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Mercury Spacecraft

Project Mercury was the first American human spaceflight program. Its goals were to put astronauts into orbit around the Earth, to find out if they could survive and work in space, and recover the crewmen and spacecraft safely. Between 1961 and 1963, six successful flights proved Americans could fly in space.

Mercury flights lasted from 15 minutes to 34 hours, with most lasting less than nine hours. There was very little room for the single astronaut to move in the spacecraft, but not much was required. The pilot needed to move only his arms and head, and never left the spacecraft during flight.

Mercury re-entered Earth’s atmosphere blunt end first to slow the spacecraft and to shed the heat caused by friction with the air during descent into the atmosphere. The curved heat shield, coated with layers of heat resistant ablative resins, charred away to reduce structural heating, protecting the crewman and preventing damage to the spacecraft.

The U.S. Air Force provided Atlas rockets for orbital flights, launch crews, facilities, biomedical expertise and a host of logistical, communications and other services for all Mercury flights, as well as three of the original seven astronauts: Capts. Gordon Cooper, Virgil “Gus” Grissom and Donald “Deke” Slayton.

The Mercury spacecraft on display is a flight-rated production vehicle that never flew. It was used to provide parts in support of the final Mercury mission in May 1963. It is on loan from the National Air and Space Museum, Smithsonian Institution, Washington, D.C.


Weight: Approx. 2,500 lbs.
Interior: 36 cubic feet habitable volume
Launch vehicles: Modified Redstone and Atlas ballistic missiles

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Wes Henry: "50th Anniversary of the Space Age" (00:50:19)