The National Air and Space Administration was formally incorporated as an agency of the United State Government on September, 30, 1958. On that day, all space-based research in the United States, including all manned space flight projects fell under the auspices of NASA. This included the Man in Space Soonest initiative, also known as Project MISS. Begun as a paper study, by the United State Air Force, the goal of Project MISS was to put a manned spacecraft in orbit ahead of the Russians. By August, 1958, the mission requirements for the Project MISS spacecraft had been finalized and the Air Force had officially announced a competition for American aerospace companies to submit their designs for the Project MISS spacecraft. The Project MISS spacecraft was designed to be launched into orbit by the Air Force’s Thor or Atlas rockets. The MISS capsule was designed for manned orbital missions of up to 48 hours. The pilot’s chair was designed with pivot points at the head and feet so that the pilot would always remain in an upright position. The capsule was also equipped with an abort system that consisted of a cluster of powerful solid rocket boosters at the base of the spacecraft. The program limped along until the formation of NASA in the fall of 1958, when it was shut down in favour of Project Mercury.
December 17, 1958
Dr. T Keith Glennan stood in the hangar on the raised platform in front of a gaggle of reporters. Behind him was an assortment of aircraft. He was flanked by technical diagrams and artists’ conceptions of small one man spacecraft whose construction he was about to announce. On a low table in front of him, were models of the Redstone and Atlas rockets. He turned to face the waiting reporters. He was slightly nervous. Glennan was an engineer, not a press person. He was content to toil in relative obscurity, but the launch of Sputnik the previous year, along the failure of the Vangaurd mission and the success of Explorer I had made anything to do with space flight big news, and he knew that today, he was about to make headlines.
“Good morning,” he said. “My name is Dr. T Keith Glennan. Over the past year, we have all watched with excitement, and a little trepidation, as the world of space has been opened to us. I have come before you today to announce the next exciting step into the universe. That step is known as Project Mercury. Even though Project Mercury is currently in the early phases of its development, the coming weeks and months promise many exciting firsts in space. The goals of Project Mercury are as follows:
To place a manned spacecraft in Earth orbit
To return both the pilot and the capsule safely
To utilize off the shelf or in development hardware in the pursuit of the above goals.
As the administrator of NASA, I have officially tendered design proposals from some of the top aircraft manufacturers in the United States in pursuit of these aims.
“Project Mercury will consist of a series of sub-orbital and orbital flights to be flown with the Redstone and Atlas rockets. The spacecraft itself will carry a single occupant into space for periods of up to 24 hours. The spacecraft will controllable both by the pilot and automatically from the ground.
“We have already begun to receive design proposals from a number of aerospace firms and anticipate making our first manned flights sometime in 1960 or 61. I will now take questions.”
A number of hands went up. Glennan pointed.
“Arthur Brankson, New York Times. Can you tell us, Dr. Glennan, why is NASA, going back to the drawing board in its manned space flight effort? Why not continue to develop Project MISS?”
“We have carefully studied all the previous manned space flight efforts undertaken by the various branches of the armed forces, including Project MISS. We determined none of the previous efforts, including Project MISS, would give us a significant leg up over the Russians, who we have no doubt are also trying to put a man into orbit. Next question.”
More hands went up.
“William Blake, Chicago Times. You mentioned that you intend to use the Atlas missile as a launch vehicle. Forgive me, doesn’t the Atlas missile have an unfortunate tendency of exploding on the pad?”
“It is true,” responded Glennan, “that the Atlas rocket has had its share of teething problems, but I confer on a regular basis with the engineers overseeing the Atlas development program and they assure me that the Atlas rocket will be ready in time. Next question.”
“Walter Granger, Dallas Star. Can you describe the over all program architecture for us?”
“Yes,” said Glennan, “The program will consist of several phases. The first will test the spacecraft’s abort system. We will do this with series of sub-orbital flights utilizing small rockets. We do not intend for the spacecraft to leave the atmosphere, only provide enough altitude to safely test the abort system, which will consist of a cluster of small, but powerful solid rocket motors which will be mounted on an escape tower above the spacecraft. Once these tests have been completed to our satisfaction, we will move on to the heat shield test. For this test we will conduct a series of unmanned launches to the edge of space. In addition to ensure that the heat shield can survive the stress of re-entry, these tests will allow us to fine tune our mission control protocols. The next phase after that will be to man-rate the spacecraft and we will do so with series of flight tests utilizing monkeys in place of astronauts. Only we are sure that the spacecraft is safe for its human occupants will we allow the astronauts to fly it. One last question.”
“Daniel Jackson, Detroit Times. How confident are you that we will beat the Russians to launching the first manned mission into space?”
“We are very confidant,” replied Glennan. “Unlike the Soviet Union, the United States has not tried to shroud its space program in secrecy. We have owned up to our failures and allowed the people of the world to share in our successes. The people working on this project are some of the best scientists, engineers and technicians in the world. They are totally committed to the success of Project Mercury, as am I and are all of us who work for NASA.”