Mercury References


Aug. 16, 2001

Nov. 21, 1999

Oct. 10, 1999

July 5, 1999

Feb. 21, 1999

Feb. 1, 1999

Mission Notes

This section describes major features, markings or equipment that changed from mission to mission that would be of interest to modelers. Therefore, any internal equipment or electronics changes are not noted herein.
Revised Sept. 30, 2001

There were at least three beach abort tests using Langley-built boilerplate capsules. The first two, on 3/11/59 and 4/12/59, used the true boilerplate "C" shape capsule with a Recruit rocket motor and a simple tripod escape tower. I have no photos of this configuration. Roger Moore reports that the two Type C capsules were not painted alike and had different types of towers and colors of Recruit escape motors.

The second test (7/22/59) used a revised "D" capsule shape, more like the final configuration. It was still a simple smooth metallic capsule, but now it had a corrugated recovery section and an escape system motor with a ballasted top built by the Grand Central company for NASA Langley. I have two B and W images of this test. I would guess that the capsule colors are white and bright orange, with small UNITED STATES stenciling in at least one (and likely two) positions. The tower and motor were all black. There was apparently another test on 7/28/59.

Note that some of these early shots used an asymmetric escape tower. This allowed for the tower jettison rocket motor to be installed at an offset angle. These were apparently characteristic of the towers built by Grand Central. At some point (after LJ-1 or LJ-6?) the tower design matured to the design used on manned flights. There were no doubt many detailed variations along the way.

Roger's references:

"Project Mercury: A Chronology," pages 23 (first Type C in flight), 44 (date of March 8 for first Type C shot is not correct; it
was the week of March 8), 45, 53, 68 (photo type D), 69; "A New Dimension: Wallops Island Flight Test Range: The First Fifteen
Years," pages 636 (diagram of Types A-D capsules), 647, 649 (photo of first Type C capsule, not "NASA" printed on side, not
"UNITED STATES"), 650 (photos of second Type C capsule), 651 (photo of Type D capsule); "Full-Scale flight Test of a Proposed
Abort-Escape System for a Manned Space Capsule from Sea Level" (NASA TM X-351, about April 12, 1959 shot; contains photos of
capsule); "Full-Scale Flight Test from Sea Level of an Abort-Escape System for a Project Mercury Capsule" (NASA TM X-422, about
July 22, 1959; contains photos of capsule).

 LITTLE JOE 1  Photos
Revised Nov. 21, 1999

This rocket never left the ground, as the escape motor fired while the booster was still on the ground. This prototype spacecraft was destroyed on impact to the ocean, as the main chute did not deploy. Peter McQuillan has found some nice color photos. This mission used a preproduction prototype capsule, and there were several variations on the orange and white patterns used on the Little Joe flights. This flight had the same capsule markings pattern as LJ-1A. This and several other LJ flights had two aero spikes on the escape motor. In fact, of the five LJ flights with non-production capsules, only LJ-6 and possibly LJ-1B did not have two spikes.

Details and occasionally, markings, on the LJ booster can be used to identify flights. It is almost certain that LJ-1 and LJ-6 used the same booster rocket. LJ-1 and LJ-6 were the only ones to have an inverted "V" shape at the bottom of the booster. This is a notch for the Castor rocket nozzle to stick out of a chevron-shaped plate that was installed at the base of the rocket body. The orange paint at the top of the rocket (on the capsule-rocket transition section) has some variation. While LJ-1 and LJ-1A have the same capsule markings, the orange goes further down on the LJ-1A rocket.
 BIG JOE 1  Photos
Revised Sept. 30, 2001

This prototype spacecraft was launched on an Atlas to test the new, lighter weight fiberglass heat shield. The capsule had no escape tower but otherwise appears to be a standard prototype capsule. The top corrugated section is flat metallic with white stripes extending up into the Recovery Section. The lower smooth section of the capsule is painted black, with white "UNITED STATES" lettering in a single line, in only one position. This capsule is now at the NASM Garber restoration facility.
 LITTLE JOE 6  Photos
Revised Nov. 21, 1999

This was primarily a test of the Little Joe booster. A true smooth-skinned boilerplate (?) spacecraft was assembled hurriedly and had no internal equipment. The orange on the capsule goes up higher than on LJ-1, and the "UNITED STATES" stenciling is curved and on a single line. There were no camera pods on the capsule.

