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Project Mercury – Apollo 11: 50 Years

America’s First Astronauts

Many years ago the great British explorer George Mallory, who was to die on Mount Everest, was asked why did he want to climb it. He said, “Because it is there.” Well, space is there, and we’re going to climb it, and the Moon and the planets are there, and new hopes for knowledge and peace are there. And, therefore, as we set sail we ask God’s blessing on the most hazardous and dangerous and greatest adventure on which man has ever embarked – John F. Kennedy, Rice University, Sept. 12, 1962 

Many Americans forget, given the eloquence of John F. Kennedy in describing the nation’s aims in space, that he wasn’t the president under whom NASA’s Project Mercury was devised on Oct. 7, 1958 – a year after the Soviet Union’s launch of Sputnik 1. President Dwight D. Eisenhower, who never really saw the point of a lunar landing, had a more sober aim for space exploration, and a simpler answer to the question of why the United States wanted to send men into space: because the Russians were there.

Of course Kennedy, his successor, understood the delicate power balance between the world’s two superpowers, and the strategic importance of gaining a technological edge on the Soviets – he simply preferred to frame the space effort as a noble quest that would bring out the very best in humankind. As the competition known as the “space race” played out as a kind of geopolitical soap opera, the public statements of U.S. and Soviet leaders revealed fascinating differences in how each nation conceived of and pursued its aims in space – and a reminder that our headlong rush into space was driven by equal parts pragmatism and grandeur. 

In the United States, the first effort at manned spaceflight – Project Mercury – was a carefully designed set of unmanned and manned flights that achieved a logical sequence of practical goals. But it was also an emblem of the idealism of America’s president and of its citizens.



The objectives of Project Mercury were simple, and there were only three: to place a manned spacecraft in orbital flight around Earth; to investigate the ability of a human to perform tasks and function in the environment of space; and to recover the man and the spacecraft safely. 

Four Mercury missions carried chimpanzees into space before Alan Shepard’s flight. “Ham,” is shown here in the biopack couch for the MR-2 flight

Four Mercury missions carried chimpanzees into space before Alan Shepard’s flight. “Ham,” is shown here in the biopack couch for the MR-2 flight.

While advances in rocketry had made the idea of flight far into the vacuum of space a realistic expectation by the mid-1950s, there was still very little known about whether a living organism could survive in space. Many scientists were hesitant to predict how a person would behave under the conditions encountered in spaceflight, while others offered dire predictions: In zero gravity, humans would not be able to swallow; their cardiovascular systems would fail; their bodies would be either crushed or torn apart by the force of the launch. By 1958, hundreds of studies had been done in the new field of space medicine, and the Space Task Group at Langley Research Center in Hampton, Virginia, was steeped in research in the potential medical issues of spaceflight – a field of inquiry spearheaded by the U.S. military – and was confident that a human could safely enter the realm of space.

The military, Eisenhower insisted, would supply the pilots who would help to navigate these spacecraft – men who would be called “astronauts,” a word coined from the Greek words astro for “star” and naut for “sailor.” Chosen from a pool of more than a hundred applicants, subjected to a rigorous, often baffling, and now legendary battery of physiological and psychological examinations, the seven astronauts who would form Astronaut Group 1, or the “Mercury Seven,” were college-educated engineers in excellent health, talented specialists who had made careers of flying the most powerful and advanced military aircraft. They were also relatively small in stature; the Mercury capsule, designed by NASA’s chief engineer, Maxime Faget, and built by McDonnell, was too compact to accommodate anyone taller than 5 feet 11 inches.

The original Mercury Seven astronauts with a U.S. Air Force F-106B jet aircraft. From left to right: M. Scott Carpenter, Leroy Gordon Cooper, John H. Glenn, Jr., Virgil I. “Gus” Grissom, Jr., Walter M. “Wally” Schirra, Jr., Alan B. Shepard, Jr., and Donald K. “Deke” Slayton.

