Mercury Control was still undecided on the course of action to take with the heat shield problem. Some controllers thought the retrorocket pack should be jettisoned after retrofire, while other controllers thought the retro pack should be retained, as added assurance that the heat shield would stay in place…
“I am in a big mass of some very small particles, they’re brilliantly lit up like they’re luminescent. I never saw anything like it! They round a little: they’re coming by the capsule and they look like little stars. A whole shower of them coming by. They swirl around the capsule and go in front of the window and they’re all brilliantly lighted.” John Glenn – Friendship 7
Following the successful suborbital missions of Allan Shepard and Gus Grissom, NASA believed the Mercury capsule was ready for an orbital mission. But, there was a problem, the Redstone booster did not have the power to place the Mercury capsule into orbit. The Atlas booster had the power to put the capsule in orbit but not the confidence of NASA. By September of 1961 Four launches of the mercury-atlas had been made with only a 50 percent success rate…
Mercury-Redstone 4 was the fourth mission in the Mercury-Redstone series and the second U.S. manned suborbital spaceflight. The mission was essentially a repeat of Alan Shepard’s Freedom 7 flight. So why was it necessary to launch another sub-orbital mission? Why not proceed with an orbital flight to match the Soviet Vostok 1? Among other things the U.S. needed more space experience to corroborate the “Man-in-Space” concept. Also the Redstone was the only booster NASA had that was approved for manned launches. The Atlas booster was available but not ready. Atlas was capable of putting a Mercury Capsule into orbit, but it had been launched three times with unmanned capsules, and it had exploded on 2 of the 3 attempts.
“We have been plunged into a race for the conquest of outer space. As a reason for this undertaking some look to the new and exciting scientific discoveries which are certain to be made. Others feel the challenge to transport man beyond frontiers he scarcely dared dream about until now. But at present the most impelling reason for our effort has been the international political situation which demands that we demonstrate our technological capabilities if we are to maintain our position of leadership. For all of these reasons we have embarked on a complex and costly adventure. It is the purpose of this report to clarify the goals, the missions and the costs of this effort in the foreseeable future, particularly with regard to the man-in-space program.” From 1960 Ad Hoc Panel on Man-In-Space.
Over 52 years ago, in the early hours of May 5th, 1961 the US prepared to launch its first man into space. Three weeks earlier, the Soviet Union had sent Yuri Gagarin on an orbital mission. This was a suborbital mission planed to last only 15 minutes. For the moment that did not matter, the entire nation held its breath while Alan Shepard became America’s first man in space.
“The designers made the Little Joe booster assembly to approximate the same performance that the Army’s Redstone booster would have with the capsule payload. But in addition to being flexible enough to perform a variety of missions, Little Joe could be made for about one-fifth the basic cost of the Redstone, would have much lower operating costs, and could be developed and delivered with much less time and effort. And, unlike the larger launch vehicles, Little Joe could be shot from the existing facilities at Wallops Island.”