The Mercury Programme

NASA's Mercury space program ran from 1959 to 1963 and cost a total of $1.5 billion. Its aims were to determine if man could survive in space and to put a man into orbit around the Earth. However, as early as 1961 the Russians had pulled ahead of America's space program, having launched two men into orbit, Yuri Gagarin and Gherman Titov.

The first American to go into space was Alan Shepherd who successfully made a sub-orbital flight in May 1961. During this flight Shepherd took manual control of the spacecraft to test its controls and also made observations of conditions outside. Unlike in Russian missions, where cosmonauts parachuted from their spacecraft during landing, the Mercury spacecraft had their own parachutes to slow them down during descent. This made Shepherd the first man to return to Earth with his ship, Freedom 7, which landed in the North Atlantic Ocean, on May 5th.

John Glenn

John Glenn in his spacesuit (NASA)

Despite this success the pressure was still on to send an American into orbit, but before risking the life of an astronaut NASA wanted to ensure the safety of its spacecraft for an orbital flight. Therefore, in November 1961, Enos the Chimpanzee orbited the Earth twice before splashing-down, alive and well, off the Puerto Rican coast. Just three months later, in February 1962, John Glenn became the first American to orbit the Earth in Friendship 7. During his flight Glenn experienced various difficulties, including a problem with Friendship 7's controls. He also reported seeing 'fireflies', although these were probably small ice crystals being vented from onboard the spacecraft.
Each of the manned Mercury missions were named by their pilots, seven military test pilots who had been picked from a group of 110 men. These names always included the number 7 to acknowledge the teamwork of the first ever astronauts, although only six of these men actually flew as part of the Mercury Programme.

The seventh Mercury astronaut was Deke Slayton, whose Delta 7 spacecraft was supposed to have completed America's second orbital flight in May 1962. Before the mission went ahead, Slayton was diagnosed with an irregular heart beat and replaced by the astronaut Scott Carpenter. Although stripped of his flight status, Slayton went on to play a key role in later NASA programs as head of the Astronaut Office. He was responsible for selecting the crews for all NASA's missions between 1963 and 1972, including the selection of Neil Armstrong and Buzz Aldrin for their trip to the Moon. Slayton was later re-instated as a pilot, flying on the Apollo-Soyuz Test Project during the 1970s.