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Project Mercury

Mercury Spacecraft “Friendship 7”
Mercury Spacecraft “Friendship 7”

“But why, some say, the moon? John F. Kennedy pondered in September 1962. “We choose to go to the moon in this decade, and do other things,” the President answered in that unmistakable, Irish American brogue, “not because they are easy but because they are hard.”

Well, that was definitely one way to say it. Another way is it that America was in a single-minded race with the Russians – a space race to the moon. After all, in the post-Sputnik logic of the Cold War, being second to the communists in anything, meant being second… in everything.”

So, stir up a big glass of orange-flavored Tang, astronauts. I’m Joel Rhodes “Telling History.”

NASA’s ambitious Project Mercury – America’s first manned space flight program – took those first fateful steps in what turned out to be our eight-year rocket ride to the moon, an epic adventure narrated by Walter Cronkite. Mercury put Americans in space. The next two projects – Gemini and Apollo – followed in logical progression. Gemini in the mid-1960s pioneered weightless spacewalking and docking two orbiting spaceships together, a vital bridge to Apollo that fulfilled Kennedy’s challenge to land a man on the moon before the decade’s end.

Seven daring “astronauts” – the metallic epitome of Kennedy’s New Frontier and soon to be household names – were selected for the Mercury missions: Scott Carpenter, Leroy “Gordo” Cooper, John Glenn, Virgil “Gus” Grissom, Walter Schirra, Alan Shepard, and Donald “Deke” Slayton. Test pilots all: three Air Force, three Navy, one Marine.

Atop their Atlas or Redstone rockets – intercontinental ballistic missiles designed to carry a nuclear, not human, payload – the Mercury 7 rode a wingless capsule, with no more room than a coffin and designed for aerodynamic reentry at 3,500-degrees Fahrenheit. Passengers really, not pilots at all.

After a publicly awkward beginning – characterized by postponements, aborted televised launches, and the indignity of NASA sending a chimpanzee up first – six of the Mercury 7 left the Earth’s gravitational pull between 1961-1963.

The first two were suborbital “lobs.” Alan Shepard, onboard Freedom 7 - all Mercury capsules carried the number 7 in their name – gave us our long-awaited first man in space on May 5, 1961. Gus Grissom in Liberty Bell 7 duplicated that 15-minute flight in July.

Now the space race accelerated in earnest. On February 20, 1962 the Friendship 7 capsule finally put John Glenn into orbit, a seminal moment shared by millions. Even Cronkite briefly lost his composure, cheering “Come on, baby!” during ignition. Friendship 7 circled the Earth three times at an altitude of 162 miles before splashing down in the Caribbean. Glenn’s four hours in space briefly recaptured momentum from the Russians.

Scott Carpenter went up in Aurora 7 that May; Wally Schirra and Sigma 7 in October 1962; and then Gordo Cooper aboard Faith 7 in May 1963; the last and longest Mercury flight - 22 orbits over 36 hours, the first American to spend a whole day in space.

Over the course of its five years, Mercury built critical expertise in orbital flight technology, how astronauts perform in space, vehicle recovery, and fortified NASA’s confidence to hand the torch off to Project Gemini.

We – not just those astronauts – were going to the moon!

Yet, at every turn the Soviets seemed to beat us to the punch with even greater achievements, dampening our excitement with reminders that we remained mired in second place.

Joel P. Rhodes is a Professor in the History Department of Southeast Missouri State University. Raised in Kansas, he earned a B.S. in Education from the University of Kansas before earning his M.A. and Ph.D. in History from the University of Missouri-Kansas City.