Project Mercury History

Alan Shepard piloted the first crewed Mercury flight, Freedom 7, shown here a few seconds after launch [NASA Photograph].

Initiated in 1958 and completed in 1963, Project Mercury was the United States' first human-in-space program. The objectives of the program, which made six manned flights from 1961 to 1963, were specific:

  • To orbit a crewed spacecraft around Earth.
  • To test humans' ability to function in space.
  • The successful re-entry and recovery of the orbital spacecraft and crew.
Initial tests of Project Mercury were uncrewed and in some cases carried primates to test the effects of weightlessness prior to crewed spaceflight missions.

The first crewed Mercury flight (5 May 1961) launched the Freedom 7 spacecraft, piloted by Alan Shepard, on a suborbital test flight. Shepard landed safely in the Atlantic Ocean, giving the United States its critical first human spaceflight experience. The flight, though short, was a huge relief. At the time the Soviet Union had orbited a cosmonaut (12 April 1961), Yuri Gagarin, about the Earth while the United States was having problems getting rockets off the pad without an explosion. The American public was deeply concerned that the United States had indeed fallen behind the Soviet Union in the realm of rocketry, and technology development in general. Today, it is hard for most people to comprehend the mighty decades-long struggle between the Western Allies and the Warsaw Pact, but space exploration was one of the most important fronts in the Cold War. Shepard's short flight was perceived as a tentative affirmation of the American way of life. It was not until nine months later (20 February 1962) that John Glenn orbited the Earth in his Mercury spacecraft Friendship 7, but America was still lagging behind the Soviet Union.

Less than three weeks after Shepard's flight (25 May 1961) President Kennedy challenged America in "landing a man on the moon and returning him safely to the Earth" by the end of the decade. With only fifteen minutes of human spaceflight experience to build upon, sending a human to the Moon in this short time frame was an audacious goal. Project Mercury was followed by the successful Gemini program and then, of course, the Apollo program, which fulfilled Kennedy's challenge. Today the other crewed and uncrewed Mercury flights are mostly forgotten. However, each flight played a critical role in NASA's early efforts to learn to fly in space. These high-resolution scans of the original Mercury flight films bring these historic flights to life.

Summary of Project Mercury

  • Mercury Redstone 1A (MR-1A): 19 December 1960, suborbital.
  • Mercury Redstone 2 (MR-2): 31 January 1961, suborbital, carried chimpanzee "Ham".
  • Mercury Redstone 3 (MR-3): 5 May 1961, suborbital, piloted by Alan Shepard.
  • Mercury Redstone 4 (MR-4): 21 July 1961, piloted by Gus Grissom, film was lost when the spacecraft sank. (Images not available)
  • Mercury Atlas 4 (MA-4): 13 September 1961, 1 orbit.
  • Mercury Atlas 5 (MA-5): 29 November 1961, 2 orbits, carried chimpanzee "Enos".
  • Mercury Atlas 6 (MA-6): 20 February 1962, 3 orbits, piloted by John Glenn.
  • Mercury Atlas 7 (MA-7): 24 May 1962, 3 orbits, piloted by Scott Carpenter.
  • Mercury Atlas 8 (MA-8): 3 October 1962, 6 orbits, piloted by Walter Schirra.
  • Mercury Atlas 9 (MA-9): 15 May 1963, 22 orbits, piloted by Gordon Cooper.