Jets and Moon Rockets: 1957-1970

The McDonnell Aircaft Corp. ... Sending the First American into Orbit

On Jan. 12, 1959, NASA selected McDonnell to build America's first human-controlled spacecraft for Project Mercury. The goal was to place a human in orbital flight around the Earth, investigate human abilities to function in the environment of space, and recover the human and the spacecraft safely.

On May 5, 1961, astronaut Alan Shepard, aboard a Mercury capsule, became the first American to go into space. On Feb. 20, 1962, John Glenn, also aboard a McDonnell Mercury capsule, became the first American to orbit the Earth. Mercury vehicles were automatically controlled, for the most part, from the ground, although the astronaut could manually override the controls.

The two-person Gemini capsules, which McDonnell started Dec. 7, 1961, were designed to be primarily controlled by the crew. The first crew to change the orbit of a spacecraft while on board were Virgil Grissom and John Young on Gemini 3, March 23, 1965.

The Gemini program became the transitional step between the pioneering Mercury program and the actual landing of a human on the moon. Gemini was lighter than the Boeing-proposed Dyna-Soar orbiting transfer vehicle and could carry more fuel for orbital maneuvering or a larger payload, while using a substantially less expensive booster (the Titan 1).

The Gemini spacecraft performed 10 piloted missions between March 23, 1965, and Nov. 11, 1966. During the missions, astronauts operated outside the space vehicle and practiced techniques for rendezvousing and docking with other spacecraft.

After the U.S. government canceled the Boeing Dyna-Soar program on Dec. 10, 1963, Congress diverted the funding to the proposed Manned Orbiting Laboratory (MOL). The spacecraft was to incorporate a modified McDonnell-built Gemini capsule attached to a cylindrical laboratory and was to be launched as one unit by a Titan IIIC booster, powered by a Rocketdyne engine.

Six years later, the government also canceled the MOL program, although several of the 40-foot-long, 10-foot-wide spacecraft were under construction and three groups of armed forces officers had been selected for training as MOL crew members. Seven of these officers moved into the NASA manned space program at the termination of the MOL program in 1969.

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