What Was Project Mercury?

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  • Written By: Mary McMahon
  • Edited By: Bronwyn Harris
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  • Last Modified Date: 31 August 2019
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Project Mercury was a United States Government-funded project to put Americans in space, launched in response to the escalating arms and space race between the United States and Russia in the middle of the 20th century. It took a little over three years to get a man in space from the date that the project was founded in 1958, and the project cost $1.5 million US, laying the groundwork for the American space program, which ultimately landed the first human on the moon in 1969.

In 1958, tests by the National Advisory Committee for Aeronautics (NACA), indicated that manned spaceflight would someday be possible. The United States founded Project Mercury to achieve this goal, setting out clear parameters for implementing, managing, organizing, and ultimately judging the program. Part of the organization for Project Mercury involved the retooling of NACA, which came to be known as the National Aeronautics and Space Administration (NASA).

There were three main goals to Project Mercury: putting a human in space, judging the ability of astronauts to perform in space, and safely recovering both astronaut and craft. A number of safety guidelines were established, and NASA hurried to order a number of specialized capsules designed for manned spaceflight. The term “capsule” is not used lightly here: the Project Mercury capsules were barely large enough to fit an astronaut and the necessary equipment, and they would not have been comfortable to fly in.


110 potential pilots were selected from the Air Force, on the basis of their performance and general health. This number was winnowed down to seven final astronauts, with one later being scratched due to ill health. The men enjoyed a very close and friendly relationship, and they named their own craft, including the number “seven” in the title to reference their friendship. The so-called “Mercury Seven” weren't the first American animals in space, however. Several macaques and chimpanzees made the journey first, testing safety systems.

On 5 May, 1961, Alan Shepard became the first American in space aboard the Mercury-Redstone Three, which was known as “Freedom Seven.” Barely a year later, on 20 February, 1962, John Glenn became the first American to orbit the Earth, inside the tiny confines of the Mercury-Atlas Six, or Friendship Seven. John Kennedy, then President of the United States, was so excited that he announced that Americans would be on the moon within the next decade, and although he did not live to see this momentous event, he turned out to be right.


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