In retrospect, the Mercury program naturally had extremely limited goals. Alan Shepard's flight was considered the first of the Mercury missions (it was made before President Kennedy's decision to go to the Moon), and not all of the original seven astronauts flew in Project Mercury, although they (and many others) were all put through the unbelievably rigorous training. Spun around in 11G centrifuges, kept strapped into dark rooms for days, pretty much tortured. And why?

The scientists had not a clue about the effects of weightlessness on the human body and mind. And they tried everything to break a person, and often did.

But Project Mercury's goals, while simple by today's standards, had never before been achieved. They were:

To orbit a manned spacecraft around Earth;

To investigate man's ability to function in space;

To recover both man and spacecraft safely.


Space flight was a totally new experience for pilots, scientists and doctors. No one knew if a person flying in the weightlessness of space could accurately read a dial, if they could push the right button or lever.

They did not know if the pressure of the Space Craft would crush a person, disorient him or render him unconscious.

They did not know if they could survive the searing heat of re-entry into the Earth's atmosphere.

And while the Russians kept their program out of the public eye until each mission was complete, every US flight, from launch to landing and recovery, was covered by all of the world's radio and television networks.

NASA was under constant scrutiny.

Colonel Gus Grissom


After Shepard's flight, and with a little more comfort about the ability of the astronaut to survive, the next launch was that of Gus Grissom, and it was almost a disaster. The flight was still sub-orbital, but Gus's hatch blew on landing, and while Gus was saved, his spacecraft was lost. Gus was treated awfully for ages after that incident, as the scientists blamed him for the failure. However, Gus was a favorite amongst the astronauts and flew again in the Gemini program, and was selected to be on the first -- fateful --Apollo flight.

Colonel John Glenn


The third flight was that of John Glenn. Probably the most articulate of the flight jocks who were the first astronauts, Glenn was a favorite amongst reporters, and was THE astronaut most requested at civic and social functions. His flight was the first orbital flight for the US, and also almost ended in disaster.

After two orbits, Glenn noticed tons of "beautiful fireflies" outside the cabin window. He wondered if he had discovered extra-terrerstial life. However, no one on the ground knew what they were, and there was extreme concern that Glenn's heat shield had failed and that his craft would burn up on re-entry. He was ordered to cut short the mission and he made his splash down safely.

During the radio blackout as Glenn plummeted through the atmosphere, it was said that no one in mission control breathed for the 3 minutes, until Glenn, in Freedom 7, calmly responded to a mission control call.

As the first astronaut to orbit (even though the mission profile called for 17 orbits and it was aborted after 3), he was an instant national hero, and like Alan Shepard, but not Gus, got a ticker-tape parade down 5th Avenue in NY and an audience with President Kennedy.


30 years later, after serving Ohio in the US Senate, John Glenn flew as a Mission Specialist on the
Space Shuttle Discovery's STS-95 mission, in order to study the effects of space flight on the elderly. At age 77, Glenn became the oldest person ever to go into space.

Glenn's participation in the nine-day mission was criticized by some in the space community as a junket for a politician.

Others noted that Glenn's flight offered valuable research on weightlessness and other aspects of space flight on the same person at two points in life thirty-six years apart — by far the longest interval between space flights by the same person. Upon the safe return of the STS-95 crew, Glenn (and his crewmates) received another ticker-tape parade, making him the ninth (and, as of 2009, latest) person to have ever received multiple ticker-tape parades in his lifetime (as opposed to that of a sports team).


Front Row: Gus Grissom, Scott Carpenter, Deke Slayton and Gordon Cooper
Back Row:
Alan Shepard, Wally Schirra and John Glenn

There were three more Mercury flights. Wally Schirra and Scott Carpenter carried out engineering tests to prove people could function in weightlessness, and to further test the programming of the spacecrafts' primitive computers, which led Carpenter almost to land in Russia. Gordo's flight was the most successful -- he broke the record for long duration flight with 20 orbits of the Earth.

Commander Scott Carpenter


The focus of Carpenter's five-hour Aurora 7 mission was the first on science. The full flight plan included the first study of liquids in weightlessness, Earth photography and an unsuccessful attempt to observe a flare fired from the ground.

At dawn of the third and final orbit, Carpenter inadvertently bumped his hand against the inside wall of the cabin and solved a mystery from John Glenn's flight. The bright shower of particles outside the capsule - what Glenn had called "fireflies" -- turned out to be ice particles shaken loose from the capsule's exterior.

