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Thursday, November 27, 2008

Recap of the Mercury Program

Continuing my Space Savvy series, here's a recap of my former posts on the Mercury Program, America's first venture into space. I posted this first round of articles several weeks ago. Articles on the Gemini, Apollo, Skylab and Space Shuttle programs will come later.

Mercury 7 Astronaut and Mission Recap

Alan Shepard - Freedom 7 - launched May 5, 1961, suborbital flight. Lieutenant Commander Alan Bartlett Shepard, Jr. of the US Navy was the first American in space, but not the first or the first human in space. His historic flight was preceded by a Russian dog, an American chimp and a Russian cosmonaut. After several delays he demanded of Mission Control, "Let's light this candle!" They did, and he reached an altitude of 116 miles on a flight that lasted 20 minutes. 45 million Americans watched. Shepard's flight answered critical questions about if human's would be able to breathe or swallow and perform basic tasks in orbit. No one knew the answer until he proved it could be done.

Gus Grissom - Liberty Bell 7 - launched July 21, 1961 after two weather delays, and completed a suborbital flight. Gus Grissom was a combat fighter in Korea who finished over one hundred missions, naming his aircraft "Scotty" after his son. He earned both the Air Medal and the Distinguished Flying Cross. In the early days of the Mercury program, Lieuteant Colonel Virgil Ivan "Gus" Grissom championed the explosive bolts used on the capsule hatches to allow for quick exit. Ironically, the bolts on his capsule spontaneously blew, resulting in the craft taking on water and the ultimate loss of his capsule with all its invaluable data, despite the best efforts by a helicopter crew to retrieve it. It was the only craft Grissom ever lost. Gus Grissom was slated as one of the first Apollo astronauts, but died tragically with two fellow astronauts when a fire broke out on the ground during training in Apollo 1.

John Glenn - Friendship 7 - launched February 20, 1962, first orbital flight, 3 orbits. Lieutenant Colonel John Herschel Glenn, Jr., a US Marine Corp pilot during the Korean war had three aircraft nearly shot out from under him but managed to land them safely. He was perhaps America's most famous astronaut. John Glenn was the first man to achieve orbit, considered to be the greatest adventure of the 21st century and helped the US catch up to the Russian's in the space race. He described the view as "tremendous" and said nothing could compare to seeing the curvature of the Earth or entire nations at a glance. He described mysterious fireflies outside his ship that raised concerns of the possibility of life in space. Those questions were later answered during Scott Carpenter's flight. Mission Control had grave concerns Glenn's Friendship 7 would burn up upon re-entry into the atmosphere when insruments showed the heat shield was loose. The straps to his retro pack were left in place in hopes this would hold the shield in place, but the extreme heat burned through the straps. Glenn splashed down safely. After recovery, NASA learned faulty instrumentation had resulted in a false alarm on the heat shield. John Glenn later became a politician and is one of only two surviving asronauts of the Mercury program.

Scott Carpenter - Aurora 7 - launched May 24, 1962, second orbital flight, 3 orbits. Lieutenant Malcolm Scott Carpenter, US Navy, was the second American to orbit the Earth. His flight lasted five hours and he achieved a maximum altitude of 164 miles and a velocity of 17,532 mph. He also identified the mysterious fireflies seen by John Glenn as frozen particles that he nicknamed "frostflies." After using up large amounts of fuel (varying stories claim sightseeing by the astronaut or a stuck valve as the cause), Mission Control was not sure he had enough fuel remaining to return to Earth safely. He was out of contact with Houston for over 40 minutes, and NASA was on the verge of declaring the first man lost in the space program when his capsule was found 250 miles beyond the recovery zone. Carpenter was fine. After a motorcycle accident that injured his arm, Carpenter resigned from NASA in 1967 and became the director of the Aquanautic Operations for the SeaLab III.

Walter Schirra - Sigma 7 - launched October 3, 1962, 6 orbits. Lieutenant Commander Walter Marty Schirra, Jr., US Navy, had a mission that lasted five hours, 15 minutes. He later filled the pilot command seat for both Gemini 6 and Apollo 7, participating in a total of three of NASA's programs.

Gordon Cooper - Faith 7 - launched May 15, 1963, 22 orbits. Captain Leroy Gordon Cooper, Jr., US Air Force, was the last astronaut to fly solo in space and flew a distance of 546,147 statute miles. His flight lasted 34 hours, 20 minutes, and he was the first astronaut to sleep in space. He later participated in Gemini flights and held the record for the largest number of man hours logged in space with 225, 15 minutes.

Captain Donald Kent Slayton, U.S. Air Force, the remaining member of the original Mercury Seven astronauts did not fly a Mercury mission due to the detection of a heart condition in August of 1959. He was later medically cleared of the heart condition and flew with the crew of the joint Apollo-Soyez Test Project in 1975. The successful test of a universal docking system paved the way for international cooperation in future missions. Slayton logged 217 hours and 28 minutes in his first space flight.

Note the short spans of time between some of these missions. When President John F. Kennedy set a goal for NASA to land a man on the moon and bring him home safely by the year 1970--only about seven years in the future at that time--his words were taken to heart. These six flights accomplished major leaps forward in the space program in an unbelievably short span of time. But Mercury was just the start of America's venture into space. The Gemini and Apollo missions to come would lay the groundwork to reach the moon, and to get us there and back again.

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