Mercury program

McDonnell Mercury capsule

The Mercury capsule with escape tower
Role:Suborbital and orbital spaceflight
Crew: one, pilot
Height:11.5 ft3.51 m
Diameter:6.2 ft1.89 m
Volume:60 ft³1.7 m³
Weights (MA-6)
Launch:4,265 lb1,935 kg
Orbit:2,986 lb1,354 kg
Post Retro:2,815 lb1,277 kg
Reentry:2,698 lb1,224 kg
Landing:2,421 lb1,098 kg
Rocket engines
Retros (solid fuel) x 3:1,000 lbf ea4.5 kN
Posigrade (solid fuel) x 3:400 lbf ea1.8 kN
RCS high (H2O2) x 6:25 lbf ea108 N
RCS low (H2O2) x 6:12 lbf ea49 N
Endurance:34 hours22 orbits
Apogee:175 miles282 km
Perigee:100 miles160 km
Retro delta v:300 mph483 km/h
Mercury capsule diagram

Mercury capsule Diagram (NASA)
McDonnell Mercury capsule

Project Mercury was the first human spaceflight program of the United States. It ran from 1959 through 1963 with the goal of putting a man in orbit around the Earth. The Mercury-Atlas 6 flight on February 20, 1962 was the first Mercury flight to achieve this goal. Early planning and research was carried out by the National Advisory Committee for Aeronautics, and the program was officially conducted by the newly created NASA. The name comes from Mercury, a Roman mythological god who is often seen as a symbol of speed. Mercury is also the name of the innermost planet of the solar system, which moves faster than any other and hence provides an image of speed, although Project Mercury had no other connection to that planet.

The Mercury program cost $1.5 billion. See NASA Budget.


Enlarge picture
Mercury program monument
Because of their extremely small size it was said that the Mercury spacecraft capsules were not ridden, but worn. At 1.7 cubic metres in volume, the capsule was just large enough for the single crew member. Inside were 120 controls: 55 electrical switches, 30 fuses and 35 mechanical levers. The spacecraft was designed by Max Faget and NASA's Space Task Group.

During the launch phase of the mission, the Mercury spacecraft and astronaut were protected from launch vehicle failures by the Launch Escape System. The LES consisted of a solid fuel, 52,000 lbf (231 kN) thrust rocket mounted on a tower above the spacecraft. In the event of a launch abort, the LES would fire for 1 second, pulling the Mercury spacecraft and the astronaut away from a defective launch vehicle. The spacecraft would then descend on its parachute recovery system. After booster engine cutoff (BECO), the LES was no longer needed and was separated from the spacecraft by a solid fuel, 800 lbf (3.6 kN) thrust jettison rocket that fired for 1.5 seconds.

To separate the Mercury spacecraft from the launch vehicle, the spacecraft fired three small solid-fuel, 400 lbf (1.8 kN) thrust rockets for 1 second. These rockets are called the Posigrade rockets.

The spacecraft was only equipped with attitude control thrusters - after orbit insertion and before retrofire they could not change their orbit. There were three sets of high and low powered automatic control jets and separate manual jets - one for each axis (yaw, pitch, and roll), supplied from two separate fuel tanks - one automatic and one manual. The pilot could use any one of the three thruster systems and fuel them from either of the two fuel tanks to provide spacecraft attitude control.

The Mercury spacecraft were designed to be totally controllable from the ground in the event that the space environment impaired the pilot's ability to function.

The spacecraft had three solid-fuel, 1000 lbf (4.5 kN) thrust retrorockets that fired for 10 seconds each. One was sufficient to return the spacecraft to earth if the other two failed. The firing sequence (known as ripple firing) required firing the first retro, followed by the second retro five seconds later (while the first was still firing). Five seconds after that, the third retro fired (while the second retro was still firing).