 LITTLE JOE 1A  Photos
Revised Nov. 21, 1999

This was a failed abort test with a prototype spacecraft.Capsule markings are essentially identical to LJ-1, but the orange on the booster goes a little lower. The UNITED STATES lettering has gaps in the letters, like a stencil. One of the fins is solid orange. Prior flights only had orange on the fin tips.

 LITTLE JOE 2  Photos
Revised Oct. 10, 1999

This was the first chimp flight (Sam) and it used a prototype spacecraft. McQuillan has identified two photos as from this flight. One is a photo from the old Above and Beyond encyclopedia. Note there is no orange on the capsule, nor on the top transition section on the rocket booster. That eliminates it as any of the earlier LJ flights.

There is also a photo that is found twice at NASA's JSC web site. It is labeled both as the LJ-1B (1/21/60) flight, photo #B60-00364 (10073413.jpg) and photo #G61-0030 (10073409.jpg) from the L-J2 flight of 4/13/61. Since it clearly has no orange on the transition section on the booster, it must be LJ-2.

The problem now is that I still have no decent close up photos to tell what sort of markings are on the capsule. The two photos that I have don't show anything very clearly. It does not even show any orange. But it does appear that there were camera pods on this capsule.

To recover a primate, the upper corrugated section was quickly removed, and the animal was recovered from the pressurized container. I have some photos of this process, but they are not labelled as per the mision. A similar photo was run in Aviation Week shortly after the mission (Feb. 1, 1960). But those markings are valid only for either LJ-1 or LJ-1A, neither of which had a chimp. One can only assume that Aviation Week simply ran the only photo they had (from the earlier mission). Note that these show the stencil gaps in the UNITED STATES lettering.

 Little Joe 1B  Photos
Revised Oct. 10, 1999

Based on new info and photos from Peter McQuillan, I think I have a better handle on this flight. The trick is, LJ-1B looks very much like LJ-6. One discriminating feature is the lack of the extra chevron plates on the Castor motors on LJ-1B. The capsules have very similar markings. The orange pattern appears to be the same, and the UNITED STATES lettering runs one a single line on both flights. On LJ-6, the lettering is obvioulsy curved. On LJ-1B, the photos are less distinct, but it shows that the lettering is on a single line, but it not clear if it is curved or straight. More and better pictures are needed.


This escape system test was the first using a production spacecraft. It was a pad abort test (without a booster rocket) in which the escape system was actually fired. It was also very significant since it was the first use of a real flight-type capsule. The escape tower jettison rocket motor used here had only a single engine nozzle. After this test, it was changed to the three-nozzle configuration. [2] Other researchers have found photos from subsequent flights that show the earlier single nozzle design, so there are still some details to resolve here. The Recovery Section had corrugated Rene 41 shingles rather than the flat plate-type beryllium shingles used on manned flights.

Capsule 1 was painted silver overall with an orange band along the base of the capsule, with a spiral of orange up on the sides of the capsule. The escape tower was black, with an orange-red rocket motor. I have also found a second photo that clarifies the spiral pattern. SIM #5 has a nice drawing.
 MERCURY - ATLAS 1  Photos
Photos of this production capsule show it had the "UNITED STATES" lettering in a uniquely high position. The lettering also appears to be smaller than the type used later. Note there was no escape tower, but it did have the base of the tower tripod. This was used to hold the conical fairing over the antenna housing. I have found a similarly marked capsule photo in Peterson's Book of Man In Space, and while they do not specifically identify the capsule, it has the distinctive tower tripod, so it must be this capsule.
 LITTLE JOE 5  Photos
Tower fired on pad. This test used a production capsule (number 3), so it was black overall with white stenciling. The photos are not close enough to be completely certain, but the stenciling seems a bit high, like MA-3.
By the this time, the markings pattern had settled into something standard, at least for a while. From reviewing actual photos, ten missions (all capsule numbers 11 or less) all had the same markings (see table), as shown in the linked drawing (also termed pattern "A" here). MR-1A re-used the same capsule. Note the MR-1 Redstone had a unique checkerboard pattern at the top. Later Redstones (linked photo is the MR-1A rocket) had extended stripes below the checkerboard pattern.

