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McDonnell Mercury spacecraft

The Mercury spacecraft with escape tower
Role: Suborbital and orbital spaceflight
Crew: one pilot
Height: 11.5 ft 3.51 m
Diameter: 6.2 ft 1.89 m
Volume: 60 ft³ 1.7 m³
Weights (MA-6)
Launch: 4,265 lb 1,935 kg
Orbit: 2,986 lb 1,354 kg
Post Retro: 2,815 lb 1,277 kg
Reentry: 2,698 lb 1,224 kg
Landing: 2,421 lb 1,098 kg
Rocket engines
Retros (solid fuel) x 3: 1,000 lbf ea 4.5 kN
Posigrade (solid fuel) x 3: 400 lbf ea 1.8 kN
RCS high (H2O2) x 6: 25 lbf ea 108 N
RCS low (H2O2) x 6: 12 lbf ea 49 N
Endurance: 34 hours 22 orbits
Apogee: 175 miles 282 km
Perigee: 100 miles 160 km
Retro delta v: 300 mph 483 km/h
Mercury spacecraft diagram

Mercury spacecraft Diagram (NASA)
McDonnell Mercury spacecraft

Project Mercury was the first human spaceflight program of the United Statesmarker. It ran from 1959 through 1963 with the goal of putting a human in orbit around the Earth. The Mercury-Atlas 6 flight on 20 February 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 NASAmarker. 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 approximately $384 million, or about $2.8 billion in 2008 dollars.

Research and development

On October 7, 1958, T. Keith Glennan, the first Administrator of NASA, approved the Mercury project. On December 17 Glennan announced Project Mercury publicly.

On December 29, 1958 North American Aviation was awarded a contract to design and build Little Joe boosters for test flights. In January 1959 McDonnell Aircraft Corporation was chosen to be prime contractor for the Mercury spacecraft, and the contract for 12 spacecraft was awarded in February. In April seven astronauts, known as the Mercury Seven or more formally as Astronaut Group 1, were selected to participate in the Mercury program.

In May 1959 North American Aviation delivered the first two Little Joe boosters, and in June the Big Joe booster was delivered. In July the planned use of Jupiter boosters in the Mercury program was canceled in favor of Atlas flights. In October General Electric delivered to McDonnell the ablative heat shield designated for installation on the first Mercury spacecraft. In December the launch vehicle for Mercury-Redstone 1 was ready to begin static tests installed on a test stand at ABMA.

In January 1960 NASA awarded Western Electric Company a contract for the Mercury tracking network. The value of the contract was over $33 million. Also in January, McDonnell delivered the first production-type Mercury spacecraft. less than a year after award of the formal contract. On February 12, Christopher C. Kraft, Jr. was appointed to head the Mercury operations coordination group. Kraft was asked to, "come up with a basic mission plan. You know, the bottom-line stuff on how we fly a man from a launch pad into space and back again. It would be good if you kept him alive." In April, the first spacecraft was delivered to Wallops Island for the beach-abort test. The test was completed successfully on May 9.


Mercury program monument
Because of their small size it was said that the Mercury spacecraft were worn, not ridden. With 1.7 cubic meters of habitable volume, the spacecraft 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. Unfortunately, as with the later Apollo and Gemini programs, the scientists believed that if there was a catastrophic failure with the launch vehicle, then the possibilities of survival were minimal even with the tower in place. There simply wasn't enough time between the detection of the problem and the resulting consequences. There was never a problem during launch that caused the firing of the tower, and in Project Gemini (which didn't use the LES), Gemini 6 misfired but was aborted before any trouble arose.

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 were 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 completely controllable from the ground in the event that something 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).
Mercury heat shield
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 spacecraft), 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, Missourimarker. 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.


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 was used to test the escape tower and abort procedures. 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 spacecraft 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.

Mercury Control - Cape Canaveral, Florida.

