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Half a century ago, President John F. Kennedy boldly committed America to place a man on the moon within the decade. The first milestone in that epic journey was to orbit a man around the earth. And so the Mercury 7 Program was born:
Chicon 7, the 70th Convention of the World Science Fiction Society, has chosen to honor the hundreds of thousands of men and women of the Mercury 7 Program who helped in that effort, our first small steps off our home planet.
NASA was looking for test pilot school grads, under 40, 5'11" and 180 lbs tops, college degrees, and jet qualified. Over 500 applied, and 110 were invited to compete for the seven slots. These were the winners, the best of the best.
May 5, 1961, Mission MR-3, Spacecraft FREEDOM 7
Alan B. Shepard, Jr. was the first American in space, completing a sub-orbital flight of 15 minutes, 28 seconds. He was medically grounded for the rest of the Mercury and Gemini programs, but later commanded Apollo 14, becoming the only Mercury 7 Astronaut to walk on the moon.
July 21, 1961, Mission MR-4, Spacecraft LIBERTY BELL 7
Virgil I. Grissom flew the second sub-orbital flight, 15 minutes, 37 seconds. His spacecraft sank after splashdown.
He became the first man to fly in space twice when he commanded the successful Gemini 3 mission, which demonstrated the ability to alter orbit parameters, changing both shape and orbital plane.
Gus Grissom later died in a flash fire in the Apollo 1 spacecraft, along with Astronauts Ed White and Roger Chafee.
February 20, 1962, Mission MA-6, Spacecraft FRIENDSHIP 7
The first American in orbit flew a three orbit, 4 hour, 55 minute, 23 second flight.
May 24, 1962, Mission MA-7, Spacecraft AURORA 7
M. Scott Carpenter's 4 hour, 56 minute, 5 second flight confirmed the success of John Glenn's mission by duplicating the flight.
October 03, 1962, Mission MA-8, Spacecraft SIGMA 7
Walter M. Schirra, Jr. flew a six orbit engineering test flight of 9 hours, 13 minutes, and 11 seconds.
May 15-16, 1963, Mission MA-9, Spacecraft FAITH 7
L. Gordon Cooper, Jr. flew the last Mercury mission. He was up for 22 orbits, completing 34 hours, 19 minutes, and 49 seconds in space, in an evaluation of the effects of one day in space.
Donald K. Slayton was grounded by a heart murmur before he could fly a mission. He served as Director of Flight Crew Operations in the NASA space program, until he was cleared for flight in 1972, when he flew on the Apollo-Soyuz Test Project.
The first U.S. manned spacecraft was tiny, a cone-shaped one-man capsule with a cylinder mounted on top. 6 ft, 10 inches tall, 6 ft, 2 inches in diameter, and with a 19 ft escape tower mounted atop the cylinder portion. The blunt end was covered with an ablative heat shield to protect it from the blowtorch heat of atmospheric re-entry. Strapped on the heat shield was the retro-rocket pack, used to de-orbit the craft.
The astronaut had a small forward facing window to look ahead, and an extendible periscope looking beneath his feet. The periscope had two lenses, a wide angle covering about an 800 mile radius, and a telescopic one covering a 40 mile radius at altitude.
While the launch vehicle determined the orbit of the spacecraft, the astronaut could control the attitude with a hand controller that operated reaction jets mounted on the sides of the spacecraft. This would be an important ability for all future space missions.
For re-entry, the astronaut would turn the ship around, blunt end forward, then the retro-rockets would ripple fire, 10 seconds each to slow from orbital speed, then the retro pack would jettison. Prior missile re-entry capsules came down pointy end forward, but research showed that a blunt shape would generate a broad shock wave ahead of and detached from the spacecraft, deflecting a major amount of heating. The heat shield surface itself was designed to burn away, taking the rest of the air friction heat with it.
Parachutes in the cylindrical portion would bring the craft down to the ocean surface, where an airbag that deployed from under the heat shield would cushion the splashdown. Helicopters would recover the astronaut while ships were on the way to collect the floating spacecraft. After the sinking of Gus Grissom's Liberty Bell 7, the helicopters first dropped frogmen into the water to attach a flotation collar to the spacecraft.
Prior to the manned flights, unmanned tests of the booster and spacecraft combination were performed, each carrying a chimpanzee.
