The Mercury 6

Project Mercury engineers reflect on those early steps toward the moon

February 03, 2016 in Space

Former Mercury Project engineers, clockwise from top left, Jerry Roberts, Norm Beckel, Dean Purdy, Ray Tucker, Bob Schepp and Earl Robb, in the Prologue Room in St. Louis.

Rich Rau/Boeing

They were the engineers behind the scenes of Project Mercury, in the beginning mere 20-somethings barely out of college. There was no age limitation on winning the race to space.

They carpooled to work together, sometimes passing through the gates of Cape Canaveral Air Force Station in Florida with five people crammed inside a Volkswagen and drawing funny looks. From Hangar S to the blockhouse launch station, they encouraged and challenged the older and more celebrated seven Mercury astronauts.

Embracing a new frontier, Norm Beckel, Dean Purdy, Earl Robb, Jerry Roberts, Bob Schepp and Ray Tucker had to be extra creative as electrical and mechanical engineers for McDonnell Aircraft, the Boeing heritage company. It was rocket science that brought them together, and there was no precedent.

“We were doing something that had never been done before—and something that’s not going to happen again,” Roberts said.

Project Mercury was America’s first pursuit of space travel—sending an astronaut into orbit around Earth and returning him safely to Earth, while learning as much as possible about this new and hostile environment of space.

McDonnell employed 300 engineers for Project Mercury in St. Louis and a similar number of people at Cape Canaveral. The team would build 20 Mercury space capsules in St. Louis. Two carried chimpanzees into space, two carried astronauts Alan Shepard and Gus Grissom on short suborbital flights, and four took astronauts into orbit, starting with John Glenn on Feb. 20, 1962.

Each Mercury astronaut named his capsule and added the numeral 7.

About five dozen of the Project Mercury engineers with McDonnell are alive today. They refer to themselves as Mac’s Old Team, a salute to company founder James S. McDonnell. Among them are Beckel, Purdy, Robb, Roberts, Schepp and Tucker.

In 2011, these six men reconnected at the 50th anniversary celebration for Grissom’s suborbital flight in his Liberty Bell 7 capsule, held in the late astronaut’s Indiana hometown. Each of the former McDonnell engineers still lived in the St. Louis area and they formed another bond. They meet monthly now for lunch. They support a space museum south of the city. They regularly appear together on request to recount their careers, including one such event that the American Institute of Aeronautics and Astronautics held in early October at Boeing’s St. Louis Building 100. They share matching journeys.

“Looking back, it was like the Flintstones,” Tucker said of Project Mercury. “It was maddening, but we got the job done.”

One by one, the engineers came to McDonnell from college, most of them to work on aircraft. Robb, the lone mechanical engineer among the six, helped build Model 119/220, a business jet originally intended to be a military plane. Demonstrating a rapidly changing aerospace world, this proved a landmark
moment for him.

“The first jet I rode on was the one I worked on,” Robb said.

When NASA selected McDonnell to build the country’s first manned spacecraft, the company began recruiting engineers. Some were already working for McDonnell. The chosen engineers sometimes made their own test equipment, Roberts said. They pulled materials off the shelf and customized them. They did what was needed in a hurry-up fashion, he said.

“I shake my head that we could send a man into space and bring him back with that technology,” Roberts said. “We didn’t have computers. We did it with slide rules.”

Read the full story in the December 2015–January 2016 issue of Boeing Frontiers.

McDonnell workers assemble Mercury capsules in a St. Louis white room designed to keep the capsules free of contaminants and other debris.