The programme began in November 1958 and NASA issued a contract to the McDonnell Aircraft Corporation on the 15th February 1958 for twelve single-crew spacecraft. This order was later increased to twenty. The spacecraft was nine feet in height, roughly conical in shape and weighed between 2000 to 3000 pounds, depending on modifications carried out during the progress of the programme.
A number of different launch vehicles were used during the flights, which began on the 9th September 1959 when the Atlas (Big Joe) rocket was used. Subsequently the Atlas (Little Joe); Redstone, Atlas-D and Blue Scout were also used.
The first three flights were unmanned and it was not until the 4th December 1959 when Mercury Little Joe-3 was launched carrying ‘Sam’ a Rhesus Monkey. Sam and the Mercury Little Joe-3 performed a successful sub-orbital flight as well as bio-medical and escape-system test.
There were then four more test flights before Mercury MR-2 was launched from a Redstone vehicle carrying ‘Ham’ a Chimpanzee on the 31st January 1961. He was the first living creature in Space and completed a l6-minute sub-orbital flight.
Seven Astronauts were selected and trained and of these seven all except Donald Slayton each completed one Mercury flight. All the manned missions were completed successfully.
By 1961 test flights were being carried out at approximately monthly intervals, and the first manned spaceflight in Mercury MR-3 (known also as Freedom 7) was launched by a Redstone rocket vehicle on the 5th May 1961 with crew member Alan Shepard. The flight took 15 minutes and the capsule was recovered in the Atlantic after a successful sub-orbital flight.
All the Manned Mercury Missions were given a code name which included the numeral 7 which was not a sequence numeral but a reference to the first group of seven astronauts.
Shepard was followed by Virgin Grissom on the 21st July 1961 and then followed three more test flights before the Big One.
Friendship 7 was launched at 3.3Opm on February 20th 1962 from Cape Canaveral in Florida, using an Atlas-D launch vehicle. The NASA designated number of the flight was Mercury MA-6 and the Crewmember was John Glenn. He was the First American in Space and completed three orbits of the earth in four hours 55 minutes. Colonel Glenn and the Spacecraft were picked up out of the sea after a successful parachute drop and taken to Grand Turk Island. The following day the capsule was flown back to the U.S.A. while Colonel Glenn was confined to hospital for routine tests. Three days later he was visited by Vice-president Johnson who flew to Grand Turk to congratulate him.
While preparations for the flight were in progress the U.S. Postal Administration had not been idle and a plan was put into action to produce and release a commemorative stamp. The 4c Project Mercury stamp features the Space Capsule, and a portion of the earth against a star studded background. Printed in Blue and Yellow the stamp was available from 3.3Opm on the 20th February – the same time and date of the launch. I am fortunate to have a signed First Day Cover in my collection.
By Peter Talbot-Ashby