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NASA Facts Langley's Role in Project Mercury

NASA Facts Langley's Role in Project Mercury

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Published by Bob Andrepont
NASA Facts booklet on the Langley Research Center's role in Project Mercury.
NASA Facts booklet on the Langley Research Center's role in Project Mercury.

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Published by: Bob Andrepont on Jan 07, 2011
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Langley’s Role in Project Mercury
 NASA Langley Research Center photo #59-8027 
 Langley researchers conduct an impact study test of the Mercury capsule in the Back River in Hampton, Va.
Project Mercury
Thirty-five years ago on May 5, 1961, AlanShepard was propelled into space aboard the Mercurycapsule Freedom 7. His 15-minute suborbital flightwas part of Project Mercury, the United States’ firstman-in-space program. The objectives of the Mer-cury program, eight unmanned flights and sixmanned flights from 1961 to 1963, were quitespecific: To orbit a manned spacecraft around theEarth, investigate man’s ability to function in space,and to recover both man and spacecraft safely.Project Mercury included the first Earth orbital flightmade by an American, John Glenn in February 1962.The five-year program was a modest first step.Shepard’s flight had been overshadowed by RussianYuri Gagarin’s orbital mission just three weeksearlier. President Kennedy and the Congress wereconcerned that America catch up with the Soviets.Seizing the moment created by Shepard’s success, onMay 25, 1961, the President made his stirring chal-lenge to the nation –– that the United States commititself to landing a man on the moon and returninghim to Earth before the end of the decade. Apollowas to be a massive undertaking –– the nation’slargest technological effort.The first home of Project Mercury was LangleyResearch Center in Hampton, Va. More significantly,most of the leadership for Project Mercury and, later,Gemini and Apollo, were Langley engineers. Untilthen, the Langley lab was not known to many outsidethe aerospace community.
National Aeronautics andSpace Administration
Hampton, Virginia 23681-0001April 1996 FS-1996-04-29-LaRC
Langley Research Center, established in 1917as the National Advisory Committee for Aeronautics(NACA) Langley Memorial Aeronautical Labora-tory, was the first U.S. civilian aeronautical researchfacility devoted to the advancement of the science of flight. Almost every aspect of flight was studied atLangley and, during World War II, at the request of the military, the Pilotless Aircraft Research Division(PARD) was begun.Aiding the military’s development of pilotlessaircraft was how researchers at Langley first gotinterested in the problems of space exploration.Learning the techniques associated with building,instrumenting, launching and monitoring rockets andmissiles later proved essential to the American spaceprogram and Project Mercury.
NASA Langley’s Role in Project Mercury
NASA Langley made many important contribu-tions to Project Mercury. The research center and itsstaff members were transformed by the Nation’s rush
NASA Langley’s Major Contributionsto Project Mercury
• Initial home of Project Mercury• Trained original seven astronauts• Invented Mercury space capsule design• Tested Mercury space capsule• Designed and monitored a trackingand ground instrumentation system
to make human spaceflight a reality. Once dedicatedexclusively to the advancement of aeronautics,Langley engineers were reassigned, and asked tohelp solve problems far removed from their originaltraining and experience. “Basic” research wassupplanted by “project” work as the Langley labora-tory was renamed NASA Langley Research Center.The physical plant was dramatically expanded as wasthe center’s staff and budget. For the first time,Langley began to work with large contractors onmajor research endeavors in what was an excitingtime for both researchers and the Nation.
Mercury Project Management
After President Eisenhower delegated authorityfor the country’s manned space program to theNational Aeronautics and Space Administration in1958, the first NASA administrator, T. KeithGlennan, assigned the working level responsibility toLangley’s assistant director Robert Gilruth. Gilruthasked the small group of designer/engineers from thePilotless Aircraft Research Division (PARD) to stepup their studies of ballistic-shaped spacecraft. InNovember 1958, Gilruth garnered many of the forcesfrom PARD to form the Space Task Group (STG) tomanage Project Mercury, the first phase of NASA’smanned space program.As Project Mercury matured, the STG grew. Bythe summer of 1959, there were 400 people assignedto finish mission definition studies and begin theadvanced engineering work. One small group wassent to Florida to ready NASA’s manned launch siteat the Atlantic Missile Range, while another groupwent to oversee the work of the prime spacecraftcontractor McDonnell Aircraft Corp. in St. Louis.While more plans for space exploration werebeing mapped out, NASA made arrangements toexpand its facilities. Gilruth wanted Langley to bethe main center but their were other contenders. Thetwo main sites under consideration were in Massa-chusetts and Texas. In the end, the Manned Space-craft Center, now the Johnson Space Center, wasbuilt in Houston. As construction was completed,Gilruth and the Space Task Group moved to Texas.
