This stuff had The Right Stuff: a history of Project Mercury in seven objects

From barrier-breaking aircraft to statement-making cars – these artefacts defined the birth of the American space program.

By Simon Ingram
Published 30 Sept 2020, 11:00 BST
Space age stuff for a space-age lifestyle: from experimental aircraft to rockets, to cars, these objects ...

Space age stuff for a space-age lifestyle: from experimental aircraft to rockets, to cars, these objects built the aesthetic of the American race to 'punch a hole in the sky.'

Photograph by Smithsonian National Air and Space Centre, NASA, Alamy

AMERICA IN THE LATE 1950s, and all eyes were on the sky. World War 2 was over. The Cold War was warming up. And with it, a race was building between the brewing adversaries of the United States and the USSR. The prize was the ultimate technological first: putting a human in space. 

Built on the ruins of frantic development that had defined the final years of World War Two, the parallel surge in advancement that fed this ‘space race’ was rapid. It was also hugely costly, and occasionally underpinned with intelligence of murky origin – much of it gathered from ex-Nazi weapon scientists used by both the Soviets, and recruited into NASA (then NACA) as part of Operation Paperclip. This competition on both sides of the Iron Curtain inevitably led to the most ballistic era in spaceflight – culminating in the U.S. with Project Mercury, America's first crewed space mission program. 

Recruiting test pilots from all areas of the military, the problems to solve were formidable. Little was known about human ability to withstand weightlessness, nor the 'heat surge' of re-entry, extreme G-forces, potentially lethal cosmic rays and the feasibility of plotting a course into space and safely back to Earth within the thin tolerances needed for life. The gruelling selection process to recruit the first American ‘astronauts’ would offer the chosen few the polarising prospect of glory, or oblivion – with either decided on the slightest degree of error.  

The ‘Mercury 7’ – the name given to the test pilots selected for the first U.S. astronaut program – became celebrities, with their whole families thrown under an international spotlight. Their lives were dramatised by Tom Wolfe in his book The Right Stuff - which is now a new Disney+ adaptation. (The Walt Disney Company is majority owner of National Geographic.)

Photograph by NASA

It was a time populated by larger-than-life characters and lifestyles, with big ambitions and ever-present dangers. And in the new technicolour world of at-home televisions, magazines and broadcast news, a cohort of real-life celebrities were born in the seven selected astronauts and their families. 

Dramatised in Tom Wolfe's 1979 book The Right Stuff – and now a new adaptation for Disney+ – Project Mercury also defined the look of the space age, with an aesthetic mined from the liberated, affluent backdrop of late-1950s America. This was an age of cars inspired by spacecraft, pilots that aspired to be astronauts, and technology pushing the limits of what was possible.    

From treasures of Americana to objects steeped in ingenuity and adrenaline, here are seven artefacts that – in ways big and small – helped define the era.

1.  Bell X-1 

Chuck Yeager’s breaking of the sound barrier in 1947 in the bullet-shaped Bell X-1 plane he nicknamed ‘Glamorous Glennis’ – after his wife – would effectively mark the beginning of human spaceflight.

Yeager had been a World War 2 combat ace before segueing into experimental aircraft test flights – targeted at improving aircraft design, but the natural enabler for more ambitious human-manned ideas. Yeager broke two ribs in a fall from a horse days before his record-breaking X-1 flight; just getting into the seat was a contortion even when able-bodied, and the covertly-injured pilot had to attach a broom handle to the aircraft’s door to enable him to close it. 

The Bell X-1, piloted by Chuck Yeager, was the first plane to break the sound barrier. 

Photograph by Smithsonian National Air and Space Museum

“Fear crouched in the deep recesses of the mind–present, accounted for, but well controlled,” Yeager would later write, as the X-1 – little more than an orange rocket with wings – was jettisoned at 20,000ft from a B29 mother ship with a cry of “drop!”, the X-1 ignited its thrusters and propelled itself to 45,000ft, accelerating through the sound barrier to Mach 1.06 (approximately 700 mph) five minutes later. Yeager flew supersonic for 18 seconds, before making an unpowered landing on a California lakebed.

Chuck Yeager (right) and actor Sam Shepard pose next to a replica of the Bell X-1 used for Philip Kauffman's adaptation of The Right Stuff (1983). Shepard played Yeager in the film; Yeager himself was a technical consultant.  

