With test flights of America’s latest generation of crewed spacecraft being followed by space enthusiasts around the globe, it is widely expected that these flights will be nearly perfect with no major problems encountered. What is frequently forgotten all these decades later is how often the first test flights of crewed spacecraft failed at the dawn of the Space Age as engineers worked to perfect a wide range of new technologies all at once. One of the more heartbreaking of these early failures was NASA’s first attempt to launch their brand new Mercury spacecraft into space on July 29, 1960 for the uncrewed Mercury-Atlas 1 mission.
Artist concept of the Mercury capsule with its launch escape system. (NASA)
The goal of NASA’s Project Mercury was to send a single astronaut into orbit using a modified version of the Atlas D ICBM built by the Convair division of General Dynamics – the largest rocket the US had available at the time. The highly innovative Atlas used an integral balloon tank design where the millimeter-thick, stainless steel structure acted as both the outer shell and propellant tanks with internal pressure providing the rigidity needed to keep it from ...