May 5th 1961. As Alan Shepard soared into the Florida sky on a 15 minute sub-orbital flight, he flew into history, becoming America’s first spaceman. Freedom 7, as Shepard had christened his ship, was the opening manned flight of Project Mercury, NASA’s first foray into space.

For a while at least the shocks and ignominy of trailing the Soviet Union; of Sputnik, Vostok and Khrushchev’s gloating, were forgotten. Soon orbital flights would follow for the Astronauts, if they could stop the troublesome Atlas boosters from exploding in plain sight of an expectant nation, but Mercury was not the first step on the road to putting an American into space.

Throughout the 1950’s on the drawing boards of some of America’s top aerospace companies, capsules and spaceplanes took shape. Spaceplanes were seen as the better long term option, a continuation of the high-speed X Plane programmes underway at the time (I’ll look at the spaceplane side of things in a later article as they are a whole fascinating story of their own), but in the post-sputnik world, America needed to get a man in space fast.

Clearly there was national pride at stake, but more importantly there was the strategic imperative to claim the high ground from their cold-war foes, the Soviet Union. Time was of the essence and the approach that seemed to offer the quickest potential results was the missile launched ballistic ‘manned satellite’ – the term spaceship only came later when those troublesome test pilots got involved!

Small steps

At the time, America’s main agency for aeronautical research, the National Advisory Committee for Aeronautics (NACA) was heavily involved developing the X15 hypersonic research aircraft and many within the organisation doubted the feasibility or utility of manned spaceflight in the short term, initially preferring to concentrate on their main brief, aeronautical research. As the decade progressed, some at the NACA such as Al Eggars at Ames and Max Faget at Langley continued to research re-entry vehicles, providing technical support for initiatives within the military.

Unsurprisingly, America’s armed forces saw clear potential in rocketry and flight beyond the atmosphere for rapid global troop deployment, reconnaissance over denied territory, weapons delivery and the examination of enemy craft, but different services had different ideas on how to achieve their goals and funding was limited.

As an immediate response to the launch of Sputnik in 1957, Eisenhower set up the Advanced Research Projects Agency (ARPA) in early 1958. ARPA’s remit was to was to look at project proposals from the military and industry and suggest a coherent plan to get America into space, while hopefully sidestepping inter-service rivalries. This was a prescient decision by Ike as things were starting to move quickly.

The Army had their Ballistic MissileAgency (ABMA), headed by Werner von Braun and his team at Huntsville, Alabama. Von Braun had always been an advocate for manned spaceflight, making plans for a manned version of the A4 during the later days of the war. A consummate salesman, von Braun had already begun painting vivid pictures of the manned conquest of space for the American public via his articles in Colliers magazine and his documentaries with Walt Disney.

Although limited in terms of range as a weapon and it’s capacity to orbit payloads, he knew that his Redstone missile had the capability to lift a moderate payload on a sub-orbital ballistic trajectory. Aware of Eisenhower’s objections to a weapons system being used to put America into space, von Braun was quick to re-brand a modified Redstone as the Juno and put this forward to launch artificial satellites and initial manned flights. Plans were already underway for the much more powerful Saturn booster which the army hoped would cement it’s role in space through Project Horizon.

On the Air Force side, although already involved with the X15 and the proposed follow-up (which became the X20), the junior service recognised the more sophisticated winged approach would take time but didn’t want to lose out in the initial post-sputnik rush for space. They had the Douglas-built Thor missile which, when modified, could maybe offer sufficient lifting power for limited orbital missions and the upcoming Convair Atlas promised more.

Beyond rocketry the Air Force were also engaged in pushing back the boundaries of Aeromedical research at Holloman AFB, New Mexico.


In 1955 Project Manhigh had been initiated by the Air Force’s Aeromedical Field Laboratory to examine the effects on man of prolonged exposure to extreme high altitudes via a series of stratospheric balloon flights. There were a number of unknowns, both physiological and psychological on how man may be affected to this new environment. Exposure to cosmic rays was a particular concern as was the theorised ‘breakaway phenomena’ – would a man separated from the world ever want to come back down?

Manhigh consisted of three flights across 1957-8, with Manhigh 2 exceeding 100,000ft in altitude and 32 hours in duration. At the time, these flights represented the closest available approximation for spaceflight and experiences from the project proved formative for the nascent manned spaceflight projects. The cramped gondola, environmental systems and pressure suits were a precursor for the capsules and life support requirements to come.

Von Braun was interested by Manhigh and invited members of the project team to discuss the possibility for a ‘Manhighest’ project involving sub-orbital rocket flight. Inter-service rivalries being what they are, it wasn’t long before these discussions between Army and Air Force broke down in favour of separate projects.

The cramped Manhigh gondola – not a great place to spend a day and a half!

Man In Space Soonest (MISS)

The Air Force had been giving serious consideration to the role it saw itself playing in the conquest of space for many years and plans were beginning to crystallise in the mid 1950s. Clearly space was an extension of their domain, so to the top brass it was natural that they should seek a leading role in taking the US into space and securing the high frontier.

Under the supervision of ARPA, a variety of options for a rapid assault on space were discussed, including a far-fetched orbital extension of the X15. The Air Force concluded that with the technology available at the time, a ballistic capsule offered the quickest route to space and a Man in Space Task Force was convened to develop a plan covering desirable near, mid and long term goals.