Photograph by Everett Collection, Alamy

A pilot's eye view inside the Bell X-1 reveals 1947-spec instrumentation similar to fighter planes of the time; note the all-important Machometer in the top right.

Photograph by Smithsonian National Air and Space Museum

Despite epitomising the implacable quality Tom Wolfe would coin as ‘the right stuff,’ Yeager was never an astronaut. He instead returned to combat command, retiring at Brigadier General in 1975 following deployment during the Cold War and in Vietnam. Last breaking the sound barrier in an F-15 in 2012 – and 97 years old at the time of publication – he has outlived all of the original Mercury 7. As he told Wired in 2014, Yeager’s experience of the early space race was rather different to the glamorous later years: “We weren't getting free houses or notoriety. We were working our tails off for $250 a month. Many of us were dying in the process.”

Current location: The Smithsonian National Air And Space Museum, Washington, D.C. 


2. Primate Couch-Cabin

A controversial aspect of the Mercury 7 program was its use of animals as test subjects. A number of creatures became proto-astronauts during early flights, much in the manner of NASA's USSR ‘space race’ competitors. The latter’s fondness for sending dogs into space had a similar aim: namely to test the ability of living creatures to endure the rigours of spaceflight. Unlike the more famous of the Russian dogs (Laika, for instance, was always on a one-way-trip) most of the animals NASA sent up were at least intended to be returned safely. These included the first earthlings of all in space: a batch of fruit flies sent up in the nose capsule of a captured Nazi V-2 missile in 1947, which made its safe return to earth on the end of a parachute. 

Ham is strapped into his 'couch' – personally shaped for him, as with the other Mercury astronauts – January, 1961. 

Photograph by NASA

The infamous ‘astro-chimps’ were the final test before humans took to space, and they had their own selection process. Eventually six from an intake of 40 chimpanzees made it through to pre-flight. A development from earlier launches involving smaller monkeys, chimps were chosen because they were “intelligent and normally docile... [and] a primate of sufficient size and sapience to provide a reasonable facsimile of human behaviour.” 

They wouldn't merely be passengers, either: in a quest to prove basic tasks could be actioned in space, all the chimps were trained to pull a lever in response to a blue light. This used a process that would involve a minor electric shock to the soles of the feet if a response was given in error, and a banana pellet as a reward for a correct one.  

Selected immediately preflight for being ‘particularly feisty and in good humour’, Ham was launched on 31 January 1961, and reached an altitude of 157 miles above earth and '18 Gs' – and successfully pulled his lever when prompted. In his 16-minute flight, he experienced around six minutes of weightlessness.  

Many animal flights came to a tragic end upon landing; Ham’s was nearly no exception. His capsule began to flood on splashdown, but he was successfully recovered and described as being in ‘seemingly unfazed’ – though later commentators disagreed, insisting Ham's smile was actually a grimace. His image graced the cover of magazines including Life, and he was the subject of several documentaries. 

Left: Ham inside his life support capsule. The capsule – an alternative to a spacesuit – was built around the seat, or couch, to offer protection in the event of depressurisation. Right: with a ‘handshake,’ Ham greets the commander of his recovery ship, the USS Donner, after his splashdown.

Photograph by NASA

A second chimp, Enos, travelled into orbit on November 29, 1961, ahead of John Glenn's first orbital flight the following February. He too returned safely, though a malfunction on board resulted in the chimp receiving electric shocks even for correct responses to his tasks.     

Like Enos, Ham only received his name (reputedly an acronym of the Holloman Aerospace Medical Centre, where he was trained) on his return from space. Prior to his flight he was named simply Number 65, to anonymise the animal's personality in the event of a failed mission, and in any subsequent negative headlines. 

Ham died in 1983, at a zoological park in North Carolina. Controversy ensued over plans to mount and exhibit the chimp, so his remains - apart from his skeleton, which was removed for research – were interred respectfully at the International Space Hall of Fame in Alamogordo, New Mexico.  

His flight, whilst deemed a success, also led to long-standing questions around the way primates were employed in the interests of progress in spaceflight. The practice was eventually outlawed by NASA in 1997 when it pulled out of the US-Russian Bion research project, after the death of a monkey named Multik.

Upon seeing the film of Ham during his 1961 flight, primatologist Jane Goodall was horrified. As she told The Guardian's Henry Nicholls in 2013, “I have never seen such terror on a chimp's face.”