Different Redstone boosters were used on the MR-1 and MR-1A attempts, but does anyone know why they BOTH had "MR-P" marked on the bottom near the fins?

This flight carried Ham the chimp. Because of a problem with the heat shield during the landing portion of this flight, the heat shield retention system was subsequently changed. A number of cables and cable -retention devices were added. [SP-45] Note that all suborbital flights had no stripes on the retro package, but they did feature the 21 small rectangles (temperature sensitive paint) on the heat shield, 7 between each pair of straps.

MR-2 and MR-3 were also unique in having a different main hatch. These two missions had a thick hatch with a relatively smooth surface, not corrugated like the shingles covering the capsule. This was an interim solution to having an emergency access to the inside of the capsule. The earlier hatch had 70 bolts that had to be removed manually. The thick MR-2 and -3 hatch had a mechanical latching system, but no pyrotechnics. It was too heavy for orbital missions, so the later version retained the bolt system, but modified with an explosive release system added. It still involved bolting on the inner hatch itself, and then attaching four shingles, but now a single handle could set off an explosive charge to blow the whole assembly off. The early non-explosive and later pyro-actuated versions look very similar from a modelers point of view, but the shingle pattern is different. (Rev. 7/5/99)
 MERCURY - ATLAS 2  Photos
Same markings (pattern A) as MR-2.  (Rev. 7/10/99)
 LITTLE JOE 5A  Photos
Escape tower fired on pad (again). The markings are per pattern A.

Perhaps more interesting is that this is production capsule 14. Beginning with capsule 9, two major external changes were made. First, the large overhead window came into use, and second, the flush, explosively - actuated hatch was used. NASA-quoted dimension for the hatch do not match measurements made on museum artifacts. Perhaps this is a difference between the glass dimensions and what is visible externally. This hatch had only two large shingles of a different pattern than the earlier non-pyrotechnic version. In between (capsules 5 [MR-2] and 7 [MR-3]) had a thicker mechanically actuated hatch with a smooth (not shingled) surface. These three hatch designs need to be noted by modelers.
This flew with a refurbished Little Joe pad abort boiler plate spacecraft and was not recovered. [Ref. NASA SP-45]  One source (web site Field Guide to American Spacecraft) says it was the same capsule from LJ-1 and LJ-1A. But the LJ-1 capsule was destroyed. David Baker's The History of Manned Space Flight (p. 65) says the LJ-1B capsule was used (thanks to Roger Moore for that tip). This is confirmed on page 324 of NASA's history of Mercury, This New Ocean. I have finally received a new (new to me, anyway) color photo of this mission, and they show the markings are definitely unique. The lower (smooth) section of the capsule was orange overall with dark UNITED STATES lettering. The upper half appears to be the typical dark natural metal seen on the boilerplates. Since this was a booster test, the capsule flew with an inert escape rocket and no equipment in the capsule.
 MERCURY - ATLAS 3  Photos
This unmanned flight experienced a booster failure, and was marked similarly to Pattern "A", but the "UNITED STATES" stenciling on the hatch was higher on the capsule. The capsule was recovered, and apparently re-used on the MA-4 flight with no change in markings.
 LITTLE JOE 5B  Photos
Re-flight of capsule 14. The markings are per pattern A. The linked photo is scanned from This New Ocean, page 336. This capsule is now at the Virginia Air and Space Museum, but the window has been blanked over and there is no UNITED STATES on the hatch.
Al Shepard's flight. Patterns and color per pattern A. Note this had the thick, smooth hatch design, and there was a thin white line a few inches below the hatch. Does anyone have more info on this?
Gus Grissom's capsule had a larger window. The earlier design had two circular ports, and it was changed to a trapezoid measuring 19 inches high, 11 inches at the base, and 7.5 inches at the top. Inscribed in it were lines for horizon alignment. This capsule also featured a new instrument panel arrangement per recommendations by the astronauts. Also, the mechanically operated hatch was replaced with a pyrotechnic version. The markings followed pattern "A", except for the Liberty Bell "crack" painted on.
 MERCURY - ATLAS 4  Photos
This was the first successful orbital flight of a capsule (unmanned). It re-used capsule 8 from the MA-3 mission with the pattern A markings, and received the 8A designation (see table).
 MERCURY - ATLAS 5  Photos
This flight took a chimp two orbits around the Earth. So where are the photos?  I have one recovery photo from an old National Geographic, thanks to Roger Moore. Other photos confirm it to be pattern A.
 MERCURY - ATLAS 6  Photos
John Glenn's capsule was identical to the MA-5 capsule used by Enos the chimp except for the markings. The position of the "UNITED STATES" lettering shifted a quadrant (it was no longer on the hatch) and an American flag was added. Since all subsequent capsules used this scheme, I refer to it as pattern "B" in this web site and in my book.
 MERCURY - ATLAS 7  Photos
The SOFAR bomb and radar chaff recovery aids were eliminated from Scott Carpenter's MA-7 capsule. There were a number of interior changes, including deletion of the Earth-path indicator and partial pressure displays, as well as the instrument panel observer camera. The knee and chest straps were removed from the couch and the red filter was removed from the window. On the spacesuit, pockets were added to the upper sleeves and lower legs. The waterwing life vest, first carried by Glenn, was now installed on the chest beneath the mirror. [3]