The original Mercury Seven astronauts with a U.S. Air Force F-106B jet aircraft. From left to right: M. Scott Carpenter, Leroy Gordon Cooper, John H. Glenn, Jr., Virgil I. “Gus” Grissom, Jr., Walter M. “Wally” Schirra, Jr., Alan B. Shepard, Jr., and Donald K. “Deke” Slayton.

On April 9, 1959, when these men – M. Scott Carpenter, L. Gordon Cooper, John H. Glenn, Virgil I. “Gus” Grissom, Walter M. Schirra, Alan B. Shepard, Jr., and Donald K. “Deke” Slayton – were introduced before live television cameras, it was another moment that would capture the striking differences between the American and Soviet space programs. As famous as the Mercury Seven are today – and they are as familiar to American history as nearly any politician, soldier, or entertainer – they were bigger than Elvis in 1959. The over-the-top celebrity worship of America’s first astronauts was fueled by enormous public curiosity, along with overwhelming political pressure to win the space race. 

As Project Mercury (named for the speed it would take to launch a man into orbit) was gradually revealed to the American public, in fact, it showed several remarkably American traits. The Soviet program relied on automated systems, and the human occupant of the spacecraft was essentially a passenger on a ground-controlled projectile – its first cosmonauts were parachutists whose most important skill would be the ability to reach the ground safely after ejecting from a returning vehicle. Project Mercury, on the other hand, placed great emphasis on the skills of its individual pilots; the Mercury Seven became working members of NASA’s Space Task Group (later the Manned Spacecraft Center), and were assigned responsibilities not only for the flights themselves, but also for the design of the spacecraft, simulators, life-support systems, and other hardware and systems. 

One of the basic guidelines set forth by the Space Task Group was that existing technology and off-the-shelf equipment would be used wherever practical – not just as a cost-saving measure, but, in the heated race against the Soviets, to save time as well. Because much of the equipment was adapted from military applications, this guideline lent distinct Cold War undertones to the space program: The Redstone rocket that launched Shepard and Grissom into space was originally designed and used to deliver warheads for some of the first live nuclear tests by the United States. The astronauts’ silver spacesuits, coated with aluminum for better thermal protection, were individually tailored adaptations of the Navy’s Mark IV high-altitude pressure suit. 



Between August 1959 and November 1961, there were 20 unmanned missions in the Mercury program – four of which carried chimpanzees Sam, Miss Sam, Ham, and Enos into space and safely returned them to Earth. Each of the unmanned missions was designed to test functions of hardware such as spacecraft, boosters, escape systems, or tracking networks. It was the manned missions, however, that captured the public’s attention.

The seven men in Arab-looking gear were NASA Mercury astronauts participating in the U.S. Air Force survival school at Stead Air Force Base in Nevada. Portions of their clothing were fashioned from parachute material.

The seven men in Arab-looking gear were NASA Mercury astronauts participating in the U.S. Air Force survival school at Stead Air Force Base in Nevada. Portions of their clothing were fashioned from parachute material.

When Soviet cosmonaut Yuri Gagarin entered Earth orbit on April 12, 1961, and became the first person in space, it was, in the United States, another disappointing reminder that America was in second place. While Shepard, astronaut of the first Mercury mission, later contended that it was an abundance of caution on NASA’s part that kept him from beating Gagarin into space, his argument neglected a larger point: Gagarin had not just entered space. He had orbited Earth. The Redstone rocket used for the first two Mercury missions was not powerful enough to lift a spacecraft to orbit, and the newer Atlas, the nation’s first successfully tested intercontinental ballistic missile, while more powerful, was still considered too unstable to risk as a launch vehicle.