Current location Smithsonian National Air and Space Museum has several primate couch-capsules in its collection. Ham is buried at the International Space Hall of Fame, New Mexico.

3. Alan Shepard's MR-3 spacesuit

While John Glenn would become the first American human to orbit the planet, Shepard would have the distinction of being the first American human to enter space. The suit he wore – designed by tyre manufacturer B.F. Goodrich – was developed from a high altitude suit already in use by the US Navy, and went through several design iterations as Project Mercury progressed.

With an outer of aluminumised nylon and an inner of neoprene nylon, the suits were mainly worn ‘soft’ – and were never fully pressurised during the Mercury flights. This feature of the suit, which caused a severe reduction in mobility, was only intended for accidental cabin pressure loss, which never happened; the principal complaint was that the suits were hot. 

Alan Shepard is suited up for his MR-3 ‘Freedom 7’ launch; May 5th, 1961. Although his flight was only scheduled to be 15 minutes, Shepard spent over 8 hours on the launchpad sealed in his suit. His 'accident' shorted out his medical telemetry. 

Photograph by NASA

Each suit was bespoke to the astronaut, and Shepard was the first to use one in space. Due to the short intended duration of his flight, one design addition was lacking; whilst waiting several hours on the launchpad for a much-delayed lift-off, Shepard was forced to urinate inside his $29,000 suit. 

John Glenn had things better: by 1962 his spacesuit was equipped with a prototype collection vessel. It was needed, as Glenn deposited nearly 800ml of urine during his 5-hour flight. This was, physicians noted later, considerably more than the average human bladder's capacity – which prompted interested discussion on the effect of spaceflight on fluid excretion. 

Current location: in storage at the Smithsonian National Air and Space Museum

4. Liberty Bell 7 capsule

The Mercury mission callsigns were a compound of the program name, and the type of rocket – hence Mercury-Redstone (MR) and Mercury-Atlas (MA) – followed by the number of the mission. The single-person capsules were christened by the astronaut, all with the suffix ‘7’ to reference the Mercury team. So Alan Shepard nicknamed his Freedom 7; John Glenn’s was Friendship 7, Carpenter’s Aurora 7, Schirra’s Sigma 7, and Cooper’s Faith 7. Virgil ‘Gus’ Grissom, as the second of the Mercury astronauts to launch, named his the ‘Liberty Bell 7.’ The spacecraft had a white crack painted down it in reference to the original bearer of the name. The design in-joke possibly tempted fate a little too far.

Tasked to create spacecraft designed to cope with as-yet unheard of rigours, crewed by as-yet unseasoned astronauts and beset with as-yet untested challenges, in a race to be the first to put a human in space before the Russians, NASA was essentially designing at speed by the seat of its pants. Perhaps understandably, occasionally things went wrong. One early hiccup came when Gus Grissom made splashdown on July 21st 1961 in the Liberty Bell 7 after an otherwise perfect flight. 

Part of the mission-by-mission evolution of the capsules had given the Liberty Bell some new features. First, a larger, single window; and a new explosive hatch system, designed to make it easier for astronauts to escape in a hurry from the 70 bolt-sealed hatch. 

1961: Virgil 'Gus' Grissom poses outside the Liberty Bell 7 capsule – complete with white-painted 'crack'. Grissom would be the second American in space on July 21. 

Photograph by NASA

A US Navy helicopter attempts to hoist the stricken Liberty Bell 7 from the water after its hatch blew unexpectedly after splashdown. Gus Grissom's head can be seen in the water just right of centre, where the astronaut was struggling to stay afloat - having not had time to adequately seal his suit.

Photograph by NASA

Landing downrange of his expected splashdown in the Atlantic, whilst waiting for the helicopter recovery, Grissom had finished performing post-flight chores when he heard a dull thud from the direction of the hatch. The hatch was gone; he could see the sky, and seawater flooding in. Grissom was forced to evacuate. The helicopter crew, presuming Grissom was comfortable with staying afloat, attempted to recover the sinking spacecraft, before experiencing engine fatigue and having scrambled a second helicopter, abandoned both Grissom and the Liberty Bell. Unbeknownst to them the astronaut was experiencing buoyancy problems of his own – with an unprepared and rapidly flooding suit. 

Grissom was recovered; the Liberty Bell sank to the seafloor, where it would stay until a 1999 expedition retrieved it from a chilling depth of 16,000ft. (Titanic, by way of comparison, lies at 12,600ft.) 

