By CHARLES W. MCGUIRE, Office of Manned Space Flight, NASA Headquarters, and JAMES J. SHANNON, Asst. Chief, Engineering Operations Office, Mercury Project Office, NASA Manned Spacecraft Center




[33] This paper outlines the contributions that were made to the Mercury Project by NASA organizations other than the Manned Spacecraft Center. These contributions began several years before the Mercury Project had official status through the basic research of the National Advisory Committee for Aeronautics which showed such a project to be feasible. The assistance provided by these organizations contributed directly to the timely development of the Mercury spacecraft and its systems, two of the three launch vehicles used in the Mercury program, and the Mercury Tracking Network.




The efforts that were recently ended with the successful completion of the Mercury program did not begin with the initiation of the Mercury Project in late 1958 but, in reality, began several years before that date. The research conducted in the wind tunnels and other facilities of the National Advisory Committee for Aeronautics (NACA) in a decade preceding the Mercury Project established the concepts that eventually led to the Mercury Project. None of these original concepts needed to be changed during the Mercury program.


It is well known that the NACA provided its personnel and its facilities as a nucleus for the new agency when the NASA was established in October 1958. Almost immediately, a small group of scientists and engineers was organized at the Langley Research Center in Virginia to formulate plans for the Mercury Project. Many of this group were personnel of the Langley, Lewis Research Centers who had contributed to the original concepts of a man-in-space project in the preceding years. This organization became the Space Task Group (STG) and quickly began growing in size and capability. While the Space Task Group, and later the Manned Spacecraft Center (MSC), provided the direction and management of the Mercury Project, many thousands of scientists, engineers, technicians, and administrators throughout the NASA organization provided vital support for the Mercury Project without this support, Mercury could not have accomplished its goals within the time and costs that were realized.


It is appropriate to recognize that Langley Research Center is mentioned most frequently throughout this paper. The close association between Mercury and Langley is attributed to the fact that many of the original Space Task Group were personnel from the Langley Research Center and to the equally important fact that the STG and the MSC were physically located within the Langley Research Center for over 3 1/2 years.


In addition to the formal technical support discussed in the following sections, administrative support was provided in the fields such as procurement, personnel, and security, by Langley in the initial phase of STG. The Launch Operations Center provided similar administrative support to the Mercury Field Office at Cape Canaveral.


Spacecraft Development


After a contract was awarded for the Mercury spacecraft, some 16 months passed before the contractor delivered the first production spacecraft. In order that full-scale tests could be conducted in the meanwhile, a large number of research and development spacecraft were constructed by NASA. These test articles were largely made of steel plate and, hence, have been called "boilerplates."


[34] The boilerplates, which were made cheaply and quickly, resembled the Mercury spacecraft only in external configuration, in weight, and in center-of-gravity location. They were used primarily to obtain data on the performance of Mercury rocket motors and parachutes, and to obtain aerodynamic and thermal data needed for the design of the Mercury spacecraft.


In September, 1959, one of these boilerplates was flown through a ballistic flight by using the first Mercury-Atlas launch vehicle. This test, called Big Joe, was flown to gather thermodynamic data during reentry. This boilerplate was constructed in phases by both the Langley and the Lewis Research Centers. The Langley Research Center also provided the parachute landing system for the boilerplate and the Lewis Research Center designed and furnished the instrumentation and telemetry system. This successful flight test' in which the Langley and Lewis Centers played so large a part, provided valuable design data for the Mercury spacecraft.


The Langley Research Center also designed and constructed a series of boilerplates which were used in the Little Joe series of flights flown at Wallops Station, Va., in 1959 and 1960. The Little Joe tests were flown to prove the concepts of the launch escape system for inflight aborts at critical conditions and to evaluate the performance of this system.


Similar boilerplates were used in the Mercury program in drop tests for parachute-system qualification and as astronaut egress trainers until a Mercury spacecraft became available for this purpose. Much of the environmental qualification of equipment carried on all these boilerplates was conducted at Langley.


The many wind tunnels of the Langley, Lewis. and Ames Research Centers were used to perform tests early in the Mercury program to define the configuration of the Mercury spacecraft. Some 28 different wind-tunnel facilities conducted 103 separate investigations and accumulated over 5,300 hours of tunnel time by the end of 1960. These tests measured static and dynamic stability. pressure distributions. and heat-transfer data through subsonic, transonic, and supersonic speed regimes. Certain tests were made for vibration and flutter characteristics, and others to determine the correct size of the drogue parachute for stabilization. The Mercury escape and reentry configurations were' tested alone and in combination with all of launch vehicles in the Mercury program. Additional tests were made at Langley on alternate escape configurations, on the structural characteristic of the Mercury shingles, and on Mercury heat-shield materials. Langley also assisted in the data reduction and analysis of test run outside of NASA, such as the buffet study made in a wind-tunnel at the Air Force Arnold Engineering Development Center.


Tests were conducted at Wallops Station, Va., early in the program to evaluate the escape system planned for the Mercury spacecraft. These tests used both boilerplate and product spacecraft with the production escape and landing systems. The first such tests were "off-the pad" aborts. These tests were followed by inflight aborts from the Little Joe launch vehicle. Wallops supported these tests with radar tracking, optical tracking, photography, telemetry reception, data playback, and radio command functions. This support was in addition to providing normal launch and range-clearance support and shop and office facilities.


