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Mercury in Fact and Fiction

Project Mercury

The first man in space was a Russian! He was not just a Russian but a Soviet! This had the affect of alarming the United States for many good reasons. First, the United States was in the midst of a cold war with the Soviet Union. It was an ideological struggle that could determine freedom or slavery for all of human kind. A nation that could dominate space could also control spy satellites, communications and even weapon systems. The United States felt compelled not merely to catch up with the Soviets, but ultimately, to surpass them.

Project Mercury was one of the first steps in American efforts in this direction. Project Mercury was a quickstep comprised of seven flights that would prove that man could go to space, orbit the Earth and return safely. In performing this mission, the Mercury astronauts and engineers succeeded superbly.

Mercury Caplsule
The mercury capsule was actually a fairly small concave structure holding only one man that sat atop a huge ballistic missile. For the manned space flights the Redstone and Atlas were used. Previously, these missiles had been used to carry military payloads (explosives). Early tests had indicated that there could be malfunctions with the missiles that would completely obliterate the capsule seated at its apex. As a safety measure separation boosters, parachuttes and escape hatches were engineered into the capsule. The astronauts also insisted on a window and some control of the thrusters. The engineers on the project thought these two demands unecessary, but finally acceeded to the pilots.

There were six manned Mercury missions and seven astronauts. One astronaut, Deke Slayton, was unable to make his scheduled flight due to a last minute physical disability. The astronauts all named their own capsules and appended a 7 on the end of it. The number 7 represented the seven men, but undoubtedly was seen as a lucky number by more than a few. Perhaps it was lucky, because all of the flights proved successful, with only a few minor glitches as when the hatches on the Freedom 7 blew too early after a return to Earth. Space capsules at that time were landed in the ocean. When Gus Grissom's hatch blew, he got out quickly, but the spacecraft sank like a stone to the bottom of the ocean.

The space flights created considerable publicity for NASA (National Aeronautics and Space Administration) and the pilots themselves became quite famous. Friendship 7 pilot, John Glenn became a popular U.S. senator and even ran for president. The astronauts had been selected from an elite pool of Navy, Air Force and Marine pilots. They had undergone rigorous training. Their experiences are chronicled in a fascinating movie called "The Right Stuff".

The first Mercury flight launched the first American into space (Alan Shepard) in May of 1961. The final Mercury flight was Faith 7 piloted by Gordon Cooper. He remained in space for more than a day and was the first person to sleep in space, thereby going a long way to prove that sustained operations in space was possible.

Mercury Caplsule
Choosing the name Mercury for this space project the designers obviously had certain images in mind. As they were not intending in anyway to go to the planet Mercury and their project had nothing to do with the element, they must have been thinking of the image of the messenger god of ancient Rome. They undoubtedly saw America's move into space as an almost embassadorial mission between the planet and the rest of the universe. Then, too, Mercury was never meant to be anything more than a kind of technological bridge between the Earth and subsequent missions to the moon. Like the messenger god himself, the missions were quick, decisive and informative.

Below is a table of the manned Mercury missions:

Mission Name Date Pilot Objective
Freedom 7 5 May 1961 Alan Shepard Fly into space and return.
Liberty Bell 7 21 July 1961 Gus Grissom Experience weightlessness in suborbital flight.
Friendship 7 20 Feb 1962 John Glenn Orbital flight.
Aurora 7 24 May 1962 Scott Carpenter Orbital flight and experiments.
Sigma 7 3 October 1962 Walter Schirra Extended orbital flight.
Faith 7 15 May 1963 Gordon Cooper Sleep in space. Prove long orbital flight possible.

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