4th manned mission in Project Mercury and the second one to go into orbital flight.Scott Carpenter was the chosen astronaut. This flight didn’t have any special objectives in particular. It was pretty much a more simplified version of Friendship 7’s objectives- to basically put a man in orbit again.

Aurora 7 launched on May 24, 1962. The mission was extremely similar to Friendship 7. Carpenter was only in orbital flight for less than a minute more than John Glenn. The time was 4 hours, 56 minutes, and 5 seconds. Carpenter also managed to make 3 orbits. At the end of the day, his flight was not anything special. It did not accomplish anything that the previous orbital flight had not. He was criticized by many who believe he delivered a weak performance. He also apparently did not follow instructions from mission control, angering the crew. Christopher Kraft, who directed the flight, was furious when he discovered that Carpenter didn’t bother to tell anyone that he was alive after landing. The multiple complaints about his disobedient behavior and his lack of accomplishment during flight ruined his reputation. He eventually left NASA in 1967.

Mission #5- Sigma 7

After the issues with Aurora 7 and Scott Carpenter, NASA moved on to the next mission. This one was called Sigma 7 (Mercury-Atlas 8), flown by Wally Schirra. The goal was to have manned orbit for at least 9 hours. NASA would observe how the longer period of time would affect the astronaut and task performance.

Sigma 7 was launched on October 3, 1962. It reached the 9 hour mark, its total duration being 9 hours, 13 minutes, and 11 seconds. Schirra made 6 orbits around the Earth. Other than completing the normal tasks he was assigned, Schirra got to take some magnificent pictures from his flight. He managed a photo of Earth’s horizon from his spacecraft. After the 9 hour flight, Sigma 7 landed in the Pacific Ocean. It was completely successful and in the words of Wally Schirra, a “textbook mission”.

Mission #6- Faith 7

Project Mercury’s sixth and final mission took on the biggest challenge of them all. Faith 7 (Mercury-Atlas 9), piloted by Gordon Cooper, was planned to achieve a day’s worth of orbital flight. It would be the longest amount of time an American astronaut had spent in space. The potential ability of a man lasting this long in space was promising.

Faith 7 was launched on May 15, 1963. Many technical modifications were made to the capsule before flight so it could withstand more time in space than originally designed. Though it was still risky, the mission could not have gone better. Faith 7 made 22 ½ orbits and remained in orbital flight for 1 day, 10 hours, 19 minutes, 49 seconds (over 34 hours!) Cooper and the spacecraft had completely exceeded their goal and landed safely. The changed designs of the spacecraft helped significantly, and allowed it to function much longer than it had originally been built to. It was the longest U.S. spaceflight of its time. This proved to NASA that longer missions in a foreseeable future were more likely than ever before.

The United States accomplished so much with the creation of Project Mercury. Even though they technically did not beat the U.S.S.R. in the “space race” they had made so much progress for the country. Years before, manned spaceflight had been unheard of, and most believed that it wasn’t possible to do such a thing. NASA defeated all the odds and sent 6 men into space. Those astronauts were awarded medals for their amazing accomplishments and were given a parade to celebrate them. Project Mercury will forever be known as the first American manned space program. Its existence would lead the United States to a bright future of advancements in spaceflight missions.

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