On Oct. 1, 1958, NASA, the newly formed agency to lead the American civilian space program, officially began operations, T. Keith Glennan and Hugh L. Dryden as administrator and deputy administrator, respectively. One of the priorities of this new organization involved the development of a spacecraft capable of sending a person into space and returning him safely to Earth. On October 7, Glennan approved the project, and the next day unofficially established the Space Task Group (STG) to implement it. On Nov. 5, the STG officially came into being, with Robert R. Gilruth named project manager and Charles J. Donlan as his assistant. In January 1959, STG selected a contractor to build the Project Mercury spacecraft and in April selected seven astronauts to fly into space.
Left: NASA Deputy Administrator Hugh L. Dryden, left, and NASA Administrator T. Keith Glennan talks to the newly formed NASA staff. Right: Space Task Group leaders Charles J. Donlan, left, Robert R. Gilruth, Maxime “Max” A. Faget, and Robert O. Piland at NASA’s Langley Research Center in Hampton, Virginia.
Glennan founded the STG at the newly renamed Langley Research Center in Hampton, Virginia. Thirty-five Langley employees and 10 additional detailers from the Lewis Research Center in Cleveland, Ohio, formed the initial core of the STG. In early 1959, 25 engineers from AVRO Canada added their talents to the core team, with more to follow later. Since 1952, when the Langley Aeronautical Laboratory formed part of the National Advisory Committee for Aeronautics, the predecessor agency to NASA, engineers there including Gilruth and Donlan had studied the problems associated with putting humans in space. An engineer named Maxime “Max” A. Faget, at STG who headed the Flight Systems Division, had decided that a cone-shaped object with a blunt side to act as heat shield during re-entry into Earth’s atmosphere would make the most suitable spacecraft. the first man’s mission in space. When presented to Glennan on Oct. 7, 1958, approved this work by saying, “Let’s get on with it.”
Left: The Space Task Group (STG) headquarters building at NASA’s Langley Research Center in Hampton, Virginia. Middle: Early representation of the Mercury capsule. Right: A technician, right, shows a model of the Mercury spacecraft to STG leaders Charles J. Donlan, left, Robert R. Gilruth, and Maxime “Max” A. Faget.
Early work allowed STG engineers to quickly document the details of the manned capsule. STG presented the project to representatives of 40 companies on November 7, and 10 days later sent detailed information to 20 firms that had expressed interest in submitting a proposal. On Nov. 26, NASA officially designated the project as Project Mercury. Eleven companies submitted proposals before the December 11 deadline, and STG engineers began reviewing them the next day. On Jan. 9, 1959, NASA selected the McDonnell Aircraft Corporation of St. Louis as the prime contractor to develop and build the Mercury spacecraft. McDonnell delivered the first three pills within 12 months. The program’s plans envisioned suborbital and orbital missions, in both cases starting with unmanned test flights, followed by manned flights, leading eventually to astronauts. Suborbital flights will use the Redstone missile with orbital flights using the larger Atlas rocket. On December 8, 1958, NASA ordered nine Atlas missiles from the US Air Force.
Left: Mercury 7 astronauts Donald K. Slayton, from left, Alan B. Shepard, Walter M. Schirra, Virgil I. “Gus” Grissom, John H. Glenn, L. Gordon Cooper, and M. Scott Carpenter during their press conference. Right: Mercury 7 astronauts in a more comfortable position in front of the Mercury capsule at Ellington Air Force Base facilities operated by the Manned Spacecraft Center, now NASA’s Johnson Space Center in Houston.
In addition to building the spacecraft, STG focused on selecting pilots to fly them. President Dwight D. Eisenhower decided that military test pilots would make the most suitable astronauts. On Jan. 5, 1959, NASA established the qualifications for astronauts: under 40 years of age; less than 5 feet 11 inches tall; good physical condition; bachelor degree or equivalent; graduate of pilot school; and 1,500 hours of jet flight time. An examination at the end of January of the files of 508 cadets who graduated from the Navy and Air Force pilot schools who met the basic age and flight requirements resulted in 110 qualified cadets. The selection committee listed the candidates and divided them into three groups of about 35 each. The first two groups, with 69 candidates, received classified briefings from the Pentagon about the Mercury spacecraft and its possible participation. From this group, 53 volunteered for further testing and NASA decided not to invite them to the third group of candidates. After an initial medical examination, 32 of this group advanced to a full examination at the Lovelace Foundation for Medical Education and Research, commonly known as the Lovelace Clinic, in Albuquerque, New Mexico. Since Feb. 7, candidates for baptism in groups of six of five or six spend one week in Lovelace undergoing a thorough examination. From there, 31 of the 32 (one candidate failed the Lovelace blood test) went on to the Aero Medical Laboratory at Wright-Patterson Air Force Base in Dayton, Ohio, where a week-long six-group test took place between Feb. . 15 and March. 28. Rather than just physical testing, testing in AML involved subjecting candidates to centrifuges, elevation chambers, and other equipment to determine their reactions. A selection committee met in Langley in late March and based on all available information selected seven people for Project Mercury. The 24 unsuccessful candidates were notified by phone on April 1 with a follow-up letter from Donlan on April 3, advising them to apply for any future astronaut selections. The seven chosen as Mercury astronauts received calls from Donlan on April 2. On April 9, NASA Administrator Glennan introduced them to the public during a press conference at Dolley Madison House, NASA headquarters in Washington, DC They reported at work in Langley on. April 27.
Left: Space Task Group (STG) Director Robert R. Gilruth, left, and his special assistant Paul E. Purser host the Nov. 1, 1961, of the Space News Roundup staff newsletter announcing STG’s move to Houston and its renaming as the Manned Spacecraft Center (MSC), now NASA’s Johnson Space Center. Middle: First edition of Nov. 1, 1961, of the Space News Roundup. Right: MSC site showing the first site renovation in 1962.
Over the next two years, STG was busy putting the first American into space as part of the Mercury Project. Among other mundane tasks, this included overseeing the construction of the Mercury spacecraft, training the astronauts, setting up the necessary infrastructure such as the Mercury Mission Control Center at Cape Canaveral, Florida, and the global tracking network, receiving the Redstone rockets and the Atlas. from the US Air Force, and working with the US Navy to plan for the recovery of astronauts after deployment. The efforts paid off and on May 5, 1961, Alan B. Shepard became the first American in space during his 15-minute Mercury-Redstone 3 journey. Twenty days later, in a speech to the Joint Session of Congress, President John F. Kennedy pledged the nation to land a man on the Moon and return him safely to Earth before the end of the decade. The task of meeting this new challenge forced STG to seek larger premises. Talk of a dedicated center to manage human spaceflight began in early 1961 and gained momentum, with a site selection committee established in August 1961. On September 19, NASA Administrator James E. Webb announced the selection of a site 25 miles southeast of Houston in – Clear. The pool built the Manned Spacecraft Center (MSC), now NASA’s Johnson Space Center, and named Gilruth as the center’s director. Although STG ceased to exist in name, work on Project Mercury continued at Langley, while advanced work on the Gemini and Apollo programs moved to MSC’s temporary facilities in Houston as construction began on a new facility in Clear Lake in April 1962. Although some STG employees chose to stay in Virginia, 751 moved to Houston, the workforce was recently expanded by 689 new hires.