Our SpaceFlight Heritage: Remembering the final flight of Project Mercury
On this day in 1963, astronaut L. Gordon Cooper blasted off aboard Faith 7 on the final mission of Project Mercury. Lying in his capsule during countdown, Cooper was so relaxed that he even managed to nod off. He had another opportunity to sleep once in space because this 22-orbit mission was the first in American manned spaceflight history to last more than a day. (Vostok 2, however, holds the record for the first full-day manned mission).
During the flight, Cooper released a beacon sphere containing strobe lights – the first satellite to be deployed from a manned spacecraft – which he was able to see during his next orbit. He also spotted a 44,000W xenon lamp that had been set up as an experiment in visual observation in a town in South Africa, and was able to recognize cities, oil refineries, and even smoke from houses in Asia. Cooper attempted twice unsuccessfully to deploy an inflatable balloon. Between orbits 10 and 14 he slept for about eight hours, later reporting that he had anchored his thumbs to his helmet restraint strap to prevent his arms from floating freely – a potential hazard with so many switches within easy reach.
On the 19th orbit a warning light came on indicating that the capsule had dipped to an unacceptably low altitude. However, further tests showed that the capsule was still in its proper orbit, leading to a conclusion that the warning system had failed, possibly due to a short-circuit caused by dampness in the electrical system. Fearing there might be more such short-circuits in the automatic reentry system, mission managers instructed Cooper to reenter under manual control – the only such reentry of all four Mercury orbital flights. In the event, Cooper did a fine job bringing his capsule to a splashdown just 7km from the prime recovery vessel.
Cooper was the last American astronaut to orbit Earth alone. NASA had considered one more Mercury flight, but the Project officially ended on Jun. 12, 1963, when NASA Administrator James Webb told the Senate Space Committee that no further Mercury missions were needed, and that NASA would press ahead with the Gemini and Apollo programs.
Dr. David Darling is an astronomer and author of numerous books, including We Are Not Alone, Megacatastrophes, The Complete Book of Spaceflight, and his latest, The Rocket Man. His website, The Worlds of David Darling, is one of the largest and most visited science resources on the Internet. Darling is a renaissance man, he is a musician, noted author and journalist and serves as our science writer. Darling provides The Spaceflight Group with articles detailing what he knows best - space exploration.