In the mid-1950s America and the Soviet Union began the race to explore outer space. At the early onset, the Soviets seemed to be one step ahead of the US.
On October 7, 1958, Project Mercury was officially launched. The project had three main objectives:
- – To orbit a manned spacecraft around Earth
- – To investigate man’s ability to function in space
- – To recover both man and spacecraft safely
The Mercury project started with 20 unmanned launches and tests. The first was Little Joe-1 in mid-1959. It was to test the escape function of the rocket under severe conditions. The launch lasted only 20 seconds reaching a height of just 4 nautical miles.
The second test launch of the Mercury Project took place on September 9, 1959 when Big Joe 1 reached an altitude of 95 nautical miles and traveled 1,496 statute miles. Big Joe 1’s maximum velocity of 14,857 miles per hour. The purpose of this mission was to test the heat shield upon re-entry.
The last of the unmanned launches in the Mercury Project took place on September 13, 1961 with the launch of Mercury-Atlas 4, which made a successful orbit of the earth. The objective of this launch was to test the environmental control of the capsule while in orbit.
On this day, May 5, 1961, Mercury-Redstone 3 took flight. The spacecraft had been named Freedom 7 and its payload was Navy Commander Alan Bartlett Shepard, Jr. The flight lasted only 15 minutes, 28 seconds but Freedom 7 and Shepard reached an altitude of 116 miles. Alan Shepard made history as the first American in space.
On July 21, 1961, Mercury-Redstone 4 lifted Liberty Bell 7 and Air Force Captain Virgil (Gus) Grissom into outer space, following a similar path as Shepard had just two months earlier. When Liberty Bell 7 splashed down, the escape hatch prematurely blew open and the capsule started filling with water. Grissom’s spacesuit also began to fill with water. When the recovery helicopter arrived, it tried to lift the capsule and Grissom out of the water, but the water that filled capsule made it too heavy and they had no option but to cut the capsule loose. Grissom bailed out of the sinking capsule and was rescued.
On February 20, 1962, Mercury-Atlas 6 lifted off, sending Friendship 7 and Marine Lieutenant Colonel John Hershel Glenn, Jr. into space. Reaching an altitude of 162 statute miles and a speed of 17,544 miles per hour, Glenn made three successful orbits around the Earth and splashed down 4 hours and 55 minutes after lifting off.
On May 24, 1962, Mercury-Atlas 7 lifted off with Aurora 7 and Navy Lieutenant Malcolm Scott Carpenter. This flight successfully duplicated the flight of John Glenn.
On October 3, 1962, Mercury-Atlas 8 lifted off with Sigma 7 and Navy Commander Walter Marty Schirra, Jr. This flight lasted just over 9 hours and made 6 orbits around the Earth.
On May 15-16, 1963, Mercury-Atlas 9 with Faith 7, and US Air Force Captain LeRoy Gordon Cooper, Jr. This flight lasted just over 34 hours and made 22 orbits around the Earth. One of the main objectives was to tests the effects of spending a day in outer space.
This was the last mission of the Mercury Project, which was then replaced with Project Gemini, the Bridge to the Moon.