Capsule Or Spacecraft? | This Week In Space History
by michael shinabery
NASA Designs Man-In-A-Can
By the end of 1958 Sputnik had gone up, Vanguard had blown up, and Explorer I would soon go up. Although the space race was in its infancy, NASA was already pushing toward manned flight. On Dec. 30, 1958, NASA’s Space Task Group at Langley, Virginia, “completed the evaluation of industry proposals for design and construction of a manned spacecraft,” said the 1963 NASA publication “Project Mercury: A Chronology.” Less than a month later, on Jan. 26, 1959, “NASA completed contract negotiations with McDonnell for the design and development of the Mercury spacecraft.”
“McDonnell Aircraft of St. Louis, Mo., was selected by NASA on January 15, 1959, to develop and manufacture the manned satellite capsule,” an undated McDonnell brochure documented. The capsule, “described as looking like a child’s toy top,” was “more than 6 feet in diameter at the base, stands nine feet tall, and weighs over a ton,” the brochure said.
Later that year, on June 19, NASA organized the Mercury Capsule (spacecraft) Coordination Office, and the Capsule Review Board to “review, at regular intervals, action taken by the Capsule Coordination Office,” “Project Mercury” said.
That the craft was even called a capsule irritated astronauts, Tom Wolfe said in “The Right Stuff.” “The term as much as declared that the man inside was not a pilot but an experimental animal in a pod. Gradually, everybody began trying to work the term ‘spacecraft’ into NASA publications and syllabuses.”
An early debate occurred over installing a window. “Pilots had windows in their cockpits,” Wolfe said. “That was what it was all about: being a pilot as opposed to a guinea pig.” The phrase “man in a can” became commonplace, referring as well to Soviet Union flights that were wholly automatic.
Early designs incorporated the periscope for “a clear view of the earth below and to provide vital navigational information,” said a March 17, 1961 news release from manufacturer Perkin-Elmer Corporation. A wide-angle lens that “extends and retracts through the capsule’s skin” projected a 130-180 degree view of “an earth area up to about 1700 nautical miles in diameter.” A second lens could magnify any area.
The McDonnell brochure said “a rigid, fiberglass couch, fitted into the capsule and tailored to the exact contours of the astronaut’s body, will safely support the pilot during acceleration.” In April 1958, Dr. Maxime Faget and his NASA “associates conceived the idea of using a contour couch to withstand the high g-loads” during launch and re-entry, “Project Mercury” said. The next month, Langley’s shops fabricated “test-model contour couches,” which were “proved feasible on July 30.”
“It was only thanks to a recent invention, the high-speed electronic computer, that Project Mercury was feasible at all,” Wolfe said. “Engineers were already devising systems for guiding rockets into space, through the use of computers built into the engines and connected to accelerometers, for monitoring the temperature, pressure, oxygen supply, and other vital conditions of the Mercury capsule and for triggering safety procedures automatically – meaning they were creating, with computers, systems in which machines could communicate with one another, make decisions, take action, all with tremendous speed and accuracy.”
The astronauts, however, all military and test pilots, argued for manual control. The McDonnell brochure said “the pilot” would have that “option,” which most likely saved John Glenn’s life during his 1962 mission’s fiery re-entry.
Sensors indicated a loose heat shield. “Moon Shot” (Turner/1994) said Glenn having control meant the difference between “being a passenger riding a fiery chariot to earth” and “a very busy pilot in full, immediate manual control of his machine.”
In his self-titled memoir “John Glenn,” he described how, 90 minutes into the mission, the capsule began drifting. That caused automatic thrusters to repeatedly ignite, which “kept banging the capsule back and forth” and threatened fuel supply. Glenn “oriented the capsule manually” and, during re-entry, he said he “strained against almost eight Gs to keep moving the controller” in order to “damp out the capsule’s oscillations.”
On July 22, 1959, “Project Mercury” said, NASA successfully tested “a boilerplate (mock up) spacecraft with a production version of the escape tower and rocket” at the Wallops Island Flight Facility, off the Virginia coast.
The first unmanned launch, however, was what “Von Braun: Dreamer of Space, Engineer of War” (Knopf/2007) called “a comic fiasco.” The Redstone booster “rose a few inches, fell back on the launch ring, and tottered precariously in place. … The Mercury capsule’s automatic systems, meanwhile, thinking the launch was over, jettisoned the escape tower, which went roaring off in a cloud of smoke.”
The chimpanzee HAM was the first occupant of a launched Mercury capsule, on Jan. 31, 1961. Alan Shepard piloted the first manned mission on May 5, 1961.
On April 9, 1969 (the 10th anniversary of NASA introducing the Mercury Seven), the Grants Pass, Oregon Daily Courier published a United Press International news service story that said “only one of the seven pioneering Mercury astronauts who make up the ‘royal family of space’ stands much chance of setting foot on the moon.” That was Gordon Cooper, the youngest, who might “command a lunar landing,” UPI said. Alan Shepard and Deke Slayton were the only other two still in the corps, and their chances were nearly nil, according to the story. Ironically, Cooper never went. Shepard, though, hit a golf ball on the lunar surface during Apollo 14 in 1971, and four years later Slayton flew aboard the Apollo-Soyuz Test Project.
Michael Shinabery is an education specialist and Humanities Scholar with the New Mexico Museum of Space History. E-mail him at firstname.lastname@example.org.
Tags: Alan Shepard, Apollo 14, Apollo-Soyuz Test Project, Deke Slayton, John Glenn, McDonnell Aircraft, Mercury capsule, Mercury spacecraft, NASA, Project Mercury, Space, space history, spacecraft, spaceflight, Sputnik, Vanguard rocket