Mercury Spacecraft


The Mercury Spacecraft was the first American manned spacecraft. Each Mercury capsule was named by the astronaut who flew in it. The names of all capsules ended with the number 7. The “7” was intended to suggest the teamwork of the astronaut group. The astronauts flew solo in cone-shaped capsules.

Mercury Spacecraft

Mercury Capsule:

The capsules were two meters long and 1.89 metres wide. A cylinder was mounted to the top of each capsule with a 5.8 metre escape tower attached to it. Heat shields protected the capsule and astronaut from the 3,000 degree Fahrenheit reentry. The astronaut lay in the spacecraft with his back to the shield. The capsule’s narrow nose housed the parachutes that slowed its descent through the atmosphere before splashdown.

Max Faget was chiefly responsible for the design of the Mercury spacecraft. Max Faget was also influential in the design of Gemini, Apollo and Shuttle spacecraft.

Launch Vehicles:

Two launch vehicles (rockets) were used during the Mercury Project: a Redstone rocket launched the MR-3 and MR-4 suborbital flights and an Atlas rocket was used for the remaining four orbital flights.

The missions steadily increased in duration from 15 minutes and 22 seconds to 34 hours, 19 minutes and 49 seconds.

Project Mercury

The National Aeronautics and Space Administration was formed on October 1, 1958, and the man in space program was introduced just six days later. The program was renamed “Project Mercury” by Nov. 26, 1958, just prior to the commencement of the astronaut candidate selection process.

Project Mercury met all three of its objectives: orbit a manned spacecraft around Earth; learn about man’s ability to function in space; and safely recover the man and spacecraft. The project ultimately put six men in space, four of whom made orbital flights around Earth. It proved that men could function normally for up to 34 hours of weightless flight. Over two million people worked on the project for almost five years. By 1963, Project Mercury wrapped up and Project Gemini was two years into its development stages.

Astronaut Selection

Mercury astronaut candidate requirements were strict. NASA required that all astronauts be male, no older than 40, no taller than 5’11 and in excellent physical condition. They had to have graduated from test pilot school, be a qualified jet pilot with at least 1,500 flying hours, and have a bachelor’s degree or the equivalent in experience. NASA officials began with a pool of 508 service records. One hundred and ten of those men met the requirements. This group was further whittled down by physical and psychological testing until just seven men remained.

The Mercury Seven were introduced to the public at a press conference in Washington, D.C. on April 9, 1959. They rapidly took on hero status.

All of the men except Deke Slayton flew into space on a Mercury flight. Slayton developed a heart problem that later went away, allowing him to fly on the Apollo-Soyuz Test Project mission.

Mercury Missions

There were nine missions, six were piloted.

1. Mercury 3: – Suborbital Flight

Launch Date: May 5, 1961.
Astronaut: Alan Shepard.
Rocket: Mercury Redstone 3
Capsule: Freedom 7

* Alan Shepard was the first American in Space.

2. Mercury 4

Launch Date: July 21, 1961.
Astronaut: Virgil ‘Gus’ Grissom
Rocket: Mercury Redstone (MR-4)
Capsule: Liberty Bell

* Capsule sank but astronaut rescued.

3. Merury 6

Launch Date: February 20, 1962.
Astronaut: John Glenn
Rocket: Mercury Atlas 6 (MA-6)
Capsule: Friendship 7

* John Glenn was the first American in Earth orbit.

* John Glenn took the first photographs of the Earth from space during the third Mercury manned mission.

4. Mercury 7
Launch Date: May 24, 1962
Astronaut: Scott Carpenter
Rocket: Mercury Atlas (MA-7)
Capsule: Aurora 7

* First meal eaten in space. Missed landing site by 402km (250 miles).

5. Mercury 8

Launch Date: October 3, 1962
Astronaut: Walter Schirra
Rocket: Mercury Atlas (MA-8)
Capsule Sigma 7

* First splashdown in Pacific Ocean.

6. Mercury 9

Launch Date: May 15, 1963
Astronaut: 6. Gordon Cooper
Rocket: Mercury Atlas (MA-9),
Capsule: Faith 7

* First US Flight to exceed 24 hours.

* Gordon Cooper was the first person to release a satellite from a spacecraft. He released a 6 inch sphere that had a strobe light beacon for a visual tracking.

Mercury MA-7 Delta 7

Astronaut Deke Slayton was to have been the second American in orbit. His planned flight was cancelled 18 March 1962 when the astronaut’s minor heart condition became public. Walter M. Schirra was his back-up. When Slayton was selected as an astronaut in 1959, it was known he had a minor heart fibrillation.

Delta 7 was the name planned second US manned orbital flight capsule. Delta is the fourth letter in the Greek alphabet and as this would have been the fourth manned flight.

Scott Carpenter was the second American to orbit the Earth. He was launched on May 24, 1962 on Mercury-Atlas 7.

Did you know?

* The Mercury space suit was developed from a military flying suit – the US Navy Mark IV Pressure Suit used for high altitude aircraft flights.

* Mercury Mark II was the original name given to the Gemini program.

* Wally Schirra was the only astronaut to fly in Mercury, Gemini and Apollo spacecraft. He flew on Mercury 8, Gemini 6 and Apollo 7.

Mercury Spacecraft Links:

The Mercury Project – Spacecraft:

Boeing – McDonnell Douglas History, Mercury Spacecraft:

The Launch Pad-Mercury

The Mercury Project: Includes Information and Digital Image collection.

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