Project Mercury

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Project Mercury was the first human spaceflight program of the United States. It ran from 1959 through 1963 with the goal of putting a human in orbit around the Earth. The Mercury-Atlas 6 flight on February 20, 1962, was the first American flight to achieve this goal.[1]

The program included 20 unmanned launches, followed by two suborbital and four orbital flights with astronaut pilots. Early planning and research were carried out by the National Advisory Committee for Aeronautics,[2] but the program was officially conducted by its successor organization, NASA. Mercury laid the groundwork for Project Gemini and the follow-on Apollo moon-landing program.

The project name came from Mercury, a Roman mythological god often seen as a symbol of speed. Mercury is also the name of the innermost planet of the Solar System, which moves faster than any other and hence provides an image of speed, although Project Mercury had no real connection to the planet.

The Mercury program cost approximately $384 million,[3] the equivalent of about $2.9 billion in 2010 dollars.

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Goals and guidelines

The goals of the program were to orbit a manned spacecraft around Earth, investigate the pilot's ability to function in space and to recover both pilot and spacecraft safely.[4] NASA also established program guidelines: existing technology and off-the-shelf equipment should be used wherever practical, the simplest and most reliable approach to system design would be followed, an existing launch vehicle would be employed to place the spacecraft into orbit, and use of a progressive and logical test program. Project requirements for the spacecraft were that it must be fitted with a reliable launch escape system to separate the spacecraft and its crewman from the launch vehicle in case of impending failure, the pilot must be given the capability of manually controlling spacecraft attitude, the spacecraft must carry a retrorocket system capable of reliably providing the necessary impulse to bring the spacecraft out of orbit, a zero-lift body utilizing drag braking would be used for reentry, and that the spacecraft design must satisfy the requirements for a water landing.[5]

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