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.
look inside the capsule. Photo courtesy of NASA.
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.
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.
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
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 up40 miles higher
than plannedand came down with such force that the
heat shield punctured the capsule and water started to
come on board.
U.S.S. Donner on its way to pick up the capsule after
it landed. Photo courtesy of NASA.
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
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.
post-flight physical exam. Photo courtesy of NASA.
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.
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.
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.
of the collection of paintings on the nose, along
with a close-up.
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
MR-2 capsule is on loan from the National Air and Space
Museum, Smithsonian Institution.
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.
NASA Spacelink offers links to lots of Mercury sites,
including a 40th anniversary page that includes information
about the first seven human Mercury astronauts.
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".