Each astronaut named his capsule and added the numeral "7" to denote the team spirit of the original seven Mercury astronauts.
The Mercury program used two launch vehicles: A Redstone for the two sub-orbital flights, and an Atlas for the four orbital manned flights. We'll look at them next.
The Redstone was a reliable Army intermediate range ballistic missile, developed by Wernher von Braun's team at the Redstone Arsenal in Alabama. The Jupiter-C, a multi-stage variant, launched America's first satellite, Explorer 1, after the Navy's Vanguard satellite rocket blew up. The Jupiter-C first stage was used for the Mercury launches because its lengthened fuel tanks could carry the fuel needed for the sub-orbital flight.
The 83 foot long Mercury-Redstone combination weighed 66,000 lbs at launch, powered by a Rocketdyne alcohol/liquid oxygen engine developing 78,000 lbs of thrust. That was enough to send the Mercury spacecraft 300 miles downrange with a speed of 5134 mph. Since that isn't a third of orbital speed, a more powerful rocket was needed.
For placing a man in orbit, the Mercury program turned to the Atlas, America's first intercontinental ballistic missile.
The Atlas was significantly larger and more complex than the Redstone. It had three engines, two booster engines totalling 300,000 lbf thrust outboard, and one sustainer engine in between with 67,000 lbf thrust. The boosters would run for 134 seconds, then would drop away, while the sustainer engine would burn for 5 minutes total, placing the Mercury spacecraft into orbit.
The engines burned RP-1, a kerosene derivative, and liquid oxygen, all running from common tanks. The tanks themselves were unusual, very thin stainless steel skins unable to support the weight of the missile unless they were pressurized. They had to be reinforced to carry the extra weight of the spacecraft. Two more small engines can be seen in launch films, vernier engines mounted on the sides of the body that gimballed around during flight to provide roll and fine speed control.
The Atlas was a hurry-up answer to the Soviet Union's first nuclear test, and thus wasn't as rigorously tested as would be desired for a manned mission. In fact, as ICBM's, they were required to have only a 75% reliability. Man-rating needed 99+%, so NASA and contractor Convair embarked on a reliability and quality control program for the missiles assigned to the Mercury program.
Although two of the unmanned Mercury-Atlas launches failed, the orbital launches of four astronauts and one chimpanzee were all great successes.
Many Atlas missiles that were retired from nuclear alert duty were converted for space launches, and Atlas derivatives are still in use today.
All Mercury-Redstone, Mercury-Atlas, the unmanned Gemini 1 and Gemini 2, and manned Gemini 3 missions were controlled by the Mission Control Center (called the Mercury Control Center through 1963) at Cape Canaveral Air Force Station, Florida. This facility was in the Engineering Support Building at the east end of Mission Control Road, about 0.5 mile (0.8 km) east of Phillips Parkway. Launches were conducted from separate blockhouses at the Cape.
The building, which was on the National Register of Historic Places, was demolished in May 2010 due to concerns about asbestos and the estimated $5 million cost of repairs after 40 years of exposure to salt air. Formerly a stop on the Kennedy Space Center Visitor Complex tours; in the late 1990s, the control room consoles were removed, refurbished, and relocated to a re-creation of the room in the Debus Center at the KSC Visitor Complex.
text source: NASA
Pressure suits for the Nation's first space men, the seven NASA Project Mercury astronauts, were designed to protect the astronaut in the event of failure in the Mercury pressurization system. The life-support garment is a modified version of the U.S. Navy pressurized flight suit developed by the B.F. Goodrich Company and the Navy.
The aluminum-coated, nylon-rubber suit weighs 20-pounds, and incorporates oxygen-cooling and respiratory systems, automatic warning gauges, and pick-ups for medical telemetering systems, and other scientific apparatus.
The full-pressure suit consists of four basic parts - torso, helmet, gloves, and boots. The torso is a closely fitted coverall for the entire body with the exception of head and hands. The helmet is attached by a neck ring and contains a complete communications system. Gloves form a continuous assembly when attached to the sleeves. They are curved, with the exception of the left middle finger, which is pressurized so that the astronaut is able to push instrument buttons. On the first two fingers of each hand are small red lights to help him see his instrument panel in the event of electrical failure. Custom made boots complete the attire.