There was a small metal flap at the nose of the spacecraft called the "spoiler". If the spacecraft started to reenter nose first (another stable reentry attitude for the capsule), airflow over the "spoiler" would flip the spacecraft around to the proper, heatshield-first reentry attitude, a technique called 'Shuttlecocking'. During reentry, the astronaut would experience about 4 g-forces.

Initial designs for the spacecraft suggested the use of either beryllium heat-sink heat shields or an ablative shield. Extensive testing settled the issue - ablative shields proved to be reliable (so much so that the initial shield thickness was safely reduced, allowing a lower total spacecraft weight), easier to produce (at that time, beryllium was only produced in sufficient quantities by a single company in the US) and cheaper.

NASA ordered 20 production spacecraft, numbered 1 through 20, from McDonnell Aircraft Company, St. Louis, Missouri. Five of the twenty spacecraft, #10, 12, 15, 17, and 19, were not flown. Spacecraft #3 and #4 were destroyed during unmanned test flights. Spacecraft #11 sank and was recovered from the bottom of the Atlantic Ocean after 38 years. Some spacecraft were modified after initial production (refurbished after launch abort, modified for longer missions, etc) and received a letter designation after their number, examples 2B, 15B. Some spacecraft were modified twice; for example, spacecraft 15 became 15A and then 15B.

A number of Mercury Boilerplate spacecraft (including mockup/prototype/replica spacecrafts, made from non-flight materials or lacking production spacecraft systems and/or hardware) were also made by NASA and McDonnell Aircraft. They were designed and used to test spacecraft recovery systems, and escape tower and rocket motors. Formal tests were done on test pad at Langley and at Wallops Island using the Little Joe and Big Joe Atlas rockets.[1]


The Mercury program used three boosters:
  • Little Joe - 8 suborbital robotic flights, 2 carrying monkeys. Launch escape system tests.
  • Redstone - 4 suborbital robotic flights, 1 carrying a chimpanzee; 2 piloted suborbital flights.
  • Atlas - 4 suborbital robotic flights; 2 orbital robotic flights, 1 carrying a chimpanzee; 4 piloted orbital flights.
Little Joe and a Mercury Boilerplate[2] was used to test the escape tower and abort procedures.[3] Redstone was used for suborbital flights, and Atlas for orbital ones. Starting in October, 1958, Jupiter missiles were also considered as suborbital launch vehicles for the Mercury program, but were cut from the program in July, 1959 due to budget constraints. The Atlas boosters required extra strengthening in order to handle the increased weight of the Mercury capsules beyond that of the nuclear warheads they were designed to carry. Little Joe was a solid-propellant booster designed specially for the Mercury program. The Titan missile was also considered for use for later Mercury missions, however the Mercury program was terminated before these missions were flown. The Titan was used for the Gemini program which followed Mercury.

The Mercury program used a Scout booster for a single flight, Mercury-Scout 1, which launched a small satellite intended to evaluate the worldwide Mercury Tracking Network. The rocket was destroyed by the Range Safety Officer after 44 seconds of flight.

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Mercury Control - Cape Canaveral, Florida. (NASA)

