[xi] MANKIND in the past few years has sailed on one of its greatest adventures, the exploration of near space. Men have cast off their physical and mental moorings to Earth, and a few have learned to live in balance with their gravisphere and above their atmosphere. Transgressing old laws of terrestrial navigation and amending newer laws of aerodynamics, man has combined the experience gained from aviation and rocket technology with the science of celestial mechanics, thus to accomplish for the first time manned orbital circumnavigation. The initial American voyages in this new epic of exploration and discovery were products of Project Mercury, an intensive national program mobilizing creative science and technology to orbit and retrieve a manned Earth satellite.
This book is an attempt to describe the origins, preparation, and nature of America's first achievements in manned space flight. Neither a history of the National Aeronautics and Space Administration (NASA) nor a comparative study of the competition in space between the United States and the Soviet Union, this narrative spans the basic events in the managerial and technological history of Project Mercury.
The authors have no illusions that this single volume is complete or "definitive" (if any work of history ever can be). Writing only a few years after the events described, we inescapably suffer from short perspective, but perhaps our scholarly myopia is balanced by our having had access to a multitude of still-dustless documents and to most of the main participants in Project Mercury. Within obvious limitations of chronology and the sensitivities of persons still active in the conquest of space, we have tried to make this narrative as comprehensive and accurate as possible in one volume.
Already Project Mercury has come to be regarded as a single episode in the history of flight and of the United States. Rather, it was many episodes, many people, many days of inspiration, frustration, and elation. Journalists and other contemporary observers have written millions of words, taken thousands of photographs, and produced hundreds of reports, official and otherwise, on the origins, development, failures, successes, and significance of this country's first efforts in the manned exploration of space. The foremost image of Mercury emerging from its mountainous publicity was that of seven selected test pilots called "astronauts." Central as were their roles and critical as were their risks in the individual manned flights, the astronauts themselves did not design, develop, or decide the means and [xii] ends of the overall program. Thousands of engineers, scientists, technicians, and administrators, as well as the seven astronauts, cooperated to fulfill Mercury's goals, and this program history tries to blend and balance the personal, social, and technical facets of the project as it progressed.
Endeavoring to keep fickle human memories accurate in an age that moves incredibly fast in too many directions, we have sought to answer unanswered questions, to answer some questions that had not been asked, and even perhaps to pose some questions that cannot be answered yet. Written under sponsorship of NASA at its Manned Spacecraft Center (MSC) with principal reliance on a contract with the University of Houston, this study is, in the legal sense of the Space Act of 1958, an "official" history of Project Mercury. But NASA and its Historical Advisory Committee have wisely recognized that history should be written, taught, and finally judged by historians, and that the ultimate responsibility for historical generalizations and interpretations should rest with the authors. Accordingly, while we have trod circumspectly in places, we have been encouraged to arrive at historical judgments judiciously and independently. Thus there actually is no "official" NASA or MSC viewpoint on what happened. More details and acknowledgments on the historiography behind this work are to be found in the Note on Sources and Selected Bibliography at the end of the volume.
The organization and division of labor imposed on the narrative conforms to its chronology, to three genres of historical literature, and to the thesis that Project Mercury, from its inception in the fall of 1958, was preeminently an engineering, rather than a scientific, enterprise.
Part One, entitled "Research," could be called "origins" or "antecedents." This section on the long and complex "prehistory" of Project Mercury follows essentially a topical organization and might be seen as part of the external history of applied science. Emphasizing the contributions of individual minds and small groups of experimentalists, Part One recounts primarily progress in rocketry and research in space medicine, aerodynamics, and thermodynamics from the end of the Second World War to the inception of the first United States manned satellite project. The focus is on the evolutionary roles of the military services and the National Advisory Committee for Aeronautics, organizational nucleus of NASA.
Part Two, "Development," assumes with reason that all of the basic and most of the applied research necessary for undertaking a manned ballistic satellite project had been completed by October 1958. Thus the so-called research and development, or "R and D," phase of Mercury is mostly, if not entirely, "D" and corresponds to a relatively new professional interest, the history of technology. Part Two is a study of corporate technology in the crowded period during which the concurrent teamwork of previously diverse organizations drove toward placing a man in orbit around Earth.
For most people directly involved in Mercury, the dramatic "space race" aspect of the project was secondary to the accomplishment of an almost incredibly complex managerial and technological endeavor. Yet the historian cannot ignore [xiii] the broadly political and social context surrounding all of the organizing, contracting, innovating, manufacturing, training, and testing before the time in 1961 when men first rocketed into space. Costs, schedules, and "quality control" - the range of procedures designed to ensure reliability during space vehicle manufacturing and preparation for flight - were far less dramatic than the flights themselves. But the NASA Space Task Group, primarily responsible for the development of Mercury, had an exciting life of its own as it evolved into the Manned Spacecraft Center. The Mercury team was much larger than the Space Task Group, or even than NASA, but the focus in Part Two on the field managers of the project should be meaningful for anyone wishing insight into the enormity and intricacy of modern government-managed technological programs.
Part Three, entitled "Operations," describes the fulfillment of Project Mercury and the only part of the program witnessed by most contemporary observers. This section begins with the successful suborbital flight of Astronaut Alan B. Shepard, Jr., in May 1961; proceeds through the completion of the orbital qualification of the Mercury spacecraft and the Atlas rocket; and ends with the four manned orbital missions, stretching from three to 22 circuits of Earth, in 1962 and 1963. Part Three is allied with a heroic tradition, the history of exploration and discovery.