Scott Carpenter after Landing his Space craft manually

Carpenter was blamed by some in NASA management for the problematic reentry of Aurora 7, was on leave to participate in the Navy's SEALAB project and was grounded from flight in July 1964.

Unnoticed by ground control or pilot, there was an "overexpenditure of fuel" that was caused by a scanner that would later malfunction at reentry. Still, NASA later reported that Carpenter had: "exercised his manual controls with ease in a number of spacecraft maneuvers and had made numerous and valuable observations in the interest of space science. By the time he drifted near Hawaii on the third orbit, Carpenter had successfully maintained more than 40 percent of his fuel in both the automatic and the manual tanks.

According to mission rules, this ought to have been quite enough hydrogen peroxide, reckoned Kraft, to thrust the capsule into the retrofire attitude, hold it, and then to reenter the atmosphere using either the automatic or the manual control system."

At the retrofire event to return to Earth, the pitch horizon scanner malfunctioned once more, forcing Carpenter to manually control his reentry -- an extremely difficult task given the technology of the time. The malfunction jerked the spacecraft by 25 degrees to the right, accounting for 170 miles (270 km) off of the landing zone. This effort took two pushes of the override button and accounted for another 15 to 20 miles (32 km) off of the landing zone. Finally, the loss of thrust in the retros added another 60 miles (97 km), producing a 250-mile (400 km) overshoot. That meant that ships and helicopter rescue vessels had to steam as fast as possible to rescue the Astronaut and the vehicle. That's the distance from Washington to New York.

Forty minutes after splashdown, Carpenter was located in his life raft, safe and in good health, but it took another 3 hours to rescue him, using helicopters by the USS Intrepid.

Post flight analysis described the malfunction as "mission critical" but noted that the pilot "adequately compensated" for "this anomaly . . . in subsequent inflight procedures." confirming that that backup systems—human pilots—could succeed when automatic systems fail. Still, Carpenter, like Grissom, had an unfair cloud over his reputation.

These missions were supposed to fly without a hitch and the scientists and NASA brass blamed pilots rather than equipment for error. This was the establishment of a rough culture at NASA that led to real disasters over the next 20 years.

Carpenter's Mercury 8 Launch

Like Glenn, Carpenter circled the Earth three times. The performance of the Mercury spacecraft and Atlas launch vehicle was excellent in nearly every respect. All of his primary mission objectives were achieved.

However, a failure in the spacecraft control systems caused it to pitch incorrectly. This anomaly was compensated for by the pilot -- again proving human abilities to respond to emergencies in space -- so that the success of the mission was not compromised.

Equipment was included in the spacecraft which provided valuable scientific information; notably that regarding liquid behavior in a weightless state, identification of the airglow layer observed by Astronaut Glenn, and the first photography of terrestrial features and meteorological phenomena by a human.

The flight further qualified the spacecraft systems for manned orbital operations and provided evidence for progressing into missions of extended duration and consequently more demanding systems requirements.

Partly because he had been distracted watching the fireflies and partly because of his busy schedule, and a malfunction of the automatic alignment system, Carpenter overshot his planned reentry mark and splashed down 402 kilometers off target. Despite his exemplary flight, the overshoot of the landing pissed off NASA brass.


The Mercury spacecraft was designed by
Max Faget and NASA's Space Task Group.

The Mercury Capsule


Because of their small size, it was said that the Mercury spacecraft capsules were worn, not ridden. With 1.7 cubic meters of habitable volume, the capsule 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 only equipped with attitude control thrusters -- after orbit insertion and before retrofire they could not change their orbit.

The Mercury spacecraft were designed to be totally controllable from the ground in the event that something impaired the pilot's ability to function.

This never occurred.

During emergency situations, the astronauts proved that it was the pilot that managed the space craft and not the ground controllers.

During reentry, the astronaut would experience about 4 g-forces. This means if you weighed 150 lbs on Earth, during re-entry, you would weigh 600 lbs.

NASA ordered 20 production spacecraft, numbered 1 through 20, from McDonnell Aircraft Company, St. Louis, Missouri. 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 (Gus's) sank and was recovered from the bottom of the Atlantic Ocean after 38 years finally proving that the hatch blew itself, and not, in a panic by Gus, as the scientists claimed. Gus has always remained one of my heroes.

The unused Mercury spacecraft as well as those recovered are in various museums around the country.

Shepard and Grissom's capsules were launched using converted Redstone (ICBM) missiles. The remaining Mercury launches were made from Atlas rockets. (see below).