Unmanned flights

The program included 20 robotic launches. Not all of these were intended to reach space and not all were successful in completing their objectives. Four of these flights included non-human primates, starting with the fifth flight (1959) which launched a Rhesus macaque named Sam (after the Air Force's School of Aviation Medicine). The Mercury program's complete roster of non-human space-farers is given below:
Mission Rocket Call Sign Launch Date Launch Time Duration Remarks
Mercury-JupiterJupiter (missile)N/AN/AN/AN/ACancelled in July, 1959 - Proposed suborbital launch vehicle for Mercury. Not flown.
Little Joe 1Little JoeLJ-1Aug 21, 1959N/A00d 00h 00 m 20sTest of launch escape system during flight.
Big Joe 1Atlas 10-DBig Joe 1Sep 9, 1959N/A00d 00h 13 mTest of heat shield and Atlas / spacecraft interface.
Little Joe 6Little JoeLJ-6Oct 4, 1959N/A00d 00h 05 m 10sTest of capsule aerodynamics and integrity.
Little Joe 1ALittle JoeLJ-1ANov 4, 1959N/A00d 00h 08 m 11sTest of launch escape system during flight.
Little Joe 2Little JoeLJ-2Dec 4, 1959N/A00d 00h 11 m 06sCarried Sam the monkey to 85 kilometres in altitude.
Little Joe 1BLittle JoeLJ-1BJan 21, 1960N/A00d 00h 08 m 35sCarried Miss Sam the monkey to 9.3 statute miles (15 kilometres) in altitude.
Beach AbortLaunch escape systemBeach AbortMay 9, 1960N/A00d 00h 01 m 31sTest of the Off-The-Pad abort system.
Mercury-Atlas 1AtlasMA-1Jul 29, 196013:13 UTC00d 00h 03 m 18sFirst flight of Mercury spacecraft and Atlas Booster.
Little Joe 5Little JoeLJ-5Nov 8, 1960N/A00d 00h 02 m 22sFirst flight of a production Mercury spacecraft.
Mercury-Redstone 1RedstoneMR-1Nov 21,1960N/A00d 00h 00 m 02sLaunched 4 inches (100 mm). Settled back on pad due to electrical malfunction.
Mercury-Redstone 1ARedstoneMR-1ADec 19, 1960N/A00d 00h 15 m 45sFirst flight of Mercury spacecraft and Redstone booster.
Mercury-Redstone 2RedstoneMR-2Jan 31, 196116:55 UTC00d 00h 16 m 39sCarried Ham the Chimpanzee on suborbital flight.
Mercury-Atlas 2AtlasMA-2Feb 21, 196114:10 UTC00d 00h 17 m 56sTest of Mercury spacecraft and Atlas Booster.
Little Joe 5ALittle JoeLJ-5AMar 18, 1961N/A00d 00h 23 m 48sTest of the launch escape system during the most severe conditions of a launch.
Mercury-Redstone BDRedstoneMR-BDMar 24, 196117:30 UTC00d 00h 8 m 23sRedstone Booster Development - test flight.
Mercury-Atlas 3AtlasMA-3Apr 25, 196116:15 UTC00d 00h 07 m 19sTest of Mercury spacecraft and Atlas Booster.
Little Joe 5BLittle JoeAB-1Apr 28, 1961N/A00d 00h 05 m 25sTest of the launch escape system during the most severe conditions of a launch.
Mercury-Atlas 4AtlasMA-4Sep 13, 196114:09 UTC00d 01h 49 m 20sTest of Mercury spacecraft and Atlas Booster. Completed 1 orbit.
Mercury-Scout 1ScoutMS-1Nov 1, 196115:32 UTC00d 00h 00 m 44sTest of Mercury tracking network.
Mercury-Atlas 5AtlasMA-5Nov 29, 196115:08 UTC00d 03h 20 m 59sCarried Enos the Chimpanzee on a two orbit flight.

Manned Flights


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Wernher von Braun and astronaut Gordon Cooper in the blockhouse during MR-3 recovery operations May 5, 1961.
The first Americans to venture into space were drawn from a group of 110 military pilots chosen for their flight test experience and because they met certain physical requirements. Seven of those 110 became astronauts in April 1959. Six of the seven flew Mercury missions (Deke Slayton was removed from flight status due to a heart condition). Beginning with Alan Shepard's Freedom 7 flight, the astronauts named their own spacecraft, and all added "7" to the name to acknowledge the teamwork of their fellow astronauts