Cosmonaut Yuri A. Gagarin first made a space flight around Earth on April 12, 1961, and four months later Gherman Titov's 17-orbit flight pushed the U.S.S.R. still further ahead in the cold war space competition. With American technological prestige damaged in the court of world opinion, the United States responded after Shepard's suborbital ride, when President John F. Kennedy proposed and an eager Congress agreed to make Mercury the first phase of an epochal national venture in the manned exploration of the Earth-Moon system.
Although the Soviet Union succeeded in orbiting more space travelers, for longer periods, and sooner than the United States, Project Mercury still appears magnificently successful. It cost more money and took more time than originally expected, but no precaution was overlooked and no astronaut was lost. And as the "space race" broadened into the "space olympics," Mercury evolved from a "dead-end" endeavor, pointed solely at achieving orbital flight and recovery, into a prerequisite course in what was needed to reach and return from the Moon.
If Mercury was not all that it might have been, it was certainly more than it originally was supposed to be. Less than three and a half years after its inception, its prime objectives were attained with the three-orbit flight of Astronaut John H. Glenn, Jr. In all, the Mercury astronauts flew two ballistic, parabolic flights into space and four orbital missions. Each flight went almost as well as planned, thereby substantially enlarging man's knowledge of near space, of his psychophysiological behavior beyond Earth's atmosphere, and of the impending requirements for cislunar travel. By June 12, 1963, when James E. Webb, the second NASA Administrator, announced its termination, Project Mercury had [xiv] become the focal point of the American people's vicarious journey into space, the first rung on a ladder leading to the Moon, and perhaps beyond.
This volume, therefore, represents an effort to lift out of anonymity, where so much of mankind's technological progress lies buried, the odyssey of the men who developed the means for escaping our age-old habitat. We hope to enlarge man's knowledge of himself by recording who did what, when, and where to achieve the confidence and provide the machines for space flight. We have aimed to supply a reference to the past, a benchmark for the present, and a source for future scholarship. Later historians will write about Gemini and Apollo, and about Ranger, Mariner, and other projects in space exploration by men of our times. But like students of Mercury, present and future, they must begin with an accurate record of technological achievement. In time, perhaps, Project Mercury may deserve more, because it was both an effect of and a cause for the faith, vision, and prowess necessary to explore space.
This history of Project Mercury is, in more than the usual sense, drawn from the memory of many of the primary participants in the program. They provided much of the documentation upon which this narrative is based, and some 150 of them have commented upon all or parts of a review edition before publication. They are not responsible, however, for the selection, organization, or interpretations of facts as here presented. If errors persist in this account, the fault lies solely with the authors.
A different emphasis might have been pursued in this history - perhaps, for instance, more on the management of manned space programs. But Project Mercury per se is the focus herein, and as history it is meant to be read consecutively. In the launching of this history, the endorsement and support of the late Hugh L. Dryden, Deputy Administrator of NASA (1958-1965); Chancellor George L. Simpson of the University of Georgia System, former Assistant Deputy Administrator (1962-1965); and Robert R. Gilruth, Director of the Manned Spacecraft Center, proved instrumental. Whatever value this volume may have in reflecting the broader concerns of NASA Headquarters results largely from the contributions of Eugene M. Emme, the NASA Historian, and Frank W. Anderson, the Deputy NASA Historian. They have minutely read and criticized the draft manuscripts and coordinated the details of publication.
Paul E. Purser, Special Assistant to the Director, Manned Spacecraft Center, and Allen J. Going, Chairman, Department of History, University of Houston, have read various phases of the draft work and suggested improvements at every step. Sigman Byrd and Pamela C. Johnson worked with the authors as editorial and research assistants in its formative stages. Ivan D. Ertel made the final index and basic selection of illustrations. Sally D. Gates made many invaluable editorial suggestions and comments, typed several "final" drafts, and administratively [xv] coordinated the review edition with the numerous readers. Geri A. Vanderoef typed many of the early manuscripts in the constant revision process.
Among those NASA field center historians and monitors who have been most helpful are David S. Akens of the Marshall Space Flight Center; Alfred Rosenthal of the Goddard Space Flight Center; Robert A. Lindemann and Francis E. Jarrett, Jr., of the Kennedy Space Center; Manley Hood and John B. Talmadge of the Ames Research Center; Lyndell L. Manley of the Lewis Research Center; and Robert W. Mulac of the Langley Research Center.
Government - particularly Air Force - and industrial historians, librarians, and archivists too numerous to mention offered courteous assistance on many aspects of Project Mercury. William D. Putnam, Office of Manned Space Flight and formerly of the Air Force Space Systems Division; Max Rosenberg of the Air Force Historical Liaison Office; Charles V. Eppley, Air Force Flight Test Center; Marvin E. Hintz, Air Force Arnold Engineering Development Center; Green Peyton of the Air Force School of Aerospace Medicine; Michael Witunski of the McDonnell Aircraft Corporation; Ralph B. Oakley of North American Aviation; and Louis Canter of General Dynamics/Astronautics deserve special mention and thanks.
At the Manned Spacecraft Center, the Public Affairs Office, under Paul P. Haney and Albert M. Chop, provided documentation, contract support, and many hours of critical reading; the Technical Library, through the efforts of Retha Shirkey, furnished literature; and the Technical Information Division's Robert W. Fricke helped immeasurably in securing documentation.
Countless others also should be mentioned for their aid on specific questions, but most of them have been credited in the citations.
This New Ocean: A History of Project Mercury
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