During the development of the propulsion systems for the Mercury spacecraft, special tests were conducted in a high-altitude wind tunnel at the Lewis Research Center to evaluate the performance of the escape rocket and retrorocket motors. The popgun effect of firing the posigrade rocket motors into the Mercury-Atlas adapter cavity between the spacecraft and the launch vehicle was measured. In addition, the effect of the escape rocket exhaust on the Mercury spacecraft window was evaluated.


Lewis also conducted developmental tests on the hydrogen peroxide reaction control system and on the manual proportional control system in the altitude chamber.


The Langley Research Center conducted series of tests on the solenoid valves for the' reaction control system thrusters. These tests were conducted in altitude chambers to determine the effect of vacuum on the valve. The results of the tests established that a vacuum did not affect the operation of a valve even when it was not operated for 24 hours. A method evaluating the movement of the solenoid valve's seat by measuring the electric current flow (signature) was developed for these tests. The method of measuring the valve's signature was [35] later sued for selecting valves that were acceptable for flight.The development of the spacecraft landing system required an extensive series of tests which began at Langley Research Center in 1958. In the early development of the main parachute, drops were made at West Point and Wallops Island, Va., and at Pope Air Force Base, N.C. Langley supported these tests with personnel, aircraft, test vehicles, instrumentation and tracking equipment. Later tests were made at the NASA Flight Research Center at Edwards Air Force Base, Calif., to develop the Mercury drogue parachute. For these tests, the Flight Research Center provided personnel, test vehicles, and all other facilities needed to accomplish the program. The development of the landing-impact skirt required the assistance of NASA facilities at Langley Research Center and Wallops Station.


In the development of the Mercury heat protection system, the Langley Research Center made numerous structural tests at elevated temperatures on samples of the ablation heat shield, the Rene 41 conical shingles, and the beryllium recovery-section shingles.


When a formal program was established by Manned Spacecraft Center to conduct special inflight experiments on Mercury flights which were not directly related to the mission objectives, other NASA organizations proposed and furnished many of the experiments that were performed. On all the manned orbital flights, the Goddard Space Flight Center and the NASA Headquarters Office of Space Sciences sponsored experiments related to astronomy and earth and space science in general. These organizations also provided assistance in the evaluation of all proposed experiments. Goddard provided special filters and other optional equipment used in making some of these space-science observations.


The flashing-beacon experiment flown on the MA-9 flight was designed, constructed, and qualified by the Langley Research Center. Langley also provided the balloon-drag experiments flown on MA-7 and MA-9. The Lewis Research Center proposed and furnished the zero-gravity experiment carried on the MA-7 spacecraft. On the MA-8 flight, a number of ablation materials were bonded to the recovery-section shingles to evaluate them for heat- protection on future spacecraft. Langley not only furnished two of these materials, but conducted many tests on samples of the coated shingles to assure a good bond and no degradation of the safety, aspects of the MA-8 mission.


Launch-Vehicle Development


The NASA centers were involved in the procurement and operation of two of the three launch vehicles used in the Mercury program- the Little Joe and the Redstone. The Little Joe was conceived early in 1958 by the same group at Langley that formulated the man-in-space program. This launch vehicle performed much of the qualification of the Mercury spacecraft at approximately one-sixth the cost of an Atlas. Shortly after the official start of Project Mercury, the Space Task Group requested Langley to accept the responsibility for the procurement of six flight vehicles and one test article. Accepting this responsibility. Langley performed the basic design of the vehicle wrote the specification, evaluated contractors proposals, and awarded and monitored the contract for detail design, construction, and testing. After delivery of the Little Joe vehicles, Langley provided personnel for the assembly, checkout, and launch of these vehicles at Wallops Station, Va. A command destruct system was also designed and provided by Langley for the first four Little Joe vehicles. In addition, Langley designed and constructed the spacecraft launch-vehicle adapters for all Little Joe flights.


The Marshall Space Flight Center was instrumental in implementing the Mercury-Redstone program. Marshall's task was the provision of a launch vehicle for manned flight that had previously been used only for unmanned payloads of considerably lighter weight. Technical groups were formed to conduct studies and perform reliability and structural tests. is a result of these studies, a number of modifications were made in the Redstone launch-vehicle to make it acceptable for manned flight. Major [36] modifications, made largely at Marshall were made in some subsystems, and an Abort Sensing and Implementation System (ASIS) was designed for and integrated into the launch vehicle. Other work done at Marshall included compatibility testing of the spacecraft-launch-vehicle combination and static firing of each launch vehicle prior to delivery to Cape Canaveral. The resulting launch-vehicle reliability was a milestone in the Mercury program that contributed to the reduced requirement for only five Redstone flights instead of the eight originally programed.


Prelaunch checkout and launch operations for the Mercury-Redstone missions were conducted by the NASA Launch Operations Center at Cape Canaveral which was formerly the Launch Operations Division of the Marshall Space Flight Center. The Launch Operations Center now provides much support to the Manned Spacecraft Center at Cape Canaveral in many technical and administrative areas and in the provision of facilities.


Mercury Network Development


Of considerable importance in the successful accomplishment of the Mercury missions was, of course, the Worldwide Mercury Tracking an d Communications Network. The responsibility for the development of this network was given to the Langley Research Center. A group formed at Langley in early 1959 wrote the specifications for the network and awarded a contract for its design and construction in July 1959. After the contract award, this Langley group continuously monitored and contributed to the design and development of the network facilities . The nerve center of the Mercury network is the automatic, high-speed computing equipment located at and operated by the Goddard Space Flight Center. Langley's responsibility for the network ended with the acceptance of the facilities by the government. Thereafter, the maintenance and operation of the Mercury network became the total responsibility of the Goddard Space Flight Center.

Previous Index Next