Oxygen is pumped into the suit through a waist connection and flows throughout the suit to cool it, then circulates in the helmet for breathing. Exhaled air escapes through a special vent in the helmet. Temperature inside the suit can be controlled at 80°F even in the intense heat encountered during reentry into the earth's atmosphere. Ventilation is conducted through a three-dimensional material in the suit, to the wrists, ankles and periphery of the neck ring. Beneath the suit the astronaut wears long underwear with waffle-weave ventilating patches in areas where his body will be pressed too tightly against the suit - elbows, back, knees, etc. - to permit ventilation.
The astronaut enters the suit through a pressure-sealing zipper located diagonally across the chest. He is able to move his shoulders, arms, and legs by means of a series of pleats and be1lows tailored into the suit. A nylon adjustment strap in these sections sizes the suit to the astronaut's body. Sock endings for the legs are made of nylon stretch fabric with a thin ply of neoprene gum added. These feet are permanently attached to the suit's inner layer.
The astronaut wears a mirror on each wrist to enable him to see and work on instruments difficult to see while lying in his contour couch. He wears a parabolic mirror on his chest to enable the onboard camera to record instrument readings, decks of lights, and switch positions while photographing his facial expressions.
Virgil I. "Gus" Grissom was one of the nation's top test pilots. An Indiana native, he graduated from Purdue University with a degree in engineering. After joining the Air Force, he flew 100 fighter missions in the Korean war and won the Distinguished Flying Cross.
He was selected for the Astronaut training program, and survived the rigorous competition to become one of the Mercury 7. His mission was the second manned Mercury-Redstone suborbital flight, so he missed being the first American in space, and he missed being the first American in orbit, John Glenn's Mercury-Atlas flight right after his. When Grissom's spacecraft, the "Liberty Bell 7," splashed down in the ocean, the hatch blew off prematurely and the capsule began filling with water. Gus scrambled out and was rescued, but Liberty Bell 7 went to the bottom.
He was later command pilot on the two-man Gemini 3 mission, which made him the first Astronaut to fly in space twice. The most significant aspect of Gemini 3 was that it was the first time a manned craft had changed orbital parameters, first changing the orbit from elliptical to circular, then the much more difficult task of altering the orbital plane.
Grissom named his Gemini ship the "Molly Brown," a wry reference to "The Unsinkable Molly Brown," the Denver socialite who survived the sinking of the Titanic.
He was then assigned as mission commander for the first Apollo manned mission, an orbital test of the Apollo command module. Along with fellow Astronauts Ed White and Roger Chaffee, Grissom had voiced concern about the amount of flammable material in the module, fire being among the greatest fears of any pilot.
On January 27, 1967 during a pre-launch test, a random spark ignited something in the command module. The pure oxygen atmosphere feeding the fire in the sealed capsule was over 16 psi pressure, more than five times normal oxygen pressure. It was over in seconds, and Grissom, White, and Chaffee were dead, the first fatalities of the American space program.
Congressional and internal NASA investigations followed, and found many, many deficiencies in the Apollo program, and an attitude of downplaying problems in an effort to meet schedule. Over a twenty month period, NASA redesigned and re-engineered the spacecraft and the space program with an eye to doing things right. The eventual success of the Apollo moon landings is testament to the lessons learned in the tragic fire.
Bunker Hill AFB in Indiana was later renamed Grissom Air Force Base in Gus's honor. In 1999, the Liberty Bell 7 spacecraft was recovered from nearly 3 miles deep in the ocean, and is now on display at the Kansas Cosmosphere in Hutchinson, Kansas.
Gus Grissom is buried in Arlington National Cemetery.
When some people are in the spotlight, you can be certain others are behind them doing the work to keep them there. With the Mercury 7 program, there were hundreds of thousands. Here are four.
From his youth in between-the-World-Wars Germany, Wernher von Braun had his eyes on the stars. He joined, then led the German amateur rocket movement, earning a degree in physics to further his interest in space flight.
In 1934, von Braun received a PhD in physics while working on a rocket program for the German army. His "rocket team" developed the "A" series of missiles, culminating in the A-4, which was renamed the V-2 and became very familiar to Londoners during WWII.
