Most people know of the Apollo program, which succeeded in landing the first humans on the Moon in 1969. But how much do you know of Project Mercury?
Project Mercury was the NASA program that put the first American astronauts in space. Astronauts made a total of six spaceflights during Project Mercury. Two of those flights reached space and came right back down. These are called suborbital flights. The other four went into orbit and circled Earth. The flights were made 1961-1963.
The Mercury spacecraft was designed for this project. It was a small capsule with room for one astronaut. The astronaut stayed in his seat during the whole flight. NASA selected the seven astronauts for the project in 1959. The agency had only existed for six months at that time.
Before astronauts flew in Project Mercury, NASA conducted several test flights without people aboard. The first Atlas rocket launched with a Mercury capsule exploded. The first Mercury-Redstone launch only went about four ten centimeters off the ground. NASA also took help from three monkeys, Sam, Ham and Enos, and let them flew in Mercury capsules. Sam and Ham made suborbital flights. Enos made two orbits around Earth. All three primates made it home safely.
Alan Shepard made the first Mercury flight. That flight made him the first American in space. The 15-minute flight went into space and came back down. His Mercury capsule was named Freedom 7. Years later, Shepard walked on the moon as commander of the Apollo 14 mission. The third astronaut to fly in Project Mercury was John Glenn. In 1962, he became the first American to orbit Earth, aboard Friendship 7.
The project was named Mercury after the Roman god. Each astronaut named his spacecraft and Alan Shepard included a 7 in the name of his Mercury capsule. This was because it was the seventh one made. The other astronauts then also included a 7, in honor of the seven astronauts chosen for the project.
The agency learned how to put astronauts in orbit around Earth. It learned how people could live and work in space. It learned how to operate a spacecraft in orbit. These lessons were very important and NASA used them in later space programs.