July 2019 marks the 50th anniversary of the Apollo 11 mission, in which humans first set foot on the surface of the moon. But long before Apollo 11 launched and before Neil Armstrong took those first steps on the moon, American space exploration planted its roots in St. Louis, Mo., with Project Mercury and Project Gemini.
“We don’t want to lose sight of the fact that it started here in St. Louis,” explained Dean Purdy, a former engineer on Project Mercury, “We proved that it could be done. That man could function in a space environment.”
Project Mercury, initiated in 1958, was the United States’ first man-in-space program. The spacecraft was produced in St. Louis, Mo., by McDonnell Aircraft. The project produced six manned flights to space – all with successful astronaut and spacecraft recovery.
“Over the period of Mercury and Gemini, we had 19 different astronauts fly, and we didn’t hurt a one of them,” Purdy continued. “So we are very very proud of that safety record.”
Former Project Mercury and Gemini engineers have fond memories of Apollo 11’s landing on the moon, knowing that their contributions to American space exploration prior to the Apollo mission played an important role in Apollo’s success.
“We laid the platform with this Mercury,” former Mercury engineer, Norman Beckel recalled, “and without these two programs, Apollo never would have happened.”