Astronaut Training | Project Mercury: America’s First Manned Space Program | NASA Documentary Film


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This film documents the selection of the original seven astronauts for Project Mercury. Project Mercury was the first human spaceflight program of the United States led by its newly created space agency NASA. The footage shows the selection criteria and process, the astronauts in training, and the beginnings of our knowledge of manned space flight.

Project Mercury:
Project Mercury was the first human spaceflight program of the United States led by its newly created space agency NASA. It ran from 1959 through 1963 with the goal of putting a human in orbit around the Earth, and doing it before the Soviet Union, as part of the early space race. It involved seven astronauts flying a total of six solo trips. On May 5, 1961, Alan Shepard became the first American in space in a suborbital flight after the Soviet Union had put Yuri Gagarin into orbit one month earlier. John Glenn became the first American to reach orbit on February 20, 1962. He was the third person to do so, after Soviet Gherman Titov made a day-long flight in August 1961. When the project ended in May 1963, USA was still behind the Soviet space program, but the gap was seen as closing.

The space race started in 1957 with the launch of the Soviet satellite Sputnik 1. This came as a shock to the American public and led to the creation of NASA to gather the efforts in space exploration already existing in the US. After the launch of the first American satellite in 1958, manned space flight became the next goal. The spacecraft was produced by McDonnell Aircraft; it was cone shaped with room for one person together with supplies of water, food and oxygen for about one day in a pressurized cabin. It was launched from Cape Canaveral in Florida by a modified Atlas D or Redstone missile. The whole flight could be controlled from the ground through the Manned Space Flight Network, a system of tracking stations which also allowed communication with the astronaut. If necessary, the astronaut could take manual control. For reentry into Earth’s atmosphere, small rockets were used to bring the spacecraft out of its orbit. A heat shield would protect the spacecraft from the heat of reentry, and a parachute would slow the craft for a water landing. Here both astronaut and spacecraft were picked up by helicopter and brought to a ship.

Apart from the manned missions, Mercury had a total of 20 unmanned launches as a part of the development of the project. This also involved test animals, most famously the chimpanzees Ham and Enos. Mercury laid the groundwork for Project Gemini and the follow-on Apollo moon-landing program, which was announced a few weeks after the first manned flight. The astronauts were collectively known as the “Mercury Seven” and they named their spacecraft with a “7” at the end. It is estimated to have cost $1.73 billion (current prices).

Background of Project Mercury:
Following the end of World War 2, a nuclear arms race evolved between the US and the Soviet Union to develop long-range missiles. At the same time both sides also developed satellites for espionage. Most of this took place in secret, therefore it came as a shock to the American public when the Soviet Union placed the first satellite into orbit in October 1957 and there was a growing fear in the US that the country was falling behind. A month later, the Soviets launched a dog into orbit and though the dog was not recovered, it was obvious that they were striving for manned spaceflight.Unable to tell the public about the progress of military space projects, President Eisenhower decided to create a civilian space agency known as the National Aeronautics and Space Administration. NASA was placed in charge of civilian and scientific space exploration and after having orbited an American satellite in 1958 the next goal became to put a man in space.

The limit of space was defined as an altitude of 62 mi (100 km) and the only way to reach it was by rocket. This created risks for the pilot, including explosion, subjection to high g-forces and vibrations during lift off through the atmosphere. In space, the pilot would experience zero gravity, a condition where he might suffer from disorientation. In this altitude he had to be in a pressurized chamber or suit and supplied with fresh air. Further possible risks were radiation from space and micrometeoroids, from which the air would normally protect him. At reentry to the denser part of the atmosphere, air compression would heat the spacecraft to more than 10,000 °F (5,540 °C). All these obstacles, however, seemed possible to overcome.

Astronaut Training | Project Mercury: America’s First Manned Space Program | NASA Documentary Film

Date: August 18, 2015

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