Sixty years ago: Project Mercury reaches for its ultimate goal

May 15, 1963: Mercury-Atlas 9 with Gordon Cooper aboard aims at a flight in excess of one day.


Ten years to the day before the United States launched its first space station, Skylab, Project Mercury was set to conducted the country’s first long-duration mission on May 14, 1963.  Long duration then being a day in space.  And you’ll try for even more.  You are Gordo Cooper, and if all goes well, you will flying 22 orbits in 34 hours.   Call this a Mercury-plus capsule, so many changes made that its like a new design, 183 changes in all.  Among the changes to extend flight times, an additional oxygen tank has been installed, along with additional coolant, drinking water, and 16 lbs. of additional fuel.  To counter the added weight, the heavy periscope, deemed unneeded, has been removed, as have the leg supports of the astronaut couch.  The revamped capsule weighs in at 3,032 lbs., the maximum capacity of the Atlas booster.

If we reach the goal of extended flight, this could be the final Mercury mission, one last solo ride before moving on to the two-man Gemini.  Alas, we will not embark toward the goal on the 14th.  You and the capsule you’ve named Faith 7, symbolizing your faith in God, country and the Mercury team, are ready.  An earthly diesel that pulls the gantry back from the Mercury/Atlas vehicle is the day’s main villain.  It refuses to start.  Two hours are consumed getting it running.  The gantry is pulled back . . . as a radar in Bermuda, vital for tracking, fails.  The launch is postponed one day.  You quip, “That was a realistic simulation.”


It’s May 15, 1963.  “All systems are go.  The weather is go.”  We’re counting down toward a 9 a.m. EDT launch.  You’ve been awake since 3:50 a.m..  After the tradition breakfast, begin suiting up at 4:24 a.m. and leave Hangar S for the Pad 14 at 5:33 a.m.  And just 38 min. later, you are alone shoehorned in the capsule as the side hatch is closed and bolted.   The count continues smoothly to T – minus 11 min. 30., when a hold is called to check ground-based guidance equipment.  And after just 4 min., the count resumes. 

Ignition and liftoff, liftoff at 9:04:13 EDT.  You feel it, smooth but very definite, and punch your onboard timer.  “I have liftoff, and the clock is operating,” you tell capcom Wally Schirra who piloted the previous Mercury in his capsule named Sigma 7.  “Sigma 7, Faith 7 on the way,” you tell him just 7 sec. after launch.

At 25 sec. after launch, Schirra radios, “You look good here, Gordo.”

“Roger, feels good.”

“Good sport.”

You find the acceleration pleasant.  Yes, that’s the word.  The booster has a good feel to it, you think, despite side-to-side oscillations. 

Fifteen seconds later, Schirra confirms, “You’re looking beautiful.

You exclaim, “What an afterburner!”  Pedal to the metal, that’s the feeling of  launch.  A joyful kick. Everything continues perfectly towards BECO, Booster Engine Cutoff little more than 2 min. into the flight, when the outer engines will shutdown and be jettisoned.  The center sustainer engine will continue, pushing you all the way to orbit, which takes only 5 min.   Yes, that’s some afterburner.

“The sun is coming in the window,” you report, and at 1 min. 58 sec., the oscillations have tailed away.  “Running pretty smooth now.”  . . . Standing by for BECO.”

Mark — 2 min. 14 sec.  “Have BECO.”  

Schirra calls, “Roger your BECO, confirm staging.”

“And you can feel the staging.”  It’s very distinctive; you hear a loud “glung” sound and a thud.  Actually, you feel it more than hear it, snapped forward against your straps.

“And there goes the tower.  Does she take off.”  The escape tower at the tip, no longer needed, fires its separation motor and flies away, straight ahead before arcing to the left. 

The ride proceeds right on the money.  “Sigma, Faith 7 is go.”

At 4 min. 48 sec., only seconds to go, Schirra calls, “You have a real sweet trajectory, Gordo.”

