Mercury References

Capsule Differences

The table below lists all the launches of Mercury capsules. While the book does not intend to provide a detailed history, such a list gives a good reference point for spacecraft-to-spacecraft differences which a model builder would notice. In doing research, I have found many differences in markings on the capsules. The table shows the capsule number, date, and mission highlights. I have created a second table with info on color patterns and markings. The final table in the book combines these two tables. Another page has notes on each mission with links to relevant images. I have also added a page with miscellaneous detail photos that don't necessarily fit with the other areas.

Your comments are welcome. I don't claim to have all of this sorted out one hundred percent.

Boilerplate and Prototype Capsules

The test spacecraft were similar, in general, to the final manned vehicle design, but they did have some significant differences that modelers need to be aware of if they wish to represent one of those capsules. First, they were built by NASA Langley, not McDonnell. There were also two types of test capsules. The true boilerplates (smooth sheet metal conical body) were used on the first two early beach abort tests and apparently LJ-6. These were early designs called type "C" and type "D". The "C" design had an extended recovery section, which is clearly seen in this wind tunnel photo. A revised shape ("D") was used on the second test, but it still used the simple boilerplate construction. Also, many details in the escape system changed in nearly every test. The tower clamp ring attachment to the capsule is a good example of this. But a lot of this would be tough to detect on a 1/48th scale model.

Most of the subsequent Little Joe flights used prototype capsules a bit more like the flight version, but there were still significant differences. These prototype capsules had a smooth outer surface on the lower (aft) pressurized section, and a corrugated exterior on the forward part of the conical capsule and on the recovery section. These corrugated sections were usually left natural metal, while the pressurized areas often had a combination of alternating orange and white quadrants. It has been difficult to discern this pattern on black and white photos since the orange area appears as white in these images. I also have found several photos of prototype capsules that I have been unable to trace to a particular flight, such as this photo of a drop test. Were these capsules even given serial numbers of any sort?

Peter McQuillan (a modeler rocket builder in England who I have been corresponding with about this topic) has made considerable progress in sorting out the markings of the five Little Joe flights with prototype capsules. He has summarized some of his results at his web site. I've made changes in this site to reflect that info, and it means I have a few errors in the book regarding these flights. Still, there are many unanswered questions when trying to positively identify which image goes with what mission.

Production capsules were also used on some Little Joe flights and even a beach abort test. In addition to the exterior surface differences noted above, the prototype capsules had a Recovery Section diameter of 30 inches, while the production capsules had a 32 inch diameter for that section. Note also that the capsule serial number is not usually a good indicator of when it was flown. For example, production capsule 14 was used for the early LJ-5A and -5B flights, yet it had the later-style large window and explosive hatch.

Mission Date SC Launcher Astronaut Comments
BA 3/11/59 BP C None None First beach abort escape tower test at Wallops.
BA 4/12/59 BP C None None Second beach abort escape tower test at Wallops.
BA 7/22/59 BP D None None Escape system test at Wallops.
LJ-1 8/21/59 P Little Joe None Wallops abort test. Tower fired on pad and the damaged capsule was recovered from the ocean bottom.
BJ-1 9/9/59 P Atlas 628/10D None Cape. Reentry (ablative heat shield) test. No escape tower installed.
LJ-6 10/4/59 BP Little Joe None Wallops. Successful LJ performance test.
LJ-1A 11/4/59 P Little Joe None Wallops. Abort test at max-Q. LJ booster failed.
LJ-2 12/4/59 P Little Joe Sam Wallops. First flight with a Rhesus monkey.
LJ-1B 1/21/60 P Little Joe Miss Sam Wallops. Abort test at max-Q. Capsule re-used on MR-BD.
BA-1 5/9/60 1 None None Wallops. Escape tower test (Beach Abort).
MA-1 7/29/60 4 Atlas 50-D None Booster blew up. No escape tower installed, capsule destroyed.
LJ-5 11/8/60 3 Little Joe None Wallops. Abort test at max-Q. First LJ flight with a production capsule. Tower fired on pad. Capsule destroyed.
MR-1 11/21/60 2 MR1 None First Redstone mission ended in a pad abort. Rocket labeled "MR-P".
MR-1A 12/19/60 2A MR3 None Successful unmanned suborbital flight.
MR-2 1/31/61 5 MR2 Ham First Redstone chimp flight; suborbital.
MA-2 2/21/61 6 Atlas 67-D None Successful unmanned suborbital flight.
LJ-5A 3/18/61 14 Little Joe None Wallops. Abort test at max-Q. Tower fired on pad.
MR-BD 3/24/61 P MR 5 None Booster development test. Re-used LJ-1B capsule.
MA-3 4/25/61 8 Atlas 100-D Robot Booster blew up, capsule recovered and used on MA-4.
LJ-5B 4/28/61 14A Little Joe 7 None Wallops. Re-flight of capsule 14. Abort test at max-q.
MR-3 5/5/61 7 MR 7 Shepard First manned sub-orbital flight, Freedom 7
MR-4 7/21/61 11 MR 8 Grissom Grissom's Liberty Bell 7, capsule lost.
MR-5   15     Was scheduled for MR-5 but became testbed.
MA-4 9/13/61 8A Atlas 88-D Robot First successful orbital flight of capsule. (re-used from MA-3)
MA-5 11/29/61 9 Atlas 93-D Enos 2 orbits with chimp.
MA-6 2/20/62 13 Atlas 109-D Glenn First manned orbital Mercury flight (3 orbits), Friendship 7
MA-7 5/24/62 18 Atlas 107-D Carpenter Second manned orbital Mercury flight (3 orbits), Aurora 7
MA-8 10/3/62 16 Atlas 113-D Schirra Made 6 orbits, Sigma Seven.
MA-9 5/15/63 20 Atlas 130-D Cooper Final manned Mercury flight, 22 orbits, Faith 7.
MA-10   15B Atlas 144-D assigned   Modified for proposed 48-orbit, 72-hour MA-10 mission [1, 1A]. Added external battery pack on retro-pack. Marked with Freedom 7 II
MA-12, -13   15A     15A Modified for 18-orbit MA-12 and MA-13.
    10     Ground test vehicle. Not flown.
    12B     Modified to 18 orbit configuration. Not flown.
    16     15 and 16 were originally built for Redstone flights but were not needed. 15 evolved several times (see MR-5, MA-10, -12). These (and likely 17 and 19) were considered for an unmanned recoverable orbiting astronomical observatory (ref. Aviation Week, January 11, 1965).
    17, 19     Became spare parts source after MA8 success.

Note: BP = boilerplate. P = prototype, BJ = Big Joe, LJ = Little Joe, BA = Beach Abort, MR = Mercury Redstone, MA = Mercury Atlas. Launcher number is as marked on the vehicle.

The table above is based on Appendix 4 of Project Mercury - A Chronology, and a McDonnell chart entitled Project Mercury Historical Summary, dated 4/20/66. Additional research and comments by the author.


I have an article in a new Kit Gallery section with lots of photos on building Revell's Mercury capsule with modifications to exhibit it in the on-orbit configuration.


Here are some NASA books that are posed in their entirety on-line.

For additional info on individual Mercury capsules, including their present location, see:

A Field Guide to American Spacecraft.

and Ross Finlayson's:

Capsule Locations

Configuration Table  | Mission Notes

Back to SIM Home

This page last modified Aug. 29, 2009