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 Aerospace 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-Jupiter Jupiter N/A N/A N/A N/A Cancelled in July, 1959 - Proposed suborbital launch vehicle for Mercury. Not flown.
Little Joe 1 Little Joe LJ-1 21 August 1959 N/A 00d 00h 00 m 20s Test of launch escape system during flight.
Big Joe 1 Atlas 10-D Big Joe 1 9 September 1959 N/A 00d 00h 13 m Test of heat shield and Atlas / spacecraft interface.
Little Joe 6 Little Joe LJ-6 4 October 1959 N/A 00d 00h 05 m 10s Test of spacecraft aerodynamics and integrity.
Little Joe 1A Little Joe LJ-1A 4 November 1959 N/A 00d 00h 08 m 11s Test of launch escape system during flight.
Little Joe 2 Little Joe LJ-2 4 December 1959 N/A 00d 00h 11 m 06s Carried Sam the monkey to 85 kilometres in altitude.
Little Joe 1B Little Joe LJ-1B 21 January 1960 N/A 00d 00h 08 m 35s Carried Miss Sam the monkey to 9.3 statute miles (15 kilometres) in altitude.
Beach Abort Launch escape system Beach Abort 9 May 1960 N/A 00d 00h 01 m 31s Test of the Off-The-Pad abort system.
Mercury-Atlas 1 Atlas MA-1 29 July 1960 13:13 UTC 00d 00h 03 m 18s First flight of Mercury spacecraft and Atlas Booster.
Little Joe 5 Little Joe LJ-5 8 November 1960 N/A 00d 00h 02 m 22s First flight of a production Mercury spacecraft.
Mercury-Redstone 1 Redstone MR-1 21 November 1960 N/A 00d 00h 00 m 02s Launched 4 inches (100 mm). Settled back on pad due to electrical malfunction.
Mercury-Redstone 1A Redstone MR-1A 19 December 1960 N/A 00d 00h 15 m 45s First flight of Mercury spacecraft and Redstone booster.
Mercury-Redstone 2 Redstone MR-2 31 January 1961 16:55 UTC 00d 00h 16 m 39s Carried Ham the Chimpanzee on suborbital flight.
Mercury-Atlas 2 Atlas MA-2 21 February 1961 14:10 UTC 00d 00h 17 m 56s Test of Mercury spacecraft and Atlas Booster.
Little Joe 5A Little Joe LJ-5A 18 March 1961 N/A 00d 00h 23 m 48s Test of the launch escape system during the most severe conditions of a launch.
Mercury-Redstone BD Redstone MR-BD 24 March 1961 17:30 UTC 00d 00h 8 m 23s Redstone Booster Development - test flight.
Mercury-Atlas 3 Atlas MA-3 25 April 1961 16:15 UTC 00d 00h 07 m 19s Test of Mercury spacecraft and Atlas Booster.
Little Joe 5B Little Joe AB-1 28 April 1961 N/A 00d 00h 05 m 25s Test of the launch escape system during the most severe conditions of a launch.
Mercury-Atlas 4 Atlas MA-4 13 September 1961 14:09 UTC 00d 01h 49 m 20s Test of Mercury spacecraft and Atlas Booster. Completed 1 orbit.
Mercury-Scout 1 Scout MS-1 1 November 1961 15:32 UTC 00d 00h 00 m 44s Test of Mercury tracking network.
Mercury-Atlas 5 Atlas MA-5 29 November 1961 15:08 UTC 00d 03h 20 m 59s Carried Enos the Chimpanzee on a two orbit flight.

Manned flights


The first Americans to venture into space were drawn from a group of 110 military pilot chosen for their flight test experience and because they met certain physical requirements.NASA announced the selection of seven of these - known as the Mercury Seven - as astronauts on 9 April 1959, though only six of the seven flew Mercury missions, after Slayton was grounded 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.

The Mercury 13

Some consideration was given to including women in the Mercury astronaut pool. Nineteen female pilots were selected for training; thirteen passed, and four scored as highly as any of the Mercury Seven. None ever flew in a Mercury spacecraft because the program requirements specified military flight experience; as the Air Force did not admit women, all of the thirteen candidates were disqualified.

Mission Callsign Rocket Designation Pilot Launch Date Launch Time Duration Remarks
Mercury-Redstone 3 Freedom 7 Redstone MR-3 Shepard 5 May 1961 14:34 UTC 00d 00h
15 m 28s
First American to make a suborbital flight into space.
Mercury-Redstone 4 Liberty Bell 7 Redstone MR-4 Grissom 21 July 1961 12:20 UTC 00d 00h
15 m 37s
Second suborbital flight. Spacecraft sank before recovery when hatch unexpectedly blew off.
Mercury-Atlas 6 Friendship 7 Atlas MA-6 Glenn 20 February 1962 14:47 UTC 00d 04h
55 m 23s
First American to orbit the Earth (for a total of 3 orbits). Spacecraft's retropack retained during re-entry due to concerns about heatshield.
Mercury-Atlas 7 Aurora 7 Atlas MA-7 Carpenter 24 May 1962 12:45 UTC 00d 04h
56 m 15s
3 orbits. Reentered off-target by 402 km. Pilot Carpenter replaced Deke Slayton.
Mercury-Atlas 8 Sigma 7 Atlas MA-8 Schirra 3 October 1962 12:15 UTC 00d 09h
13 m 11s
Carried out engineering tests. 6 orbits.
Mercury-Atlas 9 Faith 7 Atlas MA-9 Cooper 15 May 1963 13:04 UTC 01d 10h
19 m 49s
First American in space for over a day. Last American to orbit the Earth solo. 22 orbits.
Mercury-Atlas 10 Freedom 7-II Atlas MA-10 Shepard N/A N/A N/A Intended to be a 3-day mission in October, 1963. Cancelled 13 June 1963.
Mercury-Atlas 11 Atlas MA-11 Grissom N/A N/A N/A Intended to be a 1-day mission in 1963. Cancelled by October, 1962.
Mercury-Atlas 12 Atlas MA-12 Schirra N/A N/A N/A Intended to be a 1-day mission in 1963. Cancelled by October, 1962.

Piloted Mercury launches

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.

See also


  1. NASA Mercury History Sections #44 and #47
  2. A Fieldguide to American Spacecraft
  3. Mercury Boilerplate Tests

Further reading

External links

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