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The "Mercury seven" astronauts pose with an Atlas model July 12, 1962. L to R: Grissom, Shepard, Carpenter, Schirra, Slayton, Glenn, Cooper.
Mercury had seven prime astronauts, all former military test pilots, known as the Mercury Seven. NASA announced the selection of these astronauts on April 9, 1959.
Mission Callsign Rocket Designation Pilot Launch Date Launch Time Duration Remarks
Mercury-Redstone 3Freedom 7RedstoneMR-3ShepardMay 5, 196114:34 UTC00d 00h
15 m 28s
First American to make a suborbital flight into space.
Mercury-Redstone 4Liberty Bell 7RedstoneMR-4GrissomJuly 21, 196112:20 UTC00d 00h
15 m 37s
Second suborbital flight. Capsule sank before recovery when hatch unexpectedly blew off.
Mercury-Atlas 6Friendship 7AtlasMA-6GlennFebruary 20, 196214:47 UTC00d 04h
55 m 23s
First American to orbit the Earth (for a total of 3 orbits). Capsule's retropack retained during re-entry due to concerns about heatshield.
Mercury-Atlas 7Aurora 7AtlasMA-7CarpenterMay 24, 196212:45 UTC00d 04h
56 m 15s
3 orbits. Reentered off-target by 402 km. Pilot Carpenter replaced Deke Slayton.
Mercury-Atlas 8Sigma 7AtlasMA-8SchirraOctober 3, 196212:15 UTC00d 09h
13 m 11s
Carried out engineering tests. 6 orbits.
Mercury-Atlas 9Faith 7AtlasMA-9CooperMay 15, 196313:04 UTC01d 10h
19 m 49s
First American in space for over a day. Last American to fly into space solo and orbit (since then many American X-15 pilots and the pilots of SpaceShipOne have flown past the 100km "space" plateau and returned to earth without orbiting...). 22 orbits.
Mercury 10Freedom 7-IIAtlasMA-10ShepardN/AN/AN/AIntended to be a 3-day mission in October, 1963. Cancelled June 13, 1963.

Piloted Mercury launches

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Piloted Mercury Launches.

Mercury Flight insignias

Flight patches that purport to be patches from various Mercury missions are available to the public. In reality, these patches were designed by private entrepreneurs long after the Mercury program ended. When genuine flight patches were created by crews in the Gemini program, this caused a public demand for Mercury flight patches, which was filled by these private entrepreneurs. The only patches the Mercury astronauts wore were the NASA logo and a name tag. Each manned Mercury spacecraft, however, was decorated with a flight insignia. These are the genuine Mercury flight insignias.


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The "Mercury seven" astronauts
The Mercury astronauts trained, in part, at NASA Langley Research Center in Hampton, Virginia, under Flight Surgeon William K. Douglas and Keith G. Lindell (COL, USAF). Several bridges throughout the city bear the name of the Mercury astronauts, and U.S. Route 258, a major north-south route in the cities of Hampton and Newport News is named Mercury Boulevard, honoring the Mercury program.

The names of five of the Mercury astronauts are also commemorated in the popular 1960s TV show Thunderbirds. In the series, Jeff Tracy, the founder of the fictional International Rescue organization, is a millionaire ex-astronaut who has named his five sons -- Scott, Virgil, Alan, John and Gordon -- after the real-life Mercury astronauts.

The Randall Model 17 Knife "Astro" was designed for the Mercury astronauts. The final design was done by Gordon Cooper. These knives were never supplied by NASA to the Mercury astronauts, but rather were purchased out of their own pocket. Two of the seven original "Astros" are on display in the Smithsonian, Gus Grissom's was recovered when the Liberty Bell 7 was, and only needed cleaning. The Astro is still in production unchanged.

Further reading

See also

External links


A pound or pound-force (abbreviations: lb, lbf, or lbf) is a unit of force. Pound is also the name of a unit of mass. One pound-force is approximately equal to the gravitational force exerted on a mass of one avoirdupois pound on the
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human spaceflight is a spaceflight with a human crew, and possibly passengers. This makes it unlike robotic space probes or remotely-controlled satellites. Human spaceflight is sometimes called manned spaceflight
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    Mass: 1,352 kg
  • Perigee: 159 km
  • Apogee: 265 km
  • Inclination: 32.5°
  • Period: 88.5 min

Mission highlights

The Mercury 6 mission was the first attempt by the U.S. and Mercury program to place an astronaut in orbit.
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February 20 is the 1st day of the year (2nd in leap years) in the Gregorian calendar. There are 0 days remaining.


