Project Mercury, a Chimp, and the Moon: The Cold War in Space

From the Lecture Series: Experiencing America — A Smithsonian Tour through American History

By Richard Kurin, Ph.D., The Smithsonian

On October 4, 1957, the Soviet Union successfully launched a basketball-sized satellite named Sputnik. Sputnik’s launch came as a surprise to many Americans. The United States countered with Project Mercury; the Cold War had now moved into space.

photo of Neil Armstrong exiting the lunar Module and stepping on the moon
Neil Armstrong exits the lunar module and steps onto the moon

Early Russian Efforts

Sputnik was the first man-made object to be placed into Earth’s orbit, traveling at about 17,000 miles an hour some 500 miles above Earth. Its flight caused widespread anxiety that the United States had lost its technological superiority on the world’s stage. A month later, the Soviets launched a much larger Sputnik 2 with a dog aboard as a passenger, suggesting that manned space flight was not too far behind.

Design sketch of the one-man Mercury capsule
Design sketch of the one-man Mercury capsule

The United States, though, through the armed services, had been working on its own satellite launch programs, but unsuccessfully. President Dwight D. Eisenhower formed the National Aeronautics and Space Administration— NASA—as a civilian government agency on October 1, 1958. Its first mission, Project Mercury, was to put an American into orbit. NASA designed and built a small nose-cone capsule that could be launched into space atop a rocket. The challenge, aside from achieving a successful launch and orbit, would be to return the astronaut to Earth alive, unlike the Russian dog, who had died during her journey…

This is a transcript from the video series Experiencing America: A Smithsonian Tour through American History. Watch it now, on The Great Courses Plus.

photo of the chosen “Mercury Seven” became instant American heroes
The chosen “Mercury Seven” became instant American heroes

The Mercury 7

NASA chose its astronauts after reviewing some 500 active military test pilots. The final list of candidates went through grueling medical and fitness tests. The chosen Mercury Seven, as they were called, became instant American heroes. The astronauts participated in a rigorous training program. As former test pilots, they insisted on playing a role in the design of the craft. For example, the astronauts insisted on a window over their heads so they could actually see out from their seated positions. They also made suggestions about the interior layout so they could more easily and effectively operate manual controls should any of the automated systems fail.

photo of the chimp "Ham" in his spacesuit
The chimp “Ham” in his spacesuit

Ham, the Chimp, goes to Space

In September 1959, the Soviets crashed landed a 177-pound capsule called Luna 2 on the surface of the moon, and the following month they used the Luna 3 orbiter to photograph the moon’s hidden far side. The United States appeared to be falling further behind. But in January 1961, NASA launched Ham, a four-year-old Cameroonian chimpanzee, on a suborbital space flight in a Mercury capsule. This enabled NASA scientists to assess the effects of space travel on a living creature as a prelude to human flight.

More importantly, the capsule returned Ham to Earth alive after a 16-minute flight. Ham, by the way, then took up residence at the Smithsonian’s National Zoo for 17 years before retiring to live out his days at the North Carolina Zoo.

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An American Astronaut in Space

photo of Astronaut Alan Shephard, the first American in space for the Project Mercury article
Astronaut Alan Shephard, the first American in space

Americans planned to send a manned rocket, Freedom 7, into space in March 1961. But technical problems delayed the launch, and on April 12, Soviet cosmonaut Yuri Gagarin became the first person in space, and also the first to orbit Earth. Weeks later, the United States launched astronaut Alan Shepard into space on a suborbital flight that took 15 minutes and 22 seconds.

Soon after, President Kennedy addressed Congress, challenging it to fund a program that would give the United States the undisputed lead in the exploration of space:

I believe that this nation should commit itself to achieving the goal, before this decade is out, of landing a man on the Moon and returning him safely to the Earth. No single space project in this period will be more impressive to mankind, or more important for the long-range exploration of space; and none will be so difficult or expensive to accomplish.