At 5 min. 4 sec., you call “I have SECO, sep. cap.”  At Sustainer Engine Cutoff, you hear the same noises as with BECO.  Immediately followed by the separation of the capsule, three small posigrade rockets in its base firing.   They give quite a kick.  Weightless now, you feel the fluids in your body begin to shift.  Time to turn the capsule around, heatshield forward.  “Everything is green.”  You yaw Faith 7 around on a manual system, the fly-by-wire that operates by electronic signals.  “She’s yawing around very nicely.”  With a perfect touch, you use even less fuel than Schirra did to make the maneuver.  

Once you achieve what is called orbital attitude, with the heatshield canted up 34 degrees, you face backward with a rearward view out the window of 8 in. by 12 in.  And there it is, the Atlas booster.  ‘”What a view, boy oh boy.”  You can see the Caribbean, Florida, the coast all the way to Virginia.  “And there’s the booster.”  The silver booster floats close by, wisps of vapor streaming from its engine.

“What color is she?” Schirra asks.

“Silver.  As silvery as can be, with a white frosty band right around the middle.”

You have 34 hours of flight ahead, no need to rush.  “Going to auto control” to see how its operating, 8 min.35 sec. into the flight.  Keep the first orbit uncluttered with tasks.  It takes an orbit to adjust to this new environment.  In weightlessness, the tiny cabin appears different.  Even strapped down that the perspective changes slightly.

“I’m in auto.  She seems to be holding so far.”

At 12 min. 43 sec., you report, “And the booster is still following me along . . . ”  Auto control continues to work nicely.  One problem, the heat pulse from launch, 1,300 degrees (F) on the outer hull, is soaking into the interior, raising the cabin and suit temperature to about 100 degrees (F).  The cooling system, consisting of a water boiler, is touchy.  Increase the cooling too much, and it freezes up.  This has presented a problem on previous flights.  Ground stations keep asking for a temperature update.  You will need to fiddle with the control setting for the first orbit, slowly bringing the temperatures down.

Over the Canary Island station, 30 min. 57 sec. since launch, the capcom there says, “Our telemetry on the ground looks like you have a very good capsule at this time.”  Then he asks for a temperature readout.

You approach your first sunset comes over the Indian Ocean.  “A bright blue band.  The sun is spread out very widely.  It’s setting now.  And there it goes.  A very bright blue band all the way around the Earth.”

You spot several lightning flashes below.  And see stars.  “There is Orion, Betelgeuse.  What a beautiful night.”

You come in contact with the Muchea, Australia, station.  The capcom calls, “Faith 7, Perth has their lights on tonight.  You might look for them and see if they’re visible . . .  They should be slightly off to the right of your flight path.”

Now 55 min. into the first orbit.  “I have the lights of Perth in sight, loud and clear.”

“Roger, Faith 7.  People here will be glad to hear it.”

You can also see an orange glow to the south from a British oil refinery.  At 1 hr. 21 min., you tell the Canton Island station in the Pacific, “I am observing John’s fireflies drifting away from the spacecraft and drifting out to the rear.  I can see some of them a considerable distance out the rear.”   They are ice crystals from the spacecraft and indeed look very much like fireflies.

Crossing the ocean, sunrise nears.  “The clouds on the Earth below are changing color, are getting quite light.”  And there’s the sun.

You come into contact with the station at Guaymas, Mexico.  The capcom asks, “Are you comfortable?”

“Just slightly warmer than absolutely ideal, but well within a very comfortable range.”

They give you a “go” to fly at least seven orbits.

When you pass over the Cape, you test out a miniaturized slow-scan TV, with poor results.  TV won’t become part of the U.S. space program until Apollo.

  You’ve hardly used any fuel.  Wally Schirra jokes, “You’re getting kind of chintzy on the fuel up there.”