Freedom 7

Gagarin’s achievement, however, did little to dampen the enthusiasm of the Mercury astronauts. In less than a month, on May 5, Shepard was launched on the mission known as Mercury-Redstone 3 in a capsule he had named Freedom 7. The flight took him on a ballistic trajectory that reached an altitude of 116 miles. Unlike Gagarin, whose spaceflight was fully automatic, Shepard took some control over the flight, adjusting the capsule’s attitude (angular orientation) before re-entry. Also in contrast to Gagarin’s mission, which was conducted in secret, the launch, return from space, and subsequent collection of Shepard by a Navy helicopter were seen on live television by millions of viewers. Shepard found himself celebrated as a national hero, honored with parades in Washington, New York, and Los Angeles, and a private meeting with Kennedy at the White House. 

Kennedy, who had recently suffered some serious foreign policy setbacks – including the disastrous Bay of Pigs invasion in Cuba and the overthrow of South Korea’s U.S.-supported government – was thrilled by the success of Freedom 7, and on May 25, he issued his famous challenge to Congress to commit to the long-term goal of landing on the Moon by the end of the decade. Within a matter of months, the Gemini project was conceived, designed to build on Mercury’s successes and pave the way to the Moon.

Liberty Bell 7, Friendship 7, and Aurora 7: The Human Factor

NASA had decided to allow the Mercury astronauts to name each of their capsules, and after Shepard’s choice of Freedom 7 was reported to the world, journalists praised his gesture of solidarity and fellowship with the other six astronauts. Carpenter, however, claimed in a 1999 interview: “The fact of that matter is that he named it ‘7’ because it was capsule No. 7 off the line … But since everybody wanted to match Al’s largesse, Gus had Liberty Bell 7 and John had Friendship 7, so I had to do something with ’7,’ and it was Aurora 7.” 

The next three Mercury flights would introduce challenges and consequences that would underscore the question of whether something as sophisticated as spaceflight should be controlled by fully automated systems, or involve the active presence of a pilot. Because of the speed of the capsule during takeoff and re-entry, it wasn’t really possible to “pilot” it in the conventional sense, but the astronaut did have a considerable role in positioning the craft for re-entry.

Astronaut Alan B. Shepard, Jr. During Suiting for First Manned Suborbital Flight on MR-3 (Mercury-Redstone) Freedom 7, on May 5, 1961 (MIX FILE)

Astronaut Alan B. Shepard, Jr. suiting up for the first U.S. manned suborbital flight on MR-3 (Mercury-Redstone) Freedom 7, on May 5, 1961.

On July 21, 1961, in Liberty Bell 7, Grissom successfully duplicated Shepard’s flight, and expertly piloted the re-entry procedure, but shortly after splashdown, his capsule sank to the bottom of the ocean after the hatch unexpectedly blew. Grissom – who died six years later in the Apollo I training fire – maintained until his death that the hatch had malfunctioned, while the capsule’s designer, Max Faget, insisted it was impossible for the hatch to be released by itself. Fellow Mercury astronaut Walter “Wally” Schirra, in his book Schirra’s Space, wrote that he had conclusively proved on his own flight that Grissom hadn’t blown the hatch. 

A question had persisted on the blowing of his hatch, and there were those who had maintained that Gus had inadvertently hit the plunger that exploded the bolts. When I was recovered, I remained in my spacecraft until being hoisted aboard the recovery ship. I then blew the hatch on purpose, and the recoil of the plunger injured my hand – it actually caused a cut through a glove that was reinforced by metal. Gus was one of those who flew out to the ship, and I showed him my hand. “How did you cut it,” he asked. “I blew the hatch,” I replied. Gus smiled, vindicated. It proved he hadn’t blown the hatch with a hand, foot, knee or whatever, for he hadn’t suffered even a minor bruise. 

Glenn’s Friendship 7 had also been planned as a suborbital flight, but that summer, less than a month after Grissom’s flight, Communist East Germany began constructing the Berlin Wall, and the Soviets staged several atmospheric tests of massive nuclear weapons. NASA, mindful of the government’s growing alarm at the Soviet Union’s influence and ambitions, searched for a breakthrough in the space program, and embraced the Atlas as a launch vehicle that would take Glenn into orbit. After two successful unmanned tests, Glenn and Friendship 7 launched Feb. 20, 1962.

