Steps to orbit

On 17 December, Glennan announced Project Mercury to the world. The plan was to develop the programme incrementally, as different launch vehicles came on stream. A relatively small rocket called Little Joe would carry dummy capsules to high altitude. Redstones and Jupiters would perform ballistic "hops" into space, and finally the US Air Force's giant Atlas ICBM, still in development, would take the capsule into orbit.

But as the programme got started, one question remained - who would be the astronauts? Debate raged within NASA about selection criteria, and it was Eisenhower who ultimately decreed that the astronauts should be test pilots, although some had more radical ideas (see panel, below left). On 9 April 1959, the United States was presented with seven new heroes - the Mercury astronauts who were intended to be the first humans to travel into space.


The Multiple Axis Test Inertia Facility (MASTIF) was a Mercury simulator mounted on gimbals that allowed trainees to practise controlling its motion in three different axes.


The test pilots selected to be Mercury's astronauts inspect a model of the Mercury-Redstone vehicle that would carry manned US missions into space.



Early in Project Mercury, it looked as though the USA might pick a woman as its first astronaut. The idea was proposed by Dr. Randolph Lovelace in early 1959, while he was assessing medical criteria for spaceflight. Lovelace argued that women were smaller and lighter than men, required less oxygen and coped better with stress. A group of talented female pilots including Jerrie Cobb (left) travelled to the Lovelace Clinic in secret and underwent rigorous testing in which they proved themselves just as good as male candidates. A couple went on to undertake further training. However, the social attitudes of the time ultimately ensured that none of them would ever make it to space.

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