Following an arrest and release by the Gestapo (for "defeatist" comments), he and five hundred of his rocket engineers surrendered to the American army, also arranging the capture of plans and test rockets. He spent the next decade in obscurity, working on rockets for the U.S. Army at Ft. Bliss in Texas, then at the Redstone Arsenal in Alabama.
In the 1950's, Wernher von Braun worked to popularize the concept of space exploration. He was technical director for Walt Disney's three television shows exploring his vision of trips to the moon and Mars. He also authored magazine articles and pamphlets on space travel.
Leveraging off the A-4 rocket, von Braun's team developed the Army's Redstone intermediate range ballistic missile. When the Soviets launched the Sputnik satellite, America suddenly became interested in rocketry, and when the Navy's Vanguard satellite program flopped, von Braun got the go-ahead. Eighty-four days later, he put the Explorer-1 satellite into orbit atop a modified Redstone called the Jupiter-C.
In 1960, von Braun's rocket shop was transferred to the newly created NASA, and he was put in charge of the Marshall Space Flight Center with a mandate to build the giant Saturn booster, the rocket that would put men on the moon.
He was the driving force behind the American space program, guiding the creative and technical genius of America toward his goal. The footprints of astronauts in the lunar soil are an enduring monument to the dreams of Wernher von Braun.
After a three year tour in submarines, engineer Max Faget joined the Langley Aeronautical Laboratory in Virginia, where he eventually headed the performance aerodynamics branch of the pilotless aircraft research division. He also worked on the hypersonic X-15 research aircraft.
In 1958, he helped form the Space Task Group, assigned with designing the Mercury spacecraft. Rather than the streamlined, low drag shapes that earlier missile noses had utilized, Faget designed a spacecraft that would re-enter the atmosphere with a very blunt shape that would form a supersonic shock wave well ahead of itself, causing a great portion of the aerodynamic heating to occur before reaching the craft. The heat shield that protected the interior would have a surface that would ablate, or burn away, taking with it the rest of the heat from 17,000 mph re-entry air friction.
This blunt body shape was also used on the Gemini and Apollo spacecraft. Faget engineered the escape tower that sat atop the Mercury nose, and would be the forerunner of escape tower systems for Gemini and Apollo.
Aeronautical engineer Christopher Columbus Kraft, Jr. initially worked for the National Advisory Committee for Aeronautics (NACA) at their Langley Research Center, where he designed an early aircraft turbulence gust damping system. He also studied wingtip vortices, which are the cause of turbulence encountered behind flying aircraft.
When President Eisenhower established NASA, NACA and Kraft became a part of it. Along with Max Faget, Kraft helped form the Space Task Group, where he was assigned to flight operations, planning the mission details for the Mercury flights, and monitoring and controlling the flights from the ground.
Despite the astronauts' engineering and test pilot backgrounds, there was only so much they could handle in the high speed environment of a space flight. Kraft's idea was to assemble a group of expert engineers, each specializing and monitoring one aspect of the flight and spacecraft, and have them immediately available to spot and fix problems as they arose. He evolved and refined this over the course of the Mercury program into the mission control center concept.
Kraft also decided that for each mission, one man had to have the ultimate responsibility to make decisions, the mission flight director. He became that man for all the Mercury and many of the Gemini missions.
As the space program moved on towards the moon, Kraft's responsibilities became broader, training other flight directors, setting policies and procedures, and turning mission control into the smoothly running yet agile operation that helped bring the Apollo 13 astronauts safely home after their spacecraft suffered an explosion on their way to the moon.
Chris Kraft's management and direction of the mission control concept set an example that will benefit both manned and unmanned space exploration for ages to come.
Shorty Powers flew transports in WWII and the Berlin Airlift, then B-29's in Korea, winning the Bronze Star, Air Medal, and Distinguished Flying Cross.
After Korea, he served as information officer for the Air Research Development Command, which brought him to the attention of NASA, who brought him on board as Public Affairs Officer. He became the public face of NASA and of the Mercury program, earning the nickname, "voice of the astronauts."
Powers was also the voice of Mission Control. His voice became familiar all around the world as he served as narrator and commentator for all six manned Mercury missions. He is responsible for popularizing the astronaut's checklist response term of "A-OK."
He left the Air Force and NASA in 1964, moving to Houston, where he narrated radio coverage of the Gemini and Apollo missions for stations around the country. He had a newspaper column and often lectured on the space program.