After his first orbit, Glenn began to experience problems. The automatic attitude control system, for some reason, was forced to constantly correct the capsule’s position as it consistently drifted about 20 degrees to the right – consuming fuel Glenn would later need to drop out of orbit and re-enter the atmosphere. Glenn switched off the automatic system and took control of the capsule himself. In the meantime, Mercury Control was receiving a signal that a landing bag was loose. Because the landing bags were mounted behind the heat shield, this suggested that the heat shield – which kept the capsule and astronaut from burning up on re-entry – was also loose.

It was decided that the “retro package” strapped over the heat shield – the suite of rockets used to slow the capsule for re-entry, and ordinarily ejected immediately afterward – would remain in place, which might help hold the shield in place during re-entry.

The launch of Friendship 7, the first American-manned orbital spaceflight. Astronaut John Glenn aboard, the MercuryAtlas rocket is launched from Pad 14

The launch of Friendship 7, the first American-manned orbital spaceflight. Astronaut John Glenn aboard, the Mercury-Atlas rocket is launched from Pad 14.

As he prepared for re-entry, Glenn experienced another problem. The capsule’s gyroscopes were not giving him accurate attitude readings. Glenn flew the capsule literally by hand, like a pilot, keeping the constellation Orion centered in the cockpit window. He was the first astronaut, American or Soviet, to take so much control of a spacecraft. As he re-entered the atmosphere, flaming chunks of the retro package streamed past his window. 

Like Shepard, who had been the first American in space, Glenn, the first American to orbit the Earth, received a hero’s welcome, including a ticker-tape parade and a White House visit, after his successful return. Like Grissom, who merely duplicated Shepard’s achievement, Carpenter would not receive such adoration. In Aurora 7, launched May 24, 1962, Carpenter duplicated much of Glenn’s flight – down to manually compensating for a failure in the capsule’s automatic control system. Carpenter’s maneuvers, however, consumed fuel at a higher-than-anticipated rate, and he was a few seconds late in firing the retro-rockets that brought the capsule out of orbit. As a result, he missed his splashdown target in the Atlantic by about 250 miles.

Overall, both man and machine had proven fallible by the completion of Aurora 7 – but problems with Glenn’s flight, especially, had proven the wisdom of placing a trained pilot inside even the most highly automated craft.

Sigma 7 and Faith 7: The Long-duration Flights

On Oct. 3, 1962 – a month after NASA had selected a second group of astronauts to help carry out the objective of the Gemini program, and a mere 11 days before U.S. reconnaissance planes spotted missile bases under construction in Cuba – astronaut Wally Schirra conducted a nearly flawless six-orbit engineering test flight in a capsule he’d named Sigma 7. Mindful of the problems encountered by Glenn and Carpenter, he conserved fuel carefully, and splashed down almost exactly on target.

Astronaut John Glenn during his first orbit in Friendship 7

Astronaut John Glenn during his first orbit in Friendship 7.

Schirra’s mission was so nearly perfect that many NASA officials believed the agency, having pushed the Mercury hardware far enough, should make it the last of the program’s missions and move on to the Gemini program. Officials at the Manned Spacecraft Center in Houston, however, thought it would be useful to test a man in space for a full day – as all the Soviet spaceflights since Gagarin’s had done.

Gordon Cooper piloted the last Mercury flight in the capsule Faith 7 from May 14 to 15, 1963, orbiting the Earth 22 times and staying in space for more than 34 hours. The only problems to surface during the mission occurred at the end, when a series of faults in the electrical system forced Cooper to take control of nearly every aspect of the capsule’s re-entry and landing, which he did expertly; his landing was the most accurate of the six manned Mercury missions. Cooper had demonstrated, once again, the need for experienced test pilots to fly in the early days of the American space program.



