In 1959, NASA ordered its first piloted spacecraft, with the objective of placing astronauts in space, testing their reactions and returning them safely to Earth. A total of 25 missions (test and flight) were launched in the Mercury program. The original seven Mercury astronauts (M. Scott Carpenter, L. Gordon Cooper Jr., John H. Glenn Jr., Virgil I. Grissom, Walter M. Schirra Jr., Alan B. Shepard Jr., and Donald K. Slayton) were chosen from an elite group of U.S. military pilots. Each capsule, named by the astronaut that flew it, bore the number 7 in honor of the team.
The first piloted Mercury capsule (Freedom 7) lifted off on May 5, 1961, when Alan Shepard was launched to a speed of 5,146 miles per hour (8,282 km/hr) into suborbital flight. Becoming the first U.S. man in space, Shepard’s flight lasted just fifteen minutes. The second piloted suborbital Mercury flight was made in July 1961 by Virgil (Gus) Grissom in Liberty Bell 7. His flight was similar to Shepard’s until the end. On splashdown, the bolts securing the hatch were triggered and water flooded in, forcing Grissom to abandon the capsule. Liberty Bell 7 sank, becoming the only Mercury capsule not recovered.
Mercury’s first piloted orbital mission was made by John Glenn on February 20, 1962. Glenn traveled inside a capsule called Friendship 7 for five hours on a journey that took him around the Earth three times. Glenn’s flight was not entirely smooth, however. During his second orbit, NASA officials at the command center received signals that Friendship 7’s heat shield was loose. Glenn made some adjustments to release the retro-rocket, slowing the spacecraft, and hoped for the best. He endured a frightening descent during which he watched pieces of flaming metal fly past the window in his capsule. But the heat shield held together, and the capsule plunged into the ocean as planned.
In May 1962, Scott Carpenter was the fourth astronaut to pilot a Mercury mission. Carpenter orbited the Earth three times, during which he took his spacecraft (Aurora 7) through a series of maneuvers. The only tense part of the mission came after splashdown. Carpenter’s capsule landed 250 miles (400 kilometers) off target, and it took NASA search crews three hours of combing the waters to find Carpenter, who was unharmed. Sigma 7 was launched in October 1962, with Walter “Wally” Schirra as pilot. During Schirra’s six-orbit mission, a telecast—the first ever—was beamed back to Earth.
The end of the Mercury series came in May 1963. Gordon Cooper took his Faith 7 capsule on the longest mission to date, twenty-two orbits around Earth in thirty-four hours and nineteen minutes. While in orbit, Cooper released a sphere with flashing lights, the first satellite deployed from a spacecraft. Cooper was forced to make a manual reentry when Faith 7 developed a short circuit in its electrical system, but he landed within sight of the recovery ship.
All of the original seven astronauts but Donald “Deke” Slayton, who was discovered to have an irregular heartbeat, flew Mercury missions. (Slayton later participated in the Apollo-Soyuz Test Project in 1975, after having worked for years as Director of NASA’s Astronaut Office.)
The movie The Right Stuff (1983) is a dramatization of the early days of the U.S. piloted space program. Adapted from the book by Tom Wolfe, it begins with the breaking of the sound barrier by pilot Chuck Yeager, continues with the selection and training of the first group of U.S. astronauts (the original seven), and ends with the final Mercury mission.
- Can you think of any other movies (nonfiction and/or fiction), or weekly television programs about piloted space travel, NASA, the Space Age, or interplanetary travel. List these below. Are there any on your list that are adaptations from a book? Explain.
- Next, look through today’s newspaper for the entertainment section. Locate the movie and television listings. Make a list of current movies and television shows having a “space” connection. Note the theme and premise of each selection. Are these movies and programs popular? Explain.
- Past “Space” Movies / Television:
- Book Adaptations:
- Current “Space” Movies / Television:
- Theme / Premise:
- Popular with Audiences:
From “SPACEFLIGHT: The Complete Story,” Copyright © CJHatcher & Associates.
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