What was the Mercury space capsule project?

On June 11, 1963, the Mercury space capsule was patented and assigned to NASA. The patent was received less than a month after the last flight of Project Mercury had been carried out.

Receiving a patent generally signals a major milestone. As an exclusive right granted for an invention, be it a product or a process, it usually denotes a new way of doing something, thereby becoming important. In the case of the Mercury space capsule, however, the patent came closer to the end.

Project Mercury was conceived as a NASA programme to put the first American astronauts in space. Named after a Roman god who was very fast, the project notched up many successes. At the centre of this success was the Mercury space capsule.

“Space capsule”

The principal designer of the Mercury spacecraft was Maxime Faget, a mechanical engineer who also contributed to the designs of the Gemini and Apollo spacecraft. Faget, along with Andre Meyer, Robert Chilton, Willard Blanchard Jr., Alan Kehlet, Jerome Hammack and Caldwell Johnson filed for a patent titled “Space capsule” on October 16, 1959.

In this patent application, they described their invention relating to space vehicles as a “manned capsule configuration capable of being launched into orbital flight and returned to the Earth’s surface.”

Additionally, it was capable of providing “protection for its occupant from the deleterious effects of large pressure differentials, high temperatures, micrometeorite collisions, high level acoustical noise, and severe inertial and impact loads.”

Not cosy

It did all that, but the capsule was a rather small one, with room for just one astronaut. What’s more, this astronaut had to stay seated throughout the flight. While there was very little room for even the single seated astronaut to make any movements, it was argued that not much was required as the pilot would only need to move his arms and head, and was to never leave the spacecraft during flight.

Following uncrewed flights and those with primates as part of Project Mercury, the first crewed flight took place on May 5, 1961. Alan Shepard made the first crewed Mercury flight in a capsule that he named Freedom 7. The 15-minute flight that went into space and came back down made him the first American in space.

Between 1961 and 1963, there were six successful flights as part of Project Mercury that showed that Americans could fly in space. While two of these flights were suborbital flights (reached space and came right back down), the other four made it into orbit and circled our Earth.

Every time the Mercury spacecraft re-entered the Earth’s atmosphere, the blunt end came in first to not only slow down the spacecraft, but also shed the heat caused by friction with the air during the descent. With layers of heat resistant ablative resins coating the curved heat shield, it charred away to minimise structural heating, preventing damage to the spacecraft, and of course, protecting the crewman.

The last of the six successful crewed Mercury Project spaceflight took place on May 15, 1963. Each of these flights lasted from 15 minutes to 34 hours, with most lasting less than nine hours.

Just a formality

This meant that by the time the patent for the Mercury capsule was awarded on June 11, 1963, it had already been put to use multiple times successfully, with each of the successes celebrated by an entire country. The patent, which was assigned to NASA, was merely a formality.

In fact, NASA retired the Mercury capsule in the same week in which the patent was awarded. The first manned space vehicle of the U.S. was retired with honours of course, having been central to a project that came at the height of the space race between the U.S. and the Soviet Union.

Picture Credit : Google 

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