The Liberty Bell 7 capsule was recovered from a depth of 16,000ft - considerably deeper than the Titanic – in 1999. Inside were artefacts including Grissom's emergency knife, seven commemorative coins and an unused emergency life raft that could still hold air. 

Photograph by NASA, Alamy

Rescued from the seafloor, the restored Liberty Bell 7 is now on display at the Cosmosphere in Hutchinson, Kansas.

Photograph by Cosmosphere, Hutchinson, Kansas

Grissom, shaken from the hatch’s failure and his struggle in the water, was then embroiled in a controversy – with speculation over whether the astronaut blew the hatch accidentally, or deliberately, in a panic. He refuted both, insisting the final stage would require five pounds of pressure on a plunger which, in the book We Seven, Grissom noted was “so far out of the way that I would have to reach for it on purpose to hit it. This I did not do.”  

On a later mission, Wally Schirra blew his own hatch manually whilst safely on the deck after his own splashdown; his resulting cut and bruise from the force required to trigger the explosive seemed to prove Grissom had not triggered his own hatch, as he was lacking a similar wound. A deliberate attempt to vindicate his friend or not, it seemed to do the job.  

Despite such technical hiccups, both Mercury and Gemini programs would pass without human fatality post-launchpad; even the later Apollo program wouldn’t lose any astronauts in space, though it was not without casualties. With tragic irony, it would be an allegedly over-designed hatch on Apollo 1 that prevented Grissom, Ed White and Roger Chaffee from escaping an electrical fire during a launchpad test of in 1967; all three crew died.

Current Location The recovered Liberty Bell 7 is on display at the Cosmosphere in Hutchinson, Kansas

5. The Celestial Training Device

“You tell me when you want it and where you want it to land, and I'll do it backwards and tell you when to take off.” So said Katherine Johnson, the mathematical genius behind the calculations needed to ensure Project Mercury’s voyages into the unknown were a little less unknown – numerically, at least. (Learn more about ‘hidden figure’ Katherine Johnson.)  

Firing a metal capsule into space from a rotating earth in an arc had many potential pitfalls if you wanted to get an astronaut home – let alone without inadvertently hitting something in the process, or causing a splashdown in a wild sea a few hundred miles away from where any rescue ship might be waiting. This was complex stuff: imagine firing a tennis ball into the sky from a cannon, and trying to predict the open window through which it could land in a city 190 miles away. And most of it was new: as Johnson would later recall, “We wrote our own textbook... because there was no other text about space.”

Katherine Johnson works with her slide rule and the ‘Celestial Training Device’ (left) that assisted her with her calculations. 

Photograph by Langley Space Centre, NASA

A fiendish stew of velocity versus gravity, ascension, declination all offset against the turn of the earth, mechanical computers were employed to crunch the numbers – but it was a human computer that ensured the critical calculations added up. In addition to slide rules and old fashioned geometry, a key tool was the now iconic ‘celestial training device’ – a globe within a globe – that was used by Johnson to aid calculations for the more complex orbital missions. Her cross-checking was reportedly at the insistence of John Glenn, who quipped of Johnson’s number work: “If she says they're good, then I'm ready to go.”

John Glenn peers into the 'globe within a globe' Celestial Training Device.

Photograph by NASA

Johnson, who overcame both race and gender stereotypes to earn her place in the history of spaceflight, would also supply co-ordinates to get the Apollo spacecraft to the moon and back – and ensuring they all components met up in the meantime – and worked on the space shuttle program. She died in February 2020. 

Current location unknown

6. Modified Hasselblad 500C camera

In the early 1960s, the first human-shot views of the Earth would make for powerful publicity ally in an expensive space race: the payoff for a huge investment of taxpayer cash and public interest. But while all of the capsules were fitted with an automatic video camera, according to Albert J. Derr in Photography Equipment and Techniques: A Survey of NASA Developments, “photography was not given high priority in the first two sub-orbital flights of American astronauts because it was essential that they concentrate on operating the spacecraft.”

With the USSR's Yuri Gagarin also without a camera on the milestone flight that pipped the Americans by less than a month on April 12 1961,  John Glenn would be the first to take a hand-held camera he could point back at the Earth on February 20, 1962.

Glenn's camera was a Minolta-made Ansco Autoset 35mm camera he'd bought at a Florida drugstore, modified with a pistol-style shutter trigger and film advance, a special filter for experimental UV spectrographic photography, and a distance eye piece for use with a helmet. Glenn liked the camera as it had an automatic exposure setting – making it easy to use when wearing gloves. He also took NASA's approved Leica 1g, with which he also took standard colour images of the Earth. 