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National Advisory Committee for Aeronautics


The official seal of NACA, depicting the Wright brothers' first flight at Kitty Hawk, North Carolina
Agency overview
Formed March 3, 1915

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National Aeronautics and Space Administration

NASA logo
Motto: For the Benefit of All[1]

NASA seal
Agency overview
Formed 29 July 1958

Headquarters Washington D.C.

Annual Budget $16.
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Mercury (IPA: /ˈmɜːkjəri/, Latin: Mercurius listen  
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Mariner 10 photomosaic of Mercury
Orbital characteristics[1]
Epoch J2000
Aphelion distance: 69,816,927 km
0.46669733 AU
Perihelion distance: 46,001,210 km
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Solar System or solar system[a] consists of the Sun and the other celestial objects gravitationally bound to it: the eight planets, their 166 known moons,[1]
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National Aeronautics and Space Administration

NASA Insignia
established: July 29, 1958 (by the National Aeronautics and Space Act)
Administrator: Mike Griffin
budget: $17.
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Maxime "Max" A. Faget (August 26 1921 – October 9 2004) was an American engineer. He was the designer of the Mercury capsule, as well as contributing to the later NASA Gemini and Apollo spacecraft and also the Space Shuttle.
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Launch Escape System (LES) is a top-mounted rocket connected to the crew module of a crewed spacecraft and used to quickly separate the crew module from the rest of the rocket in case of emergency.
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A pound or pound-force (abbreviations: lb, lbf, or lbf) is a unit of force. Pound is also the name of a unit of mass. One pound-force is approximately equal to the gravitational force exerted on a mass of one avoirdupois pound on the
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The newton (symbol: N) is the SI derived unit of force, named after Sir Isaac Newton in recognition of his work on classical mechanics.


A newton
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Attitude control is control of the orientation of a spacecraft, or other flight vehicle, either relative to the celestial sphere or to a gravitating body influencing its flight path.
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For the dynamics of flight, see Flight dynamics.

Rockwell Collins Flight Dynamics is a subdivision of the aerospace giant Rockwell Collins. They manufacture and develop heads-up displays for civilian applications.
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g-force (also g-load) is a measurement of an object's acceleration expressed in g's. It may also informally refer to the reaction force resulting from an acceleration, with the causing acceleration expressed in g's.
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Beryllium (IPA: /bəˈrɪliəm/) is the chemical element that has the symbol Be and atomic number 4.
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heat sink (or heatsink) is an environment or object that absorbs and dissipates heat from another object using thermal contact (either direct or radiant). Heat sinks are used in a wide range of applications wherever efficient heat dissipation is required; major examples include
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Atmospheric reentry is the process by which vehicles that are outside the atmosphere of a planet can enter that atmosphere and reach the planetary surface intact. Vehicles that undergo this process include spacecraft from orbit, vehicles coming straight from other space bodies, as
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The McDonnell Aircraft Corporation was an American aerospace manufacturer, based near St. Louis, Missouri.
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St. Louis, Missouri

Nickname: Gateway City, Gateway to the West, or Mound City
Location in the state of Missouri
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Boilerplate in rocketry refers to a non-functional craft, system, or payload which is used to test various configurations and basic size, load, and handling characteristics.
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Little Joe

Pre-launch of the Little Joe launch vehicle.
Fact sheet
Function Unmanned test capsule
Manufacturer North American Aviation
Country of origin USA
Height 55 ft

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Little Joe

Pre-launch of the Little Joe launch vehicle.
Fact sheet
Function Unmanned test capsule
Manufacturer North American Aviation
Country of origin USA
Height 55 ft

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First launched in 1953, the American Redstone rocket was a direct descendant of the German V-2. It was used for the first live nuclear missile tests by the United States. It was also known as the Redstone MRBM (medium range ballistic missile).
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