This was a bold statement, much more so than sending Lewis and Clark to traverse the continent. Less than 60 years after the Wright brothers’ first powered flight wobbled a few feet off the ground for a few moments, the notion of landing a man on the moon was still the stuff of science fiction. The sheer ambition of Kennedy’s goal sent a determined and visionary message to the American public about space as the new American frontier.

photo of the compact Friendship Seven spacecraft
The compact Friendship Seven spacecraft

John Glenn and the Friendship 7

February 20, 1962, 41-year-old former jet fighter pilot John Glenn was propelled into space from Cape Canaveral, Florida. Glenn’s space capsule, the Friendship 7, was fabricated by McDonnell Aircraft Corporation. Its skin and structure were made of titanium, with nickel-steel alloy and beryllium shingles. It was a small spacecraft, about 6 feet across at its base and a bit over 11 feet long, weighing barely more than a ton and a half. The capsule was so compact that the astronauts joked, “You don’t get into it, you put it on.”

photo of Astronaut John Glenn at Cape Canaveral
Astronaut John Glenn at Cape Canaveral

Glenn made three orbits in Friendship 7 over the course of a flight that was just about five hours from liftoff to splashdown. He was strapped into a form-fitting fiberglass seat designed to ease the accelerations of launch and reentry. He kept in touch by radio with Mercury Mission Control at NASA and its worldwide network of ground stations in places as far away as Zanzibar and Australia.

Friendship 7 went on what became known as the fourth orbit, which is really a goodwill tour around the world. It arrived at the Smithsonian in November 1962 and placed on display; in 1976, the space capsule was moved into the National Air and Space Museum, which opened up on the National Mall for the Bicentennial of the United States. It was a testament to America’s spirit of discovery.

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Armstrong on the Moon

Seven years later, NASA met President Kennedy’s great challenge. The Apollo program brought mankind to the Moon on July 21, 1969, when, as we’ve discussed, Neil Armstrong exited the Apollo 11 Lunar Module and set foot on that heavenly body. One can only imagine what it was like for Lewis and Clark to look upon the vast, seemingly endless Pacific Ocean as the fulfillment of their journey. And now, here was Neil Armstrong standing on the surface of the Moon, looking out at the Earth—a small, isolated blue planet afloat in the unimaginable expanse of outer space.

NASA’s Space Shuttle Program

And like those earlier generations of explorers, NASA did not rest on its achievements… A fleet of four space shuttles was built and went into operation—Columbia, Challenger, Discovery and Atlantis. Columbia was the first of these to launch, on April 12, 1981. Although tragedy would eventually strike both Columbia and Challenger, resulting in the loss of both the shuttles and their crews, the shuttle program continued for just over 30 years and 135 missions.

photo of the space shuttle Discovery as it approaches the International Space Station
The space shuttle Discovery as it approaches the International Space Station

Discovery became the workhorse of the space shuttle fleet, completing 39 missions and a total of 365 days in space, traveling more than 148 million miles, orbiting the Earth more than 5,800 times at about 17,500 miles per hour. Discovery delivered the Hubble Space Telescope into orbit; it repaired and redeployed planetary exploration craft; it supported laboratory space research missions; and it re-supplied the International Space Station. Discovery held a special place in the space program; 184 different astronauts and 32 different commanders, including two women commanders, served as crew for its flights. It returned John Glenn to space in 1998, and it returned the United States to space after the tragic losses of Challenger and Columbia.

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In 2004, President George Bush had announced that the Space Shuttle program had fulfilled its mission and would come to an end. The shuttle program’s final mission, designated STS-135, was completed when the shuttle Atlantis touched down at Kennedy Space Center at 5:57 a.m. on July 21, 2011. In 2012 Discovery was flown to the Smithsonian’s Udvar-Hazy Center, dramatically circling the nation’s capital, and, as you can see from this video taken by the staff here, briefly passing over The Great Courses’ studio before landing at the museum adjacent to nearby Dulles Airport, where, in the museum, it began its second life as an educational and inspirational museum object.

Common Questions About Project Mercury

Q: What was Project Mercury supposed to do?

Project Mercury tasked NASA’s Space Task Group with orbiting a crew around Earth, monitoring pilot specifics, and safely bringing the crew back to Earth.

Q: Have any of the Project Mercury astronauts survived to this day?

Project Mercury’s astronauts who are still alive are John Glenn, Wally Schirra, Scott Carpenter and Gordon Cooper.

Q: What was the cost of Project Mercury?

Project Mercury cost $277 million in 1965 dollars, which is around $2.3 billion in 2020 dollars.

Q: Which astronauts were the first to die?

Gus Grissom, Ed White and Roger Chaffee were the first American astronauts to die.

This article was updated on 12/29/2019

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NASA; Space Shuttle Discovery on display at Udvar Hazy, National Air and Space Museum, Smithsonian Institution; Friendship 7 in situ, National Air and Space Museum, Smithsonian Institution; Marshall Space Flight Center’s Marshall Image Exchange