"" Writer's Wanderings: Kennedy Space Center, The Mercury Program

Tuesday, February 19, 2013

Kennedy Space Center, The Mercury Program

In 1959, NASA began its Mercury Program. Its goal: to put a man in space and do it before the Russians did. I was twelve years old and very interested in outer space. In junior high school we were assigned a research paper and I chose to write about what a man would eat in space. Needless to say, I was very intrigued with the prospects of space travel.

I remember the big announcement of the first astronauts in April of 1959. The Mercury seven included Alan Shepard, Gus Grissom, John Glenn, Scott Carpenter, Wally Schirra, Gordon Cooper and Deke Slayton.

NASA chose the East Coast of Florida as its launching port for all human spaceflight missions. There were several good reasons. First, it was close to the Atlantic Ocean which provided a safe range for launching rockets without the worry of debris falling into populated areas. The area at the time NASA was begun consisted mostly of orchards, empty beaches, and two military bases that provided support to the space operations.

The last reason is because of Earth's rotation on its axis and how close Florida is to the equator. Because the speed of rotation is greater the closer you get to the equator, the space craft launched from Kennedy Space Center are given over 900 mph worth of additional boost which saves fuel and increases efficiency.

Mercury Control Room
While most of the original seven flew in the Mercury program, some went on to participate in space programs to follow. Alan Shepard was the first American astronaut to go into space. His flight on May 5, 1961 lasted 15 nail-biting minutes. The country was euphoric when it was confirmed that his module was found and he emerged unharmed.

As we walked around Kennedy Space Center on our recent visit, I could not help but wonder again at the courage it took for those early space explorers. The tiny capsule hardly seemed like anything to feel safe in at the speeds and force of launch not to mention the sea landing. One capsule was lost but thankfully the astronaut, Gus Grissom was found safely floating in a small life raft. (Grissom would later die in a fire during a practice run for an Apollo launch.)

Of course if you are an Ohioan, you definitely know of John Glenn's accomplishment: first American to orbit the earth. Imagine the planning of trajectory, re-entry, and recovery. Today we don't think much of it. The last space shuttles often got little fanfare or media coverage but those first pioneers. . .what courage!

The Mercury program ended in 1963 while I was in high school. It was replaced with the Gemini program where two astronauts would explore the possibilities of longer space flight. Our tour would show us one very large rocket that launched those capsules.

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