In the late 1950s, he United States and the Soviet Union were locked in a competition for global influence and prestige—the Cold War—and began to compete on a new frontier: space. Both nations started programs to send humans into space. In the United States, that program was Project Mercury.  

Its goals are simple to explain. Known as America’s “man-in-space” program, Project Mercury’s aim was to put a man in orbit, understand the technical requirements and medical effects, and bring him back alive.  

Accomplishing these goals was more complex. That would be the work of the newly created National Aeronautics and Space Administration—NASA. In July 1958, a few months before the advent of Project Mercury, President Eisenhower signed the act creating NASA. It was built upon an older federal research agency, the National Advisory Committee for Aeronautics (NACA), founded in 1915. NASA would carry out the peaceful and scientific parts of the space program. Eisenhower and Senate Majority Leader Lyndon Johnson agreed that a civilian space agency would reduce rivalry among the armed services and be better for the United States’ image in the Cold War. Just a few months after the organization’s founding, in the fall of 1958, Project Mercury was launched.  

NASA was a civilian organization. However, President Eisenhower decided to use only military test pilots as astronauts. This essentially meant that only white males could qualify. At the time, no women could become pilots in the U.S. armed forces. Entrenched racial discrimination also meant there were very few test pilots of color.  

The seven test pilots selected were dubbed the Mercury 7 and became instant heroes. When asked who wanted to go into space first, Donald “Deke” Slayton, Alan Shepard, Walter Schirra, Virgil “Gus” Grissom, John Glenn, L. Gordon Cooper, and M. Scott Carpenter all raised their hands—John Glenn raised two.  

Would you have volunteered to be the first in space? Image courtesy of NASA.

Ultimately it would be Alan Shepard who would hold the honor of being the first American in space. On May 5, 1961, Shepard made a 15-minute suborbital flight. His Mercury capsule, which he named Freedom 7, was launched from Cape Canaveral, Florida and landed in the Atlantic Ocean.  

Shepard was the first American in space—but not the first person. The U.S.S.R. had beaten the United States to space a month earlier on April 12, when Yuri Gagarin became the first person in space. He made one orbit around the Earth on a mission that lasted 108 minutes.   

Shepard wore this spacesuit during his history-making flight. The Mercury spacesuit was a close-fitting, two-layer, full-pressure suit. Its main function was to protect the astronaut against an unplanned loss of cabin pressure. Image courtesy of the Smithsonian Institution.
Alan Shepard’s Freedom 7 capsule. Unlike other Mercury capsules, it has only two small portholes. Once beyond the atmosphere, Shepard looked through a periscope, which extended from the side opposite the hatch. Shepard used small thrusters to adjust the capsule’s attitude in space.  Image courtesy of the Smithsonian Institution. 

Shepard would be followed into space by six members of the Mercury 7 astronauts. Deke Slayton was the only Mercury astronaut not to fly in space during the program—he was removed from eligibility due to a heart condition. 

Mission,
Spacecraft Name 
Date Pilot Flight Time Orbits
Mercury-Redstone 3,
Freedom 7 
May 5, 1961  Alan Shepard  15 minutes  Suborbital 
Mercury-Redstone 4,
Liberty Bell 7 
July 21, 1961  Gus Grissom  15 minutes  Suborbital 
Mercury-Atlas 6,
Friendship 7 
February 20, 1962  John Glenn  4 hours, 55 minutes  3
Mercury-Atlas 7,
Aurora 7 
May 24, 1964  Scott Carpenter  4 hours, 55 minutes  3
Mercury-Atlas 8,
Sigma 7 
October 3, 1962  Walter Schirra  9 hours, 13 minutes  6
Mercury-Atlas 9,
Faith 7 
May 15, 1963  Gordon Cooper  1 day, 10 hours, 20 minutes  22

 

While the Mercury 7 were the most famous faces of project Mercury, they were supported by scores of people on the ground—including mathematicians like Katherine Johnson. Johnson, known today as a “hidden figure,” was referred to as a “human computer.” She was a mathematician who calculated the spacecraft trajectories for Project Mercury.  She checked the computer calculations for John Glenn’s return by using a desktop calculator. She spent the rest of her career at Langley as a computer scientist. 

Katherine Johnson works at her desk. Image courtesy of NASA.

Much as Johnson’s career continued, so too did the space program. After Alan Shepard’s successful flight into space in May, President Kennedy went before Congress and challenged the nation “before the decade is out, to land a man on the Moon and return him safely to the Earth.” As Project Mercury concluded, Kennedy’s challenge would spur on the Gemini and Apollo programs.   

Related Topics Spaceflight Human spaceflight Mercury program People Women
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