You’ve settled into life in orbit.  You enter drifting flight for the second orbit, turing off your thruster system and letting the capsule turn where it may.  You find it pleasant, so relaxing you doze off for a couple minutes over the Indian Ocean.  “I am now drifting on the night side.  I have the moon in sight.  I’m upside down.  I’m observing lightning flashes.” Like blooms of ack-ack inside the thunderheads.

On the third orbit, its time to begin the 11 experiments you carry, several involving photography.  Science has wedged itself back into the Mercury flight plan, it’s advocates reasoning that with so long a flight, the astronaut won’t be overburdened.

Three hours into the flight, you power up again, staring your third orbit.  At 3 hrs. 23 min., you pitch the nose down and hit the switch to deploy a flashing-beacon sphere 10-inches in diameter.  It is ejected from the base of the capsule.  A simple sphere with a blinking light to test the ability to see other spacecraft and judge distances, the first small step towards orbital rendezvous and the linking of two spacecraft.  You hear a loud clang and feel it kick away from the retropack housing.  “Flashing light is deployed.”  You hope to see in on the night pass.  At 4 hrs. 24 min. into the flight, you tell Hawaii, “I still haven’t seen the beacon.”  

Orbit four, just before sunset over the Atlantic, something glinting in the sun below you.  “This light is in sight.  It is below me.”  It appears to rise in relation to the earth, as if launched toward you.  That’s an illusion.  Now in darkness, you observe, “The light is flashing now.”  It’s the beacon.  You yaw away and then kick the nose back.  And easily picking it out again, maybe 8 – 10 miles in front of you.  “I’m keeping it directly in the window.”  A half hour later, you report, “Have the little flashing light still in sight, out ahead of me.”

Six hours into the flight, you come in contact with the Hawaii site, in daylight again.  They ask, “Have you seen the beacon yet?”

“I was with that little rascal all night.”

You don’t expect to see it on the fifth orbit, but do.  It’s barely discernible, about 20 mi. away.  Good-bye, little rascal.  “The moon is out, and the water is very, very bright below.  It’s quite a lovely moonlit night.”

You have another experiment to deploy involving visual observations as well as measurement of drag forces — a tethered balloon that will deploy from the nose of the capsule.  It’s the same experiment that only partially worked on Scott Carpenter’s flight.  At the start of orbit 6, you attempt the deploy.  “I did not hear the balloon deploy . . . Easing down ever so slowly — and I don’t see the balloon anywhere yet.”  It has failed to eject. 

You observe ground flares over South Africa on orbit 6.  On orbit 7, you set a new flight duration record for the U.S., passing up Wally’s Schirra’s time of 9 hr. 13 min.   The Zanzibar station, 10 hrs. 47 min. into the flight, gives you a go for at least 17 orbits.  Faith 7’s ground track undulates above and below the equator, like a wave on an oscilloscope, the crossing points precessing with each orbit, bringing you over new territory.

On the seventh orbit, you talk to the Hawaii station the final time today, as the capsule will be out of its communication range for the next 15 hrs.  Indeed, it will be out of range of most tracking stations until the orbital track shifts back tomorrow.

You start powering down nonessential systems on the eighth orbit, resume drifting flight.  Over the Pacific, a tracking ship calls, “Looks like you can settle down for a long rest.”  Your sleep period will coincide with the gap in communications coverage.

Orbit nine.   You’re too pumped up to sleep.  Faith 7 is passing over territory no U.S. astronaut has observed in daylight.  You take pictures of northern India and Tibet.  The track dips south, taking Faith 7 over South America. Speaking into a tape recorder, you say, “I can see roads and rivers and some small towns . . .  Small villages are pronounced.  Can almost make out individual houses.”  You spot the smoke from a train, then can even see the train moving along the tracks.  Over India, you see a boat and its wake.   These observations will be controversial, as some people just don’t believe such detail can be seen from orbit with just the human eye. 

Finally you doze, sleeping in 30-60 minute periods.  Awaken to find your arms dangling weightless in front of you, dangerously close to the control panel.  So you wedge your hands behind your head, looping your thumbs in a helmet strap.  And once more sleep.

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