On MA-7 and MA-8 only, a 6-inch by 6-inch white patch was painted on the exterior of the capsule to compare shingle temperatures with an oxidized surface. Photos and drawings in SIM #5 show the location. [4] The MA-9 capsule had three such squares.
 MERCURY - ATLAS 8  Photos
Nine experimental ablation material samples were bonded to the exterior surface of the cylindrical section shingles of Wally Schirra's spacecraft [5]. These appear as coatings (5 by 15 inches) directly on the beryllium shingles. There is a sketch in the book.  Nine of the 12 shingles on this section were used. Four appear almost white (in a B&W photo) while two seem gray, and the others black. Other changes included removal of the heater blankets from around the retro motors, a modification to the cover of the pitch horizon sensor for ascent protection, and the addition of an HF dipole antenna mounted to the retro pack.

The major interior change was the replacement of the molded leg restraints with small side supports for the knees and foot restraints. [6] The astronaut observing camera was also deleted. [7]
 MERCURY - ATLAS 9  Photos
For Gordon Cooper's mission, the periscope was determined not to be needed for attitude determination, so it was removed, as was the HF telemetry transmitter. New items included a deployable beacon (a 5.75 inch sphere), two Geiger counters (mounted on retro-pack), and a tether balloon (like MA-7, which was carried in neck of capsule). For this mission only, two 28-ft HF antennas were mounted on the retro-pack (see figure B later in this book), and there were three white paint pigments on the shingles. A unique feature was a white outline around the hatch. This is only indistinctly seen in recovery photos. I'd love to see some good pre-launch pictures.

Spacesuit changes included a mechanical seal for the helmet, new gloves, increased mobility in the torso section, and integrating the boots with the suit. The life vest was relocated from the center of the chest to a pocket on the lower left leg. This made the front of the suit less bulky. [8] More on-board equipment was added, including several cameras (such as a slow scan TV, a 70-mm Hasselblad, a 35-mm camera, and a 16-mm movie camera).
 MERCURY - ATLAS 10 Photos
Capsule 15 was never flown, but was modified several times. Its final configuration was for a proposed 48 orbit, 72 hour MA-10 mission. An external battery pack was mounted on the aft retro pack. It is now in the NASA Ames museum near San Jose and marked as Freedom 7 II. Ken Harman has a fine article on building a model of this vehicle which is part of the SIM #5 book. I believe Sven Knudson has several nice photos on his web site.

Mission TableConfiguration Table

Back to SIM Home

This page last modified Sept. 30, 2001, again Sept. 4, 2006