The End of the Beginning
AT CAPE CANAVERAL during the first Cooper orbit., the author had stood on the site from which the MA-9 launch had been made, an empty, desolate place with burned-out scraps of debris from the launching scattered around. The press had not yet arrived, and only a few orange-helmeted workmen moved quietly about. The impact was one of finality, the end of an era…
At the northern part of the Cape, bounded on one side by the Banana River and on the other by the Atlantic, the new Saturn launch complex with its towering gantries from which the Gemini and Apollo launches would be made already dwarfed the Mercury-Atlas complex.
Truly this was a moment of transition.
As early as January 1963, NASA Administrator Webb had indicated that the Cooper flight, MA-9, would conclude the Mercury series unless unforeseen problems arose, but in the first few days following the flight there was speculation as to whether another shot would be made. Unless there were further flights, there was facing the Nation a long, dry period between the Mercury and Gemini flights. There would be pressing day-to-day work that would tax the resources of the Nation, but little in the way of demonstrated progress in manned space flight.
Administrator Webb's viewpoint was based on many factors, obviously including the NASA image before Congress, the overall economy of money and manpower, and the psychological need to focus on the future of Projects Gemini and Apollo rather than extend the past as represented by Project Mercury. On the other hand, the operations staff of Project Mercury could point with equally compelling logic to resources ready for use, including a launch vehicle and spacecraft, and trained astronauts. The launch, tracking, and recovery organization was in existence and would profit from being used. To the operations staff it could therefore logically have seemed a relatively economical opportunity to extend the learning curve. This part of the Mercury story remains to be written. Suffice it for purposes of this study to state merely that on June 12, 1963, NASA Headquarters announced the termination of Project Mercury.
The manned space-flight program had come to a period of transition in yet another way, as two key individuals left NASA. On that date, June 12, 1963, D. Brainerd Holmes, Director of the Office of Manned Space Flight, resigned to return to private industry. Brig. Gen. Charles Roadman, Director of Space Medicine under Holmes, returned to duty with the Air Force on July 1, 1963.
Thus the mission-oriented Project Mercury was officially at an end by the early summer of 1963; and while basic concepts regarding man's ability to survive and function on short-range space flights had been verified, the biological implications of extended manned space flight remained largely for future resolution. Mercury had been, as some described it, merely "the end of the beginning" in the U.S. manned exploration program.
Already the Russians had accumulated a greater number of manned space-flight
hours than had the United States. Now the international scientific community
awaited the assessment and exchange of biological data that would indicate
whether, from the physiological viewpoint, man could survive extended space
travel. The principles and practice of space medicine in all its ramifications
would be brought to bear upon this, the next potential mile-stone in man's
quest for the stars.