Saturday, October 11, 2014

Retro Saturday: The Astronauts: United States Project Mercury

Click the arrow to watch the film. Video source: AF Space & Missile Museum YouTube channel.

This week's Retro Saturday film is a 27-minute NASA documentary from 1960 titled, The Astronauts: United States Project Mercury.

The events that led up to the Mercury program are documented in the book, Project Mercury: A Chronology available as a PDF at the link. Although many events led to Mercury, several criticial decisions were made by NASA's predecessor, the National Advisory Committee for Aeronautics.

In November 1957, after the Soviet Union launched Sputnik II, NACA engineer Maxime Faget presented concepts for human spaceflight that involved using existing military ballistic missiles and “a nonlifting ballistic shape for the reentering capsule.”

During the next several months, both the NACA and the U.S. Air Force studied ideas for human spaceflight. Faget presented in March 1958 a paper titled, Preliminary Studies of Manned Satellites-Wingless Configuration, Non-Lifting. The paper put forward most of the key ideas that led to Project Mercury.

In April 1958, President Eisenhower announced that the NACA would be combined with non-military space research programs in the Defense Department to create a new National Aeronautics and Space Administration. Eisenhower signed the law on July 29, 1958, and the new NASA would begin on October 1, 1958. As NACA prepared for the transition, it laid the groundwork for the human spaceflight program. Although McDonnell Aircraft did not get the Mercury capsule contract until February 1959, it spent the eleven months prior researching a manned orbital spacecraft on its own budget.

One week after his agency's birth, the first NASA Administrator Keith Glennan approved Project Mercury on October 7, 1958.

The first U.S. human spaceflight with Alan Shepard would not be until May 5, 1961, a few months after this film was produced. But it's a good overview of events to that point, including astronaut selection and plans to upgrade from Redstone to Atlas.

By the way, the film's narrator, Mandel Kramer, had a long and successful career both as a radio actor and on soap operas. I've heard his voice narrating many documentaries during this period.

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