Into the ‘new ocean’: captivating images from America's first space program

Locked in competition with the U.S.S.R., NASA's race to put a human with 'the right stuff' in space enthralled the world. It also became the shoulders upon which exploration beyond Earth's borders would stand.

Tuesday, October 6, 2020,
By Simon Ingram
Photographs By NASA
The Mercury 7 astronauts dressed in their 'Mercury suits.' Developed from high altitude U.S. Navy suits, the ...

The Mercury 7 astronauts dressed in their 'Mercury suits.' Developed from high altitude U.S. Navy suits, the pressurised aluminiumised nylon and neoprene suits had to be custom-made for each astronaut. Back row, left to right: Alan Shepard, Virgil 'Gus' Grissom, Gordon Cooper; Front row, left to right: Wally Schirra, Donald ‘Deke’ Slayton, John Glenn, Scott Carpenter.

Photograph by NASA

WE SET SAIL on this new sea because there is new knowledge to be gained, and new rights to be won, and they must be won and used for the progress of all people... and only if the United States occupies a position of pre-eminence can we help decide whether this new ocean will be a sea of peace or a new terrifying theatre of war.”

When John F. Kennedy stood before an audience of 40,000 at Rice University stadium in Houston, Texas on September 12, 1962 and delivered this address, the world was again becoming a dangerous place. Powerful sabres were rattling on opposite sides of the planet between opposing ideologies. As terrifyingly illustrated just a month later when the Cuban Missile Crisis would envelop Kennedy's presidency, the race for technological supremacy between the U.S. and the U.S.S.R. was the new statement of dominance. And human-piloted spacecraft was its most dramatic symbol of capability. 

John F Kennedy giving his famous speech at Rice University, Houston, 12 September 1962. Kennedy's address is one of the most quoted in space exploration, containing the phrase: “We choose to go to the moon. We choose to go to the moon in this decade and do the other things, not because they are easy, but because they are hard.”

Photograph by NASA Photo / Alamy

Kennedy's speech would contain probably the second most quoted soundbite associated with the American space program, beginning with the words “we choose to go to the moon,” fittingly usurped only when Neil Armstrong took his one small step seven years later, drawing the ambition full circle. 

Kennedy did not, of course, live to see his grandstanding speech reach its conclusion. Nor did he watch the public's scepticism, with which the so-called Rice Speech was greeted, finally vaporise in the exhausts of the Saturn 5 rocket carrying the first humans to the moon. In 1962 this seemed a long way off: a poll at the time estimated 58 per cent of Americans did not want to shoulder the $40 billion Kennedy's collective ‘choice’ would cost.

Gallery: The Groundwork

What Kennedy did live to see was the electrifying, Earth-trembling birth of America's space program. By the time of the Rice speech, he had witnessed the first four human missions of Project Mercury. These six crewed missions and their development formed the DNA from which the later Gemini and Apollo missions would grow – and were America's first great adventure in space.   

So inspired was the president by Alan Shepard's 15-minute flight in Freedom 7 in May 1961, within days he made his infamous challenge before Congress to, before the decade was out, ‘land a man safely on the moon... returning him safely to the Earth’. But this was also because the country was on the back foot in the space race; the U.S. needed a grander goal with which to gather a lead.  

Despite being mythologised in books such as Hidden Figures and The Right Stuff with a new adaption of the latter inbound to Disney+ – Project Mercury's significance in these headiest days of the space race has been frequently sidelined. Read the boilerplate it's not hard to see why: beaten by days by the USSR, it didn't launch the first human expedition to space. And eclipsed as it would later be by the Apollo moon landings, it didn't launch the grandest, either.     

Gallery: The Missions

But the groundwork underpinning Mercury was critical for establishing the criteria for success; and its six manned missions were the risk-soaked proving ground. “The culmination of decades of investigation and application of aerodynamics, rocket propulsion, celestial mechanics, aerospace medicine, and electronics, Project Mercury took man beyond the atmosphere into space orbit,” wrote James M. Grimwood in Project Mercury: A Chronology. “It confirmed the potential for man's mobility in his universe.” 

Starting from zero, spacecraft design was honed, astronauts trained, calculations speculated then proven, and tolerances stretched. And all in the name of technological dominance, scientific discovery and exploration of the most adventurous and competitive kind. 

So said Kennedy, concluding his Rice speech: “We do not intend to stay behind, and in this decade, we shall make up and move ahead.” This was, as history proved, the case. And while that is another story, it was this pioneering program that made it possible. In every sense, Apollo could only reach for the moon by standing on the shoulders of Mercury.

The Right Stuff is streaming on Disney+ from 9 October.    

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