On October 7, 1958 the newly formed National Aeronautics And Space Administration (NASA) announced Project Mercury. The objective of the programme was
* To orbit a manned spacecraft around Earth
* To investigate man’s ability to function in space
* To recover both man and spacecraft safely.
Knowing that they were in a race with the Soviet Union, the Americans went all out to develop rockets and launchers powerful enough to send a capsule containing a man into space, and the technology to bring the spacecraft and its occupant safely back to Earth. Project Mercury met with several failures, but had some notable successes too. One of these was the successful flight of Little Joe-2, a spacecraft that carried a rhesus monkey named Sam, a few kilometres into space. The spacecraft fell into the Atlantic Ocean and was retrieved by a recovery vessel. Sam had experienced 3 minutes of weightlessness during his flight but he was none the worse for the adventure. In those days nobody knew what effect the condition of weightlessness would have on astronauts. The scientists of the Soviet Union tried to find out by studying its effects on dogs; the Americans preferred to use monkeys and chimpanzees as they are genetically close to humans. The first ‘chimponaut’, three-year-old Ham rocketed into space on January 31, 1961.
According to NASA’s archives: “Ham’s survival despite a host of harrowing mischances… raised the confidence of the astronauts and the capsule engineers alike.”
The Americans felt they were making good progress in putting a man into orbit. On 9 April 1961, NASA announced the names of the first American astronauts. There were seven of them and they were dubbed the MERCURY SEVEN.