NASA canceled the final three Mercury missions in order to clear the way for pursuing the more ambitious goals of Project Gemini. But in four years and nine months, the United States’ first manned spaceflight project had successfully met, and even surpassed, the original three program objectives. The project demonstrated that a human could function well as a pilot, engineer, and scientific experimenter in space without unpleasant reactions or degraded bodily functions for more than 34 hours of weightless flight. It was an unprecedented scientific effort, calling upon the skills and experience of more than 2 million people from government agencies and the aerospace industry. 

Project Mercury also brought several less-tangible results. In placing Cooper in space for 34 hours, American astronauts had proven there was nothing a cosmonaut could do that they couldn’t. For ordinary Americans, the beginning of the U.S. space program would mark a turning point in the national consciousness – which would, in the years to come, never again take its eyes off the stars. And for the new – and growing – corps of U.S. astronauts, it would vindicate the quintessentially American approach to spaceflight, which valued the individual expert slightly more than it did the fully automated machine. “We proved,” recalled Schirra years later, “man could do a lot more than a machine could do.”

Astronaut L. Gordon Cooper, Jr., has a smile for the recovery crew of the USS Kearsarge after being brought on board from a successful 22-orbit mission in his Mercury spacecraft Faith 7. Cooper is still sitting in his capsule, with his helmet off.

Astronaut L. Gordon Cooper, Jr., has a smile for the recovery crew of USS Kearsarge after being brought on board from a successful 22-orbit mission in his Mercury spacecraft Faith 7. Cooper is still sitting in his capsule with his helmet off.

Today, images of the Mercury Seven standing next to their spacecraft are already beginning to look a bit dated; it seems scarcely believable that these men in silver suits, evocative of a 1950s science fiction B-movie, orbited Earth in shuttlecock-shaped cans. Future generations will likely look upon the Mercury capsule the way we now view medieval woodcuts of the first diving bells – why would anyone enter such a vessel, let alone use it to submerge themselves in an environment that would promptly kill them if it failed? Regardless of the mortal, global struggle that happened to place them in outer space, the answer, for the Mercury Seven, will always be: because it was there.




May 5, 1961

Spacecraft: Freedom 7

Astronaut: Alan B. Shepard, Jr. 

A suborbital, ballistic-trajectory flight that lasted 15 minutes, 28 seconds, Mercury-Redstone 3 successfully put the first American into space.


July 21, 1961

Spacecraft: Liberty Bell 7

Astronaut: Virgil I. “Gus” Grissom 

A duplicate of Shepard’s mission that lasted 15 minutes, 37 seconds. The flight was successful, but the spacecraft sank shortly after splashdown.


Feb. 10, 1962

Spacecraft: Friendship 7

Astronaut: John H. Glenn, Jr. 

The first American to orbit Earth, Glenn orbited three times and was in space for 4 hours, 55 minutes, 23 seconds. 


May 24, 1962

Spacecraft: Aurora 7

Astronaut: M. Scott Carpenter 

The flight confirmed the success of Glenn’s mission by duplicating the flight, but left orbit a few seconds late, resulting in a splashdown 250 miles from the targeted site.


Oct. 3, 1962

Spacecraft: Sigma 7

Astronaut: Walter M. Schirra, Jr. 

The first longer-duration Mercury mission, Schirra’s engineering test flight lasted 9 hours, 13 minutes, 11 seconds, and orbited the Earth six times. The first NASA mission to splash down in the Pacific.


May 15-16, 1963

Spacecraft: Faith 7

Astronaut: L. Gordon Cooper 

The last Mercury mission lasted 34 hours, 19 minutes, 49 seconds, and logged 22 orbits to evaluate the effects of a full day in space.

Donald K. “Deke” Slayton, one of the original Mercury Seven, was prevented from flying in space until the Apollo-Soyuz mission, due to a heart murmur. 

This story originally appeared in Apollo 11: 50th Anniversary of the Moon Landing.


Craig Collins is a veteran freelance writer and a regular Faircount Media Group contributor who...