Mercury capsule

NASA's first manned spacecraft was just one-third the weight of the Soviet Vostok - it had to be in order to be launched by the weaker US rockets of the time. Yet both vehicles had to address the same problems of life support in orbit, re-orientation in space, and re-entry into the atmosphere. A variety of designs were pitched by potential contractors, but NASA's Space Task Group already knew they wanted a conical, wingless capsule that would re-enter the atmosphere on a ballistic trajectory. In January 1959, McDonnell Aircraft Corporation were awarded the prime contract.

FLIGHT CONTROLS

Compared to the minimalism of Vostok, the Mercury capsule was lined with banks of switches and controls. This was largely thanks to the persistent lobbying of the Mercury Seven astronauts, who argued that there was little point in sending highly trained pilots into space os mere passengers (or "spam in a con", as a sceptical Chuck Yeager memorably put it).

ablative heat shield entry and escope hatch with explosive bolts

BOILERPLATE CAPSULE

The first dummy capsules were built in-house at NASA's Langley division for test launches with the Little Joe rocket. They were designed to mimic the weight and aerodynamic characteristics of the completed Mercury.

environmental control system

CAPSULE TESTING

Model capsules were tested in wind tunnels with scaled-down parachutes (above). The inflatable ring that would cushion the splashdown and keep the spacecraft afloat was also tested (right). Meanwhile, engineers set to work on increasingly complex boilerplote capsules (above right).

moulded astronaut support couch roll jets astronaut leg / restraints instrument panel communications equipment

antenna fairing main chute bag main chute

1 Drogue shoot deploys at 6,700m

(22,000ft), slowing the spacecraft down

3 With main chute open, an inflatable air cushion deploys from behind the heat shield

helium tank for reaction thrusters control panel main and reserve chute housing roll horizon scanner

Horizon Models Atlas Mercury

drogue chute housing pitch horizon scanner destabilizer flap length 3.5m (11ft 6in)

maximum diameter 1.89m (6ÍI 2%in)

mass at launch 1,934kg (4,265lb)

recovery compartment crew mass at landing 1,130kg (2,493lb) engines solid rocket retro-pack manufacturer McDonnell Aircraft Corporation helium tank for reaction thrusters pitch horizon scanner destabilizer flap

THE MERCURY SPACECRAFT

The astronaut sat inside the cramped Mercury capsule on a made-to-measure pilot's seat, his back to the heat shield and retropack. Though attitude control was supposed to be guided by the Automatic Attitude Control System, the Mercury pilots frequently used a hand controller that could adjust the spacecraft's yaw, pitch, and roll either simultaneously or independently.

control panel length 3.5m (11ft 6in)

maximum diameter 1.89m (6ÍI 2%in)

mass at launch 1,934kg (4,265lb)

main and reserve chute housing

ESCAPE TOWER

The idea of a "tractor rocket" to pull the spacecraft free of the launch vehicle in the event of an emergency was proposed by Max Foget in July 1958. It evolved into an "escape tower" capable of taking the spacecraft high enough for the parachutes to deploy and make a safe return to Earth.

drogue chute main chute bag main chute recovery compartment crew antenna fairing

NAME AND NUMBER

Gordon Cooper is helped aboard his Faith 7 capsule for a flight rehearsol. Each Mercury capsule was given a name by its pilot, followed by the number 7. Chrysler employee Cecelia Bibby painted the logos onto the side of the spacecraft.

1 Drogue shoot deploys at 6,700m

PARACHUTE SYSTEM

The initial drogue parachute slowed the craft's speed to 111m (365ft) per second. At 3km (10,000ft), the moin chute was released, slowing descent to 9m (30ft) per second.

3 With main chute open, an inflatable air cushion deploys from behind the heat shield roll horizon scanner drogue chute housing

(22,000ft), slowing the spacecraft down

2 Main deploys at 3,000m (10,000ft)

mass at landing 1,130kg (2,493lb) engines solid rocket retro-pack manufacturer McDonnell Aircraft Corporation

BIG JOE RIDES OUT

An Atlas launch vehicle with a Mercury boilerplate capsule on top, Big Joe was a test of Mercury's ablative heatshield. On 9 September 1959, the rocket launched its payload to a height of 145km (90 miles) above the Atlantic. When the capsule was recovered, the shield proved to have coped with its ordeal well.

9 May 1960

First in a series of trials, known as "beach aborts", at Wallops Island test the Mercury capsule's escape systems.

29 July 1960

The launch of a boilerplate Mercury capsule aboard an Atlas rocket ends in a crash after 59 seconds.

8 November 1960

The first of the Little Joe launches takes off from Wallops Island to test the spacecraft's structural integrity. However, a rocket fault destroys the spacecraft 15 seconds after launch.

19 December 1960

The Mercury-Redstone 1A mission launches an unmanned capsule on a suborbital flight.

31 January 1961

Mercury-Redstone 2 takes off, carrying Ham the chimp on a suborbital flight.

24 March 1961

The successful test flight of Mercury-Redstone mission MR-BD qualifies the rocket for manned flight.

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