Spacecraft

The first spacecraft had to be light enough to carry the passenger into space and yet rugged enough to withstand the stresses and heating of launch and reentry.

 

An illustration of the Vostok in flight
An illustration of the Vostok in flight

Soviet designers based their design for a recoverable, human-carrying spacecraft on their experience with sending dogs into space. The spherical return capsule used parachutes to slow its descent, but the cosmonaut had to eject from the capsule at an altitude of 7,000 meters (23,000 feet) to survive the landing. Early Soviet reports of Gagarin's flight omitted this detail.

An instrument panel in the vehicle.
An instrument panel in the vehicle.
Tempe
The interior of Shepard's Freedom 7 capsule.
The interior of Shepard's Freedom 7 capsule.

NASA designed the Mercury capsule for a water landing. A parachute deployed at 7,500 meters (24,500 feet) to slow the spacecraft. Unlike a Vostok cosmonaut, the astronaut stayed inside during the entire descent. During launch, an escape rocket on top could pull the capsule away in an emergency.

The Mercury capsule with its escape rocket still attached.
The Mercury capsule with its escape rocket still attached.
Courtesy NASA
Mercury Capsule MA-6 <em>Friendship 7</em>
You can see John Glenn's Mercury capsule Friendship 7 in the Boeing Milestones of Flight Hall.