While launching crews into orbit has become routine with even commercial companies beginning to provide lift services for customers like the US government, it was far from routine decades ago during the opening years of the Space Age. At that time, teams of the best scientists and engineers in the US and the old Soviet Union struggled to develop and master the new technologies required to safely send people into space resulting in numerous failures. One of the most infamous of these failures was the launch abort of NASA’s Mercury-Redstone 1 which was meant to test the rocket and spacecraft which would send the first Americans into space.
Artist concept of the Mercury capsule with its launch escape system. (NASA)
Begun shortly after its founding in October 1958, the goal of NASA’s Project Mercury was to send a single astronaut into orbit using a modified version of the Atlas D ICBM – the largest rocket the US had available at the time (see “The Origins of NASA’s Mercury Program”). As the end of 1960 was approaching, NASA had already launched a pair of test flights of the Mercury-Atlas with less than stellar results. The first test ...