by Gideon Marcus
It’s is a red-letter day for the National Aeronautics and Space Administration (NASA), and for America as a whole. For today, we finally got a Mercury space capsule into orbit! The flight, dubbed “Mercury-Atlas 4,” began this morning in a blast of fire on a Florida launchpad and lasted one hour and fifty minutes. At its conclusion, the Mercury capsule deorbited and parachuted safely into the Atlantic ocean. By all standards, it was a picture-perfect mission.
Except that there wasn’t anyone in the capsule…
All flippancy aside, it really is a big deal. The reason the Soviets are ahead of us, such that they’ve gotten two fellows into orbit while our two astronauts have been limited to 15-minute suborbital jaunts, is because they started out with the better rocket.
In 1957, the Russians announced that their first ICBM, a missile that can cross the world, was ready for business. It is no coincidence that their first space probe, Sputnik, was launched soon after. That’s because an ICBM can be used to carry payloads into orbit about as easily as they can carry atomic weapons to farflung countries.
The United States had no ICBM in 1957. We were later to that party. Instead, we had a stable of shorter-ranged IRBMs, sufficient only to launch small payloads into space. Our first ICBM, the Atlas, wasn’t operational until 1960.
It takes an ICBM to launch something as heavy as a manned spaceship, and it’s not enough that the missile be able to deliver a nuclear payload. Since the stakes are higher with a human passenger, it is important to qualify an ICBM as a space booster very carefully, something the Soviets have had more time to do. The Russian qualification flights, Sputniks 4, 6, and 9, all took place before last March. Our balky Atlas has now been tested with the Mercury capsule four times. Only two of those flights were successful – the second, a suborbital jaunt, and this latest, orbital, flight
I imagine NASA is still not out of the woods. They’ll want to see the Mercury Atlas combination work together at least once more before trusting a man to it. (I use the word “man” in its specific sense. The team of 13 woman astronaut candidates was disbanded this week, more’s the pity)
Based on the results of this flight, it is just possible there might be a manned orbital Mercury flight before the year is out. Or at least before the next few Soviet men (and women?) fly overhead…