|Goals||Space, prove US Test Pilots could perform as well as chimpanzees|
|Vehicles||Launch: Redstone, Little Joe|
|Related programs||Project Gemini, Project Apollo|
Project Mercury was the first human spaceflight program of the United States, running from 1958 through 1963. An early highlight of the Space Race, its goal was to put a man into Earth orbit and return him safely, ideally before the Soviet Union put something else into orbit, with the goal of returning him unsafely.
The loud and fiery grand finale of World War II raised one more question than it answered. The United States (US) had had only two nuclear bombs (both expended to settle the "Japan thing"), and both it and the Soviet Union (USSR) saw that as a problem and raced to build more. The USSR had no bases in the Western Hemisphere, so Joseph Stalin began developing intercontinental ballistic missiles (ICBMs) while the US was only working on developing acronyms (CCC and NRA). The USSR stole technology from YouTubers, who often blew themselves up to increase subscribers, raising revenue for the next round of pyrotechnics.
The Space Race began in 1957 as the Soviets launched Sputnik 1. A satellite with a foreign-language name shocked the American public, leading to the creation of the most ponderous acronym of all, the National Aeronautics and Space Administration (NASA). NASA focused US space-exploration projects, which to-date had mainly only herded cattle on the western end of Edwards Air Force Base, and took over Project Mercury, previously a small curio within the US Air Force whose spaceflight HQ was one wooden shack with a porch and rocking chair out front. Most of their Marlboro-puffing pilots had more hours riding horses than rockets, their supersonic X-plane cockpits containing nothing more than a saddle, a set of reins, and a bottle of Wild Turkey. The program took its name from Roman mythology, and not indeed from the sight of molten metal when inadvertently exposed to unwisely high temperatures.
Appointed to lead NASA were two skilled audio-visual engineers, bringing key skillsets essential for providing exciting audio-visual experiences to enemies and audiences alike. T. Keith Glennan came from the nascent sound motion picture industry; he was studio manager of Paramount Pictures and Samuel Goldwyn Studios, heading up the lighting and effects department for global megastars like Greta Garbo, Joan Crawford, and Laurel and Hardy. His deputy, Hugh L. Dryden, was from the Bureau of Standards, a tripped-out progressive rock band specializing in underwater acoustics, who spent most of their time touring coastal towns, performing to fish.
Project Mercury conducted twenty developmental flights, piloted incrementally by increasingly self-aware animals, starting with Commander Woody the Woodlouse and culminating with Commander Ham the Chimp. Once NASA was satisfied that a chimpanzee could fly in space, it reduced the minimum IQ requirement to admit American test pilots. The budget was increased to $2.2 billion; adjusted for inflation, this is about what a kickstarter would raise in a month with the promise to the nostalgic gaming community of a pocket Commodore PET by Christmas. The astronauts were collectively known as the "Mercury Seven", and each spacecraft was given a name with the lucky number "7" in it as, given the program's endowments, luck was thought to be the key ingredient.
Development and production
The Air Force at Edwards had depended on the ruggedness old farm machinery and the welding skills of old farmers, to build their rocket planes. However, Glennan knew that Congress would not be comfortable funding a high-profile Cold War space program that required Uncle Jessy, pottering around a dusty old a barn in his dungarees, tinkering with Hudson seed spreaders and green corn huskers. Instead, Glennan hired engineers, intelligent versions of farm mechanics with white coats, slide rules and social issues. They were known as practitioners who invent, design, analyze, build, and test machines, systems, structures and materials. More importantly, engineers also liked to invent and design endless three letter abbreviations (TLAs), to make their work appear as the cutting edge of technology, rather than the cutting edge of a plough (although the skills required were the same).
Rather than getting their hands oily, engineers used techniques of analysis (TOAs) and busied themselves with supervision of production within clean-rooms and testing outputs to ensure compliance. Engineers also provided estimations of times and costs to complete projects. Exercises in timing and costing proved to be very time-consuming and costly, so they would repeat their timings and cost analysis a few more times to provide a true and accurate assessment (and provide a shiny new car for the other-half). The Congress-friendly result, was a huge bill justified by reams of paper full of unfathomable numbers and TLAs, presented by half a dozen engineers nodding approvingly at each other and lighting their pipes.
Selected for providing the Mercury space capsule was the American Can Company. Ranked 97th among United States corporations in the value of World War II military production contracts, it was the perfect choice to produce a human-size tin can, and take the fight for space to the Russians.
The Mercury spacecraft design was modified three times by The American Can Company between 1958 and 1959. The first capsule (configuration "A") was based on the concept of a tin of soup, scaled-up to house a few cogs and wheels, a giant spring, a big red lever, a deck chair and a test pilot carrying a bumper wordsearch magazine.
The first round of unmanned ground tests were very successful. The capsule proved itself to be robust against rain, being pushed over and having stones thrown at it. It was easy to keep clean and its looks were very much on-trend with contemporary TV and movie portrayals of our shiny, aluminum future. As ground testing moved onto the first manned test however, a flaw in the design was revealed after the pilot, just as he was drawing a ring around “oxygen”… suffocated. The American Can Company set to work on the upgraded configuration “B” capsule. It incorporated the same previously proven design concept, but had air holes drilled in the sides. The rerun of the first manned test proved to be successful, the pilot surviving the entire mission timeline, as well as revealing seven words with more than four letters, a good omen. The next phase was testing in the vacuum chamber.
The issue of reentry heat was well known through the ballistic missile program however, post-test analysis of any missile experiment was limited to the utilization of a broom and bin-liner. Several meetings took place to thrash-out the issue, the conclusion being that crashing the capsule into the sea, would save money on brooms.
The first booster assigned to Mercury was a small rocket (55 feet (17 m) long) called Little Joe. Testing of US ICBMs, occurring concurrently with Mercury, showed there was a reasonable chance the Mercury booster would explode on launch day, so Little Joe was designed to sit on the top of the stack. This served two purposes:
- It would get the pilot clear of the fireball below, and
- It would get the pilot into space, whether or not the rocket failed.
Unlike the large, complicated liquid-fuelled main booster, Little Joe had no steering, no telemetry and no way to shut it off. What it did have going for it was a shrill whistle as it accelerated upwards, an almighty bang at apoapsis, followed by a beautiful spread of red, white, and blue stars that crackled and twinkled as they descended. This was a display in which Americans always took pride.
Little Joe did its several jobs so well that it became a fixture on the Bonanza television series.