In the twentieth century, the United States and the Soviet Union engaged in a competition called the Space Race. This was a race to who would be the first country to send a rocket and a human being up into space. Although the Soviet Union was the first to send both a rocket and a human up into space, the United States successfully carried out a space mission called Project Mercury. Project Mercury was carried out in 1959 and came to a conclusion in 1963.
It was the first human spaceflight program that was undertaken by the United States’ National Aeronautics and Space Administration (NASA). From when it was first introduced, to when the space mission was carried out, and when it had succumbed to its end, Project Mercury became an important mission which left one of the greatest legacies in United States history.
In the initiation of Project Mercury, the government began a search for seven great Americans who would become United States’s first astronauts.
To be considered for the position, the Americans had to meet some requirements, which were as follows: needed to be test pilots, needed to be no taller than 5’11”, needed to weigh no more than 180 pounds, needed to be under the age of forty, needed to have a Bachelor’s degree or equivalent, have 1,500 hours of flying time, and have qualifications for flying jets. In addition to the requirements, the pilots had to go through rigorous testing and training that would assure that they were capable handling problems the spacecraft and the flight may pose on them. Out of the handful of pilots who met these requirements, only seven were chosen to become America’s first astronauts who were Alan Shepard, Gus Grissom, John Glenn, Scott Carpenter, Wally Schirra, Gordon Cooper, and Deke Slayton.
Since these flights were going to be manned, NASA contracted Max Faget as the primary designer, along with a team of engineers to build the Mercury Spacecraft. It’s design was “a cone-shaped one-man capsule with a cylinder mounted on top. Two meters (6 ft, 10 in) long, 1.9 meters (6 ft, 2 1/2 in) in diameter, a 5.8 meter (19 ft, 2 in) escape tower was fastened to the cylinder of the capsule. The blunt end was covered with an ablative heat shield to protect it against the 3000 degree heat of entry into the atmosphere” (Mercury Spacecraft). This design would be the first capsule that would go up into space.
Project Mercury was finally undertaken after all of the seven American Astronauts were physically and mentally prepared, the spacecraft was built, and the rockets were safe to launch. Before America could send the first human up into space, they needed to make sure that the rocket was not going to blow up as it had done in launch tests. Engineers and scientists were working hard to accomplish this, but trial after trial, the rockets were always blowing up. Finally, NASA was able to perfect the rocket, and on May 5, 1961, Alan Shepard was the first American to be launched into space on the spacecraft called Freedom 7. This event was one of the greatest moments for America which anticipated further launches into space to explore what is beyond Earth’s atmosphere.
The second flight was manned by Gus Grissom who was launched into space on the spacecraft called Liberty Bell on July 21, 1961. He successfully was able to complete a suborbital flight, but as he landed, his spacecraft hatch blew open and NASA was not able to recover the spacecraft. The first American to orbit the Earth was the third flight using the Friendship 7 spacecraft that was manned by John Glenn on February 20, 1962. He was only able to orbit the Earth three times due to concerns about the spacecraft’s heat shield. Then, on May 15, 1963, Gordon Cooper became the first American to be in space for over a day and successfully orbited the Earth twenty-two times using the Faith 7 spacecraft. He was also the last American astronaut to be launched into space alone.
Ultimately, Project Mercury came to its end creating one of the greatest legacies of United States history. The overall cost for Project Mercury added up to $1.6 billion in inflation-adjusted dollars (Program Cost). There are numerous legacies that Project Mercury left to Americans. One of those legacies is the will of America to continue the space programs after President John F. Kennedy said that “this nation should commit itself to achieving the goal, before the decade is out, of landing a man on the moon and returning him safely to the earth” (President Kennedy’s Challenge). Also, Project Mercury’s greatest legacy is that it was United States’ first successful human spaceflight program. Project Mercury also influenced author Tom Wolfe who wrote the book The Right Stuff, which was later developed into a movie directed by Philip Kaufman.
In conclusion, from the inception and up to the end of the space program, Project Mercury was a prominent accomplishment for the United States, leaving one of the greatest legacies for America. It changed the game of how America would accomplish its goals of becoming the first country to send an astronaut to the moon. At the end, the seven American astronauts who were chosen to be part of the space program will always be part of United States’ history and Project Mercury will continue to be the reason for where we are today pertaining to America’s advanced space program.