A decision by National Aeronautics and Space Administration Headquarters in October 1961 extended the Mercury program by adding 1-day missions after three- and six-orbit flights. Also, during the same year, follow-on manned space programs, later known as Projects Gemini and Apollo, began to take form. These events were rather unusual, for here was program expansion on a higher level of difficulty prior to the time that the basic objectives of Project Mercury, the launch and safe return of a man from earth orbit, had been attained. Obviously, Project Mercury, first guided by the Space Task Group and then by the Manned Spacecraft Center (the successor organization), had built up a high confidence factor as to the potential success of the space venture. To a large degee, this action was graphically supported at that point in time by the highly successful suborbital flights of Alan Shepard and Virgil Grissom and the orbital flight of the "mechanical astronaut."
Project Mercury's formal program approval date was October 7, 1958, and 3 years and 2 weeks from the award of the development and production contract by NASA to the McDonnell Aircraft Corporation of St. Louis, Missouri, the orbital flight of John Glenn aboard the Mercury spacecraft, "Friendship 7," transpired. When this uncommonly brief time scale is compared with other major programs of national note and urgency, the question of how man was committed so soon to orbital flight is certain to be posed.
The key to this phenomenal success was concurrency of effort. That is, all facets of the program leading to manned space flight were guided along a simultaneous route and not by the concept of qualifying each phase before development work began on another. From the outset, work was being accomplished on all components of the spacecraft, adapting the launch vehicles, readying the worldwide tracking network, selecting and training astronauts, and developing ground support equipment for systems checkout and astronaut training. No detail was too small to warrant the attention of scientists and engineers who were charged with making the awesome decisions that would commit man to orbital flight. Every organization that had acquired any technical proficiency or had built up a capability in a particular field that could be applied to the space program was visited, and arrangements were made for assistance, facilities, or the use of equipment. Also, the test and reliability program to which Mercury hardware was subjected was exhaustive and thorough. In fact, this unusually close attention refutes the "crash program" connotation often cited. The term "accelerated" more aptly describes the effort. That the managers were not swayed toward a crash program even in the face of an American public anxiously awaiting the advent of manned space flight, was unusual.
There were a number of catalysts which created the conditions leading to the approval of the Mercury project, and many of these circumstances and events contributed directly to the goal of attaining manned space flight. Shortly after World War II, experimental missile tests were conducted in the White Sands, N. Mex. area to altitudes beyond the sensible atmosphere. During this same period, rocket aircraft research was initiated with the objective of piercing the sound barrier. Then from the early to the mid-fifties the National Advisory Committee for Aeronautics and industry scientists and engineers made the assault on the thermal barrier to resolve the reentry problem for the ballistic missile. These excellent mediums of research formed a natural progression for the NACA to attack the problems of manned space flight. Another factor contributing to the growing interest in the national space program was the planning and research that was devoted to the artificial earth satellite program for the International Geophysical Year. Then the flight of Sputnik I in 1957 furnished the "yeast" necessary for the American public to support a manned space flight project. Finally, the Atlas launch vehicle had reached a point in development at which serious consideration could be given for its application to manned space flight. At that time the Atlas was the only American launch vehicle capable of lifting a payload for the manned orbital requirements.
This document chronicles the three major phases of the Mercury program - conception, research and development, and operation. Even in this brief form, the reader can readily observe the meticulous attention to detail that was given by personnel of the NASA, other Government agencies, and American industry associated with the conduct of the program to assure mission success in our first manned step in space.
James M. Grimwood