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Mercury-Redstone 2 Space Capsule
The Mercury capsule being loaded onto the Redstone rocket. Photo courtesy of NASA.
...the flight of this craft tested the rocket, the capsule and the ability to work in space and return safely, in preparation for the first American astronaut's journey into space. Mercury-Redstone 2 carried a chimpanzee named Ham and helped to confirm that humans could safely make the trip.
MR-2 Launch. Photo courtesy of NASA.
Mercury-Redstone 2 Specs
Launch date: January 31, 1961
Passenger: a four-year-old chimpanzee named Ham
Maximum altitude: 262 km (157 miles)
Downrange distance: 679 km (422 miles)
Duration of flight: 16 minutes, 39 seconds
Weightless time: 6 minutes, 36 seconds
Maximum speed: 9,762 km/hour (5,857 mph)
Maximum G forces: 14.7
Weight: 1,450 kg (3,200 pounds)
External Dimensions: 1.89 meters (6.2 feet) diameter
Internal Dimensions: 3.72 meters (40 square feet) - "about the size of a coffin"
Launch vehicle: Redstone rocket
Capsule control: Mercury missions did not require sophisticated control and the basic maneuvers for sub-orbital and orbital flights could be controlled automatically. Many of the instruments inside the capsule were from airplane cockpits.
Materials: Hull made from titanium 0.01 inches thick, blanketed by fiberglass insulation and covered with blackened heat radiating shingles. On the conical sides, shingles are made of a nickel-steel alloy. The cylindrical nose needed protection for higher temperatures, so shingles were made of beryllium. Beryllium heat shield (lost on recovery) to absorb heat on reentry. Plasticized fabric landing bag.
Manufacturer: McDonnell Aircraft Corporation of St. Louis in conjunction with the Space Task Group, formed by NASA and operating out of Langley, Virginia.

Ham's welcome aboard the rescue ship. Photo credit: NASA/KSC

Ham Stats
Weight: 16.78 kg (37 pounds)
Age at launch: 4 years old
Birthplace: French Cameroon (now Cameroon), Africa
Homes after flight: National Zoo in Washington D.C.; chimpanzee colony in North Carolina
Died: 1983, of natural causes
Could Ham see out of the capsule? No, but he experienced microgravity. A window was added to later capsule designs so the astronauts could look out.

Ham Photo Gallery


As part of the space race against the Soviet Union, the Project Mercury program (1958-1963) was designed to put an American astronaut into orbit around the Earth and return him safely. The program also tested how well humans could function in the unknown environment of space. But before humans could be sent out, NASA needed to make sure that they could be kept safe from micrometeoroids, radiation, noise, vibration, acceleration forces, microgravity and the vacuum of space. In addition, medical experts were unsure if humans could handle being isolated and confined in a space as small as the inside of the space capsule.

A look inside the capsule. Photo courtesy of NASA.

The Mercury-Redstone 2 flight tested the rocket and capsule, as well as the ability to work in space and return safely to Earth. Once the rocket and capsule design features selected for the Mercury missions were performing reliably, a chimpanzee named Ham was chosen from a colony of six "astrochimps" to test the environmental control systems inside the Mercury capsule. Researchers sent chimpanzees into space because chimps' organ and skeletal structures are similar to ours, and chimps can be trained.

The MR-2 flight showed that Ham could concentrate and work in flight. Through launch, more than six minutes of weightlessness, and reentry, he moved levers in response to flashing lights, just as he had been taught in the laboratory. Ham's response times in space were as good as on Earth.

The success of Ham's flight paved the way for the first American astronaut, Alan Shepherd, to go into sub-orbital space on May 5th, 1961. Another chimp, Enos, tested the first orbiting Mercury capsule on November 29th, 1961. On February 20th, 1962, John Glenn became the first American to orbit the Earth.

Mercury MR 2 Landing and Recovery
The landing bag and heat shield were designed to extend down about four feet before landing and fill with air to help cushion the impact. Once landed, the bag and heat shield were supposed to act together like a sea anchor to keep the capsule upright. A mistake at launch meant that the capsule went 157 miles up—40 miles higher than planned—and came down with such force that the heat shield punctured the capsule and water started to come on board.

The U.S.S. Donner on its way to pick up the capsule after it landed. Photo courtesy of NASA.

Six naval destroyers and a landing ship dock, the U.S.S. Donner, with three helicopters on board were waiting to pick up the capsule when it landed in the Atlantic. Unfortunately, they were waiting in the wrong place. Because the capsule went faster and higher than expected, it landed 60 miles away from the nearest ship. Just in case of such an event, four surveillance aircraft were ready to search for the capsule.

Half an hour after landing, a plane spotted the capsule. Helicopters from the U.S.S. Donner were sent to collect it, but it took 2 hours and 40 minutes until a helicopter managed to lift the capsule out of the water. During that time the heat shield and landing bag, already damaged on landing, were further ripped about by the waves. The heat shield tore free and sank before recovery, leaving only the badly damaged landing bag.

Ham's post-flight physical exam. Photo courtesy of NASA.

Once back on the ship, Ham was finally taken out of the capsule. Physical examination showed him to be in good condition, despite the fact that his 16 minute flight into space had extended to a rescue mission lasting just under four hours. Click for a timeline of the recovery and rescue mission.

On all other aspects the flight of MR-2 was a great success. The heat shield/landing bag mechanism was quickly redesigned to be able to withstand stronger impacts before Alan Shepherd's Mercury flight three months later.

The Science Center's MR-2 Capsule
The MR-2 capsule on display at the Science Center is the actual capsule that went into space with Ham on board. Inside the space capsule, you can even see Ham's couch.

Part of the collection of paintings on the nose, along with a close-up.

After the MR-2 capsule returned from its trip to space, the Navy used it to practice helping a person out of the capsule and retrieving the capsule from the ocean. These practice missions helped the teams prepare for later Mercury missions, many of which were manned by human astronauts. If you look closely at the nose of the capsule we have on display, you'll see yellow paintings that look like hieroglyphs (see photos at left). The paintings were done by the rescue team members to keep a record of what happened on each practice mission.

The MR-2 capsule is on loan from the National Air and Space Museum, Smithsonian Institution.

Mercury Links
Mercury Program Overview
This comprehensive site from NASA includes overviews on the Mercury project along with links to photos and details from manned and unmanned Mercury missions. You can also find links to technical illustrations, and even the complete text from a book about the Mercury project.

Mercury Missions
NASA Spacelink offers links to lots of Mercury sites, including a 40th anniversary page that includes information about the first seven human Mercury astronauts.

MR-2: Ham Paves the Way
This page is 100% no-nonsense text, but if you're in a reading mood, you'll find a lot of great facts specifically about Ham and the MR-2 mission, including some details about Ham's training and some of the other "astrochimps".

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