Mercury Abort Test, 50 Years Ago

First off, thanks to everybody who commented on the space history quasi-series, whether here, on Twitter, or on Facebook. (I got no LinkedIn comments, but it isn’t quite as convenient for communicating.) I appreciate the feedback!

Now, for today’s entry …

A half-century ago today (which is hard to write because I’m getting closer to that age every day) — January 21, 1960 — NASA launched the Little Joe 1B test vehicle from Wallops Island, VA.

(Little Joe 1B launch. NASA image.)

Like the Little Joe 2 launch a few weeks before,* which I blogged about here, this test of the Mercury abort system carried a rhesus monkey. In this case, the passenger was “Miss Sam,” the mate of “Sam” who had flown on the previous launch.

(“Miss Sam” in her protective couch, prior to the Little Joe 1B launch. NASA image from Wikimedia Commons.)

“Miss Sam”‘s launch only placed her about 9 miles in altitude, however, so she did not earn her astronaut wings.

For a fascinating history of animals (especially monkeys!) in space, check out this NASA page.

*The Little Joe launches were not in numerical order, for some reason.

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Space History, a Half Century Ago: Little Joe-2

Fifty years ago today — December 4, 1959 — the “Little Joe-2” rocket launched from Wallops Flight Facility, Virginia, with a very special passenger: the rhesus monkey “Sam.”

(Rhesus monkey “Sam” in fiberglass protective shell. NASA image from Wikimedia Commons.)

Sam reached an altitude of over 50 miles and traveled nearly 200 miles downrange before landing in the Atlantic Ocean. The US Navy recovered Sam and the boilerplate Mercury capsule; here’s a link to a post-flight photo of Sam.

Lucky space monkey . . . .

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First Images of the Far Side

Fifty years ago today — October 4, 1959 — the first probe to return pictures of the far side (not the “dark side”) of the moon was launched. The Luna-3 flyby mission launched on a Vostok rocket from what is now the Baikonur Cosmodrome.

(Luna-3’s first image of the far side of the moon. From the National Space Science Data Center.)

On the same day, the U.S. launched “Little Joe 6,” from Wallops Island, Virginia, to test the Mercury space capsule’s integrity and aerodynamics. The capsule reached 37 miles altitude and flew 79 miles downrange, and the mission was listed as “partially successful.”

The space race was on, a half century ago. Thinking about it makes me wonder if we have the national will to start running a space race again, with the Chinese and the Indians in the mix.

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Studying the Planet Mercury, Then and Now

Thirty-five years ago today — September 21, 1974 — Mariner-10 made its second flyby of the planet Mercury.

(Mosaic of Mariner-10’s images of Mercury. NASA image from

Mariner-10 was the first spacecraft to examine Mercury up close. Today the MESSENGER (MErcury Surface, Space ENvironment, GEochemistry, and Ranging) spacecraft is studying Mercury, and its next flyby is scheduled for next week. Read more about MESSENGER here and here.

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Space History: Big Joe 1 and STS-64

Fifty years ago today — September 9, 1959 — the Mercury capsule test “Big Joe 1” launched from Cape Canaveral on an Atlas rocket. The booster operated nominally but its two outboard engines didn’t separate as planned, which left the payload 500 miles short of the predicted impact point; the overall test flight was still considered a success.

(Big Joe launch vehicle. Click to enlarge. USAF photo from the Johnson Space Center image collection.)

And fifteen years ago today, in 1994, Richard N. Richards, L. Blaine Hammond, Jr., Jerry M. Linenger, Susan J. Helms, Carl J. Meade, and Mark C. Lee launched from the Kennedy Space Center aboard Space Shuttle Discovery on mission STS-64.

(STS-64 mission patch, from NASA.)

The STS-64 mission was the first flight of the LIDAR (i.e., light detection and ranging, like radar but with lasers instead of radio) In-Space Technology Experiment, or “LITE.” Astronauts Lee and Meade accomplished the first untethered U.S. space walk in 10 years.

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50 Years Ago: The Dawn of Project Mercury

Project Mercury was announced in 1958, but 50 years ago this month the astronauts were selected and presented to the public. I found two different selection dates — April 1st, according to this NASA page about the 40th anniversary, and April 2nd, according to this NASA list of anniversaries.*

(NASA publicity photo of the Mercury Seven)

All sources agree that the “Mercury Seven” astronauts were announced at a NASA press conference on April 9, 1959. They were Scott Carpenter, L. Gordon Cooper, Jr., John H. Glenn, Jr., Virgil I. “Gus” Grissom, Walter M. Schirra, Jr., Alan B. Shepard, Jr., and Donald K. “Deke” Slayton.

*From which I get the space anniversaries I want to highlight here on the blog.

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50 Years Ago in Space History: 26 Nov 58

An obscure tidbit from the space anniversary files: on November 26, 1958, the Project Mercury designation was officially approved. Project Mercury went on to place our first U.S. astronauts in space and in orbit, and paved the way for Gemini and then, of course, Apollo.

You can read more about Project Mercury at this Kennedy Space Center web page.

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Space History: Mariner-10

Thirty-five years ago today, Mariner-10 — the first spacecraft to visit Mercury — was launched. According to this NASA page, it was the seventh spacecraft in the Mariner series, and the first spacecraft to use the gravitational “slingshot” method to change course: it swung by Venus on its way to Mercury.

Just last month the MESSENGER spacecraft sent back vivid images that revealed parts of Mercury never seen before. With that in mind, it seems fitting to remember its predecessor today.

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