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Project Mercury: America's First Space Explorers


In the predawn darkness of May 5, 1961, Alan Shepard, the man destined to become the first American in space in just a few hours, traveled to the launch pad. A Mercury capsule was waiting for him, atop a rocket called Redstone. NASA had only been operational for three years and by now the impressive early rocket triumphs by the Soviets warranted an American response. NASA was only six months old when it chose the seven astronauts for Project Mercury in 1959.

Mercury Seven Astronauts in Spacesuits

Some 45 million citizens kept an eye on TV updates or listened for radio reports, as Shepard sat in his capsule, waiting for the “go” signal. After four hours and a series of hold ups, Shepard urged the team to “fix your little problem and light this candle!” They did and Shepard made a 15-minute suborbital arc before splashing down in the Atlantic. America’s space program was in business!

The first national human space flight program, Project Mercury, spanned nearly five years, six missions and made history. Gus Grissom became the second astronaut to fly in space during Project Mercury. The third astronaut was John Glenn. In 1962, Glenn became the first American to orbit Earth. Two flights reached space and came back down and four went into orbit and circled Earth. The Mercury spacecraft had room for only one astronaut who stayed seated during the flight. Two types of rockets were used for Project Mercury. The first two of the six flights with an astronaut on board used a Redstone rocket. The four manned flights that orbited Earth used an Atlas rocket. At Heroes & Legends featuring the U.S. Astronaut Hall of Fame® presented by Boeing® at Kennedy Space Center Visitor Complex, visitors walk below the actual Mercury spacecraft flown by astronaut Wally Schirra, attached to an Atlas rocket, suspended from the ceiling. 

The seven Mercury astronauts were pioneers, their courage and dedication built a foundation for many successes in later space programs.

Timeline:

  • 1958 Project Mercury is initiated
  • April 10, 1959 Astronauts introduced in a press conference
  • May 5, 1961 Alan Shepard becomes the first American in space
  • February 20, 1962 John Glenn is the first American to orbit the earth
  • May 25, 1961 President John F. Kennedy announced before a special joint session of Congress the dramatic and ambitious goal of sending an American safely to the Moon before the end of the decade
  • May 15, 1963 Gordon Cooper’s 22 orbits are the final flight of the program