Spacecraft and Related Systems
While numerous aerodynamic, structural,materials and component tests were being conductedat NASA Langley, one team of Langley researcherswere scheduling wind tunnel tests at an air forcefacility in Tennessee.NASA Langley scientists and researchers hadbeen working on a variety of rocket designs ––launch, guidance, automatic control and telemetrysystems were all under development before ProjectMercury took shape in 1958. The Little Joe and BigJoe were two important programs.Little Joe was a solid-fuel rocket, and one of theearliest U.S. launch vehicles based on the principle of the clustered rocket engine. Langley’s Maxime Fagetand Paul Purser, who conceived and designed thefour-cluster, solid-propellant booster, nicknamed theproject Little Joe. The first successful launch of LittleJoe occurred at Wallops Island, Va. in October 1959 –– soaring 40 miles out over the Atlantic Ocean. Therocket was 50 feet tall and weighed 28,000 pounds.Little Joe’s engines produced a total of 250,000pounds of thrust at takeoff. Little Joe was of greatimportance to Project Mercury, carrying instrumentedpayloads to various altitudes, and allowing engineersto check the operation of the Mercury capsule escaperocket and recovery systems.Little Joe rockets were also used to send twoRhesus monkeys, Sam and Miss Sam, into space inDecember 1959 and January 1960. In the nose coneof one Little Joe capsule, Sam flew 55 miles intospace before returning. Sam provided flight engineerswith a better idea of how the Mercury astronautswould fare on their subsequent flights.The Big Joe program involved ballistic tests of a Mercury capsule on an Atlas missile. Big Joe was aone-ton, full-scale instrumented mock-up of theproposed Mercury spacecraft, designed to test theeffectiveness of the ablative heat shield and theaerodynamic characteristics of the capsule design.Big Joe was successfully launched on Sept. 9, 1959.The Big Joe project, from design to launch, was
 NASA Langley Research Center photo #59-336 
 A full-scale model of the Mercury capsule being tested inthe NASA Langley 30- by 60-Foot Full-Scale Wind Tunnel.
companies. The result was a system thatcould maintain constant radiocommunications with the orbitingMercury astronauts. NASA Langleysupervised the site contractors and,within two years, saw an “around-the-world-for-the-first-time” communi-cations system power up. This was thefoundation of the present MissionControl Center where state-of-the-artworkstations allow project managers tosimultaneously track numerousspacecraft and satellites.
Mercury Astronauts BeginTraining at NASA Langley
even astronauts were chosen fromamong more than 100 men tested atWright Air Development Center inDayton, Ohio and Lovelace Clinic inAlbuquerque, New Mexico. At that time, no onereally knew how to select and train astronauts. Thesearch process was rigorous but quickly focused onmilitary test pilots. Langley engineer Charles Donlanand test pilot Robert Champine played importantroles in the screening and selection process.The “Original Seven” were: Air Force Capts. L.Gordon Cooper Jr., Virgil I. “Gus” Grissom, andDonald K. “Deke” Slayton; Navy aviators Lt. M.Scott Carpenter, Lt. Comdr. Alan B. Shepard Jr., andLt. Comdr. Walter M. Schirra Jr.; and Lt. Col. JohnH. Glenn Jr., United States Marine Corps.The seven astronauts were sent to NASA Lang-ley to begin their training for spaceflight. Langleyengineers with knowledge in reentry physics, astro-nomy, and celestial mechanics and navigationachieved in less than a year –– the first step inproviding a launch vehicle for Project Mercury. BigJoe’s launch atop an Atlas D booster showed that acapsule could be launched (100 miles into the air),separate from the Atlas rocket and fall back to Earthin conditions that closely simulated orbital reentry. Italso proved to be an excellent exercise for militaryrecovery teams and confirmed that the blunt-bodycapsule had performed as Langley wind-tunnel testsand other laboratory studies had predicted.
Global Tracking Network
The largest, and most logistically challenging,Langley effort for Project Mercury was the Mercurytracking range project. Long-range communicationswere Langley’s responsibility. The planning andimplementation of an integrated spacecrafttracking and ground instrumentation system,developed with contract organizations, wasaccomplished by non-STG Langley person-nel. Project managers at the Manned Space-craft Center needed a network of linkedstations capable of receiving, processing andreacting to a variety of voice, radar andtelemetry data. Prior to Project Mercury, mostlong-distance communications were done viaundersea telegraph cable or radar. The NASALangley researchers had to build their ownglobal communications system to help ensureProject Mercury’s success.Communication sites were plotted,surveyed and built worldwide by various
 NASA Langley Research Center photo # 90-4371
The original seven Mercury astronauts were from left, front row: Virgil“Gus” Grissom, Scott Carpenter, Donald “Deke” Slayton and GordonCooper; back row: Alan Shepard, Walter Schirra and John Glenn
 NASA Langley Research Center photo #59-4426 
 Molded astronaut couches line the Langley model shop wall. Thenames of the test subjects, all Langley employees, are written onthe backs.

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