Chapter 6

From Design into Development

(January - June 1959)

[133] FROM dreams into definitions and from design into development, the idea for a manned satellite was growing toward fruition. During the first half of 1959, the Space Task Group (STG) guided the translation of its conceptual designs into detailed developmental plans for the molding of hardware. Creating an engineering program, planning precisely the flight missions, organizing men, money, and material to fulfill those missions, and establishing technical policy and managerial responsibility were the prime necessities of the moment. But this year began with the realization of a Russian "dream," Mechta.

On January 2, 1959, the Soviets announced they had successfully launched a rocket toward the Moon, the final stage of which weighed 3,245 pounds, including almost 800 pounds of payload instrumentation inside its spherical shell. The Soviet Mechta, also popularly called Lunik I, was the first man-made object to attain the 25,000-mile-per-hour speed needed to break away from Earth's gravitational field. By comparison the United States Moon probe Pioneer III, launched by a four-stage Jupiter called Juno II on December 6, 1958, had weighed 13 pounds and attained a velocity of 24,000 miles per hour. And though it missed its target, Lunik I flashed past Earth's natural satellite to become the first successful "deep space" (i.e., translunar) probe and the first man-made artifact to become a solar satellite.1

While Mechta presumably went into solar orbit, and even while many incredulous Americans refused to accept this impressive claim, NASA mobilized for the national effort to catch up with the Soviets in propulsion and guidance, and in progress toward manned space flight. The project named Mercury embodied the latter half of those hopes.

Robert R. Gilruth and his STG associates at Langley, together with Abe Silverstein and others in Washington, plunged knowingly into one of the greatest engineering adventures of all time. Somewhat self-conscious in the role of men of action setting out to do what had never been done before, they tried to match means to their ends without too much introspection and by avoiding useless [134] worries over comparative scores in the space race. Like all good engineers, they were also professors of efficiency. They committed themselves to do their unique task as effectively, economically, and quickly as possible. But the inexorable conflict between the novelty of the experiment and the experience with novelty that alone can lead to efficiency they had to accept as an occupational hazard. Two of their ideals - to perform orbital flight safely and to perform it with economy - were embodied in preliminary designs for Project Mercury long before those same ideals became obligations during the development of the program. Their third ideal - timeliness - gradually became crushed between performance and cost considerations.

In the hectic three months of planning and procurement from September 1958 to January 1959, the original "objectives and basic plan" for Project Mercury gradually clarified by abbreviation to an itemized list. Continued reiteration throughout preliminary development (January through June 1959) finally reduced the aims, attitudes, and means of the Space Task Group to a set of nominative formulas used again and again as "Slide No. 1" in briefings:

Reduced to this form by July 1959, the basic doctrine for Project Mercury remained essentially unchanged throughout the entire life of the program. Although the managers of Mercury found this a source of considerable pride, they were forced to make certain departures from their basic principles and to refine their methods continually.2 The techniques and technology for landing, for example, were not specified this early. The efforts to ensure a safe touchdown, on water instead of land, became a critical concern over a year later.

1 House Committee on Science and Astronautics, 87 Cong., 1 sess. (1961), A Chronology of Missile and Astronautic Events, 64-66; Eugene M. Emme, Aeronautics and Astronautics: An American Chronology of Science and Technology in the Exploration of Space 1915-1960 (Washington, 1961), 106, 143. Cf. House Committee on Science and Astronautics, 86 Cong., 1 sess. (1959), The First Soviet Moon Rocket. On technological chauvinism, see the congressional furor aroused by Lloyd Mallan, "The Big Red Lie," a series of articles in True (April, May, June, July, 1959), which alleged Soviet space claims, especially Mechta, to be the "biggest hoax in history." House Committee on Science and Astronautics, 86 Cong., 1 sess. (1959), Soviet Space Technology, Hearings.

2 "Project Mercury Discussion," brochure for press tour of Langley Research Center, STG, July 7, 1959, 1; Maxime A. Faget and Robert O. Piland, "Mercury Capsule and Its Flight Systems," paper, Institute of the Aeronautical Sciences, New York City, Jan. 25, 1960, 1-2; Ms., Paul E. Purser, "Project Mercury Technical History," June 12, 1963, intro., 5-6; Faget and Walter C. Williams, interviews, Houston, Aug. 23, 1965.

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