The near term goal was the development of a basic manned craft for limited orbital flights to gain experience of the new environment. In true military style, this effort was given the blandly descriptive title Man In Space Soonest (MISS). The Air Force petitioned ARPA hard to get the funding required to make the first manned flight by 1960.

For the booster, they chose the Thor missile, with possible replacement by the the still-in-development Atlas. For the capsule, they developed a blunt-nosed cone similar in shape to the Discoverer capsules then being designed for the first generation of US spy satellites. Working with manufacturers including North American Aviation, the company behind the X15, plans were advanced enough by mid 1958 for Air Force to name their astronaut candidates. Perhaps unsurprisingly the list mainly consisted of Air Force, NACA and Industry test pilots, many of whom went on to fly the X15 (including a certain NACA pilot named Neil Armstrong).

Project Adam

Meanwhile, back in Huntsville, von Braun still had plans on taking the Army into space first. Emboldened by his team’s success in launching America’s first satellite, Explorer 1, von Braun decided to put forward a concept for a rapidly achievable manned flight. Following on from their earlier discussions for a Manhigh style capsule, Project Adam was developed during 1958 with a budget price tag compared to the Air Force’s MISS. The plan was to take a single passenger in a cylindrical capsule and place this in the modified nosecone of a Redstone missile.

The flight would be sub-orbital, reaching a peak altitude of 150 miles. At this point the re-entry capsule would separate and deploy vanes to stabilise and slow it before a parachute took over for the final descent before a splashdown 150 miles from launch. How much of this the passenger would have been able to see or truly experience in their cramped cylinder remains questionable.

The proposed Project Adam flight plan (US Army)
The proposed Project Adam flight plan (US Army)

Certainly, this wouldn’t have been a role for a pilot as no control over the craft seems to have been possible, and the approach does seem very primitive compared to either the Air Force’s MISS or that eventually adopted for Project Mercury. Project Adam failed to gain traction with the ARPA and was criticised for it’s limited approach, with NACA’s Hugh Dryden branding it a ‘circus stunt’, however, the actual flight plan and choice of booster are clearly echoed in the early sub-orbital Mercury test flights. By that time though, much had changed including von Braun’s employers.

NACA Research continues…

Throughout the late 1950s, NACA had continued to refine their thinking on optimum shapes for survivable re-entry through the atmosphere. Eggars’ hypersonic research showed that, somewhat counter-intuitively, while research since the 1940’s had been moving towards sharper, more aerodynamic shapes for flight at higher speeds and altitudes, these shapes didn’t seem to offer the answer to surviving the heat of atmospheric re-entry. Research suggested that using cone shapes and allowing them to enter the atmosphere blunt-end first would lead to a bow shock forming away from the base of the craft, protecting it from the worst of the heat.

If an ablative covering was included, allowing material to ‘burn-away’ removing further heat, then an effective heat shield was certainly within technological grasp. While the initial impetus for this research was the design of warheads, it soon became clear that the lessons learned could also be applied to a manned craft. Max Faget and the team at NACA’s Langley Research Centre began to design an initial configuration for a manned capsule. Working in conjunction with McDonnell Douglas they soon arrived at the truncated cone shape that characterised both Mercury and Gemini capsules.

NASA is born

As public disquiet about perceived Soviet superiority in space continued to mount, President Eisenhower needed an effective response, but still felt it was important that America’s push towards space should be under the auspices of a civilian agency, as opposed to a military programme. This had the dual advantages of allowing the United States to exercise a moral superiority over the ostensibly military Soviet space programme, while continuing ARPA’s work in keeping inter-service rivalry to a manageable level.

To create this civilian agency, Eisenhower looked to the closest existing equivalent – the NACA. And so it was on October 1st 1958, the National Advisory Committee for Aeronautics got a new identity and a new remit as the National Aeronautics and Space Administration – NASA.

The immediate effect of NASA’s creation was the end of MISS and Project Adam as the newly formed agency took up the challenge of putting the first American in space. The research carried out under these projects all counted towards a new project – Project Mercury. Another of the key changes was the assimilation by the agency of some military facilities seen as key to achieving NASA’s goals, and so it was that soon von Braun’s ABMA team at Huntsville became the core of the Marshall Spaceflight Centre and fulfilled his dreams of creating the rockets needed to take man into space.


So could MISS or Project Adam have succeeded and put an American in space before Gagarin’s flight in 1961? Had funding been granted at an early enough stage then a sub-orbital flight may have been possible, in fact had von Braun not insisted on an extra Mercury Redstone test ahead of Alan Shepard’s flight, he could still have become the first man in space.

What is more doubtful is whether an American could have beaten Gagarin into orbit. Even the Air Force came to the conclusion that MISS would require the Atlas booster to achieve this and it’s highly doubtful that Atlas could have been made reliable enough for man rating any sooner than it actually was under the auspices of Project Mercury. No other booster available at the time could really have done the job.

Ironically, when it came to early space launchers, the United States was a victim of it’s own success in making smaller nuclear weapons. They developed the missiles required to deliver these, not to loft spacecraft. The Soviet Union, with far larger, less sophisticated warheads to deliver needed the grunt of Korolev’s powerful R7 – a missile of doubtful practicality as a weapon, but as it turned out a highly practical launch vehicle.