Left: One of two cameras John Glenn took aboard the 'Friendship 7' capsule, a heavily modified Minolta Hi-Matic (rebranded as an Ansco Autoset) with a pistol shutter release and film transport, and refitted for UV spectrograph photography. Right: The image Glenn claimed as the first ever hand-held shot of the Earth, over North Africa; February 20, 1962.

Photograph by NASA, John Glenn

Glenn's pictures were atmospheric enough to whet public appetite, but it would not be until keen photographer Wally Schirra began preparations for Mercury 8 that NASA began the association with the camera that would capture some of the most iconic images ever taken. The camera was a heavily modified Hasselblad 500C, a Swedish-made square-format 6x6cm model mated with a Zeiss lens. To avoid light catching the silver finish and reflecting in the spaceship window, the camera was painted matte black. A new parallel viewfinder was mounted on the side, and a film magazine built to hold 100 shots (as opposed to the usual 12) was added to avoid any mid-orbit fumbling. 

Wally Schirra's Hasselblad 500C, post modification. The camera was also used by Gordon Cooper on the final Mercury mission. The camera was auctioned in 2014, reaching £213,000.  

Photograph by RR Auction, Keith Haviland

Astronaut Wally Schirra tests the modified Hasselblad before his Mercury-Atlas 8 flight in 1962. 

Photograph by NASA

Finally coated with hook-and-loop tape to secure it the the spacecraft and stripped of any extra grams, the Hasselblad was ready to go. The images Schirra captured would be expansive, sharp and gloriously colourful. They would earn a similarly modified Hasselblad a place on the Gemini missions, and later most famously the Apollo missions to the moon, where Neil Armstrong would wield a further-developed version of the camera to iconic – and notably square – effect.  

Current location Glenn's cameras are housed at the Smithsonian National Air and Space Museum; the Hasselblad camera used in the Mercury missions was sold to a private British collector in 2014. 

7. 1961 Chevrolet Corvette

With its space-age lines, brash acoustics and performance to match, it’s not a stretch to understand the appeal of Chevrolet’s iconic sportscar to rocket pilots. But the reason the Corvette became such a totem of the astronaut program was no accident. It grew from gregarious Mercury 7 astronaut ‘Smilin’ Al’ Shepard’s enthusiasm for the car, and an enterprising Florida dealer spotting a publicity drive, that the Corvette ended up being the car of choice for early astronauts. 

A 1961 model Chevrolet Corvette similar to the first cars ‘leased’ by the astronauts under Jim Rathmann's lucrative deal.

Photograph by Alamy

Already a Corvette driver, Shepherd was presented with a customised model after the first Mercury flight in 1961 by the president of General Motors. With an opportunity in his nostrils, all astronauts were then offered similar cars from Florida dealer Jim Rathmann for a cheeky ‘lease’ of $1 per year, given endorsement-by-freebie was prohibited under the terms of the astronauts’ contracts. Most of the Mercury 7 astronauts opted for a Corvette; John Glenn was the subject of much ribbing when he stuck with a more sober family car. Scrapes and pranks involving the car would become legendary, with many speculating one or more of their drivers would write themselves out of history whilst at the wheel. 

As the space program progressed, so too did the Corvettes, evolving from the flared 50s model to the muscle-car incarnation of the 1970s – the ubiquity of the $1-per-year cars extending into the Gemini and Apollo programs. The associated publicity was often at the chagrin of NASA, who feared their astronauts enthusiasm for the car implied company endorsement

Few astronaut cars remain on the radar, let alone the road; they include Neil Armstrong’s restored 1967 Stingray, and a pair of custom-painted models for the Apollo 12 crew, on display at the Corvette Museum in Kentucky. Shepard – who holds the distinction of being the first American in space and the only Mercury astronaut to also walk on the moon, on Apollo 14 – is thought to have owned at least 10 Corvettes. Of these, a much-exhibited 1968 model was recently up for sale in ragged condition, complete with a dealer-replaced engine fitted after the astronaut reputedly blew the original up. The price to own an authentically battered style statement of an adrenaline-soaked era: a little over £100,000.

Current location most remaining cars are in private collections; the Corvette Museum in Kentucky has two Apollo astronaut cars on display. 


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