NASA Mercury: 1956 to 1963 by David Baker (book review).

In many respects, I have always wondered why Haynes left a look at NASA’s Mercury Program until last of their space books. At least, I’m assuming it’s the last. Without these early space flights, none of the rest would have been possible. Back in the late 1950s and start of the 1960s, there were all sorts of things to sort. At the top, politically, the USA was caught out by the USSR getting the first satellite, the Sputnik, into orbit and needed to show they were equal if not better at the task and get an man into orbit but came second at that as well although they were working on it.

Back in those days and this will surprise any youngsters reading this book, what computers there were very primitive and huge. Scientists relied on pen and paper and slide-rules to do their calculations. Where that failed, they had human ‘computers’, mostly ladies who were very good at calculations.

The rockets themselves were also going through a transition phase to ensure they could carry a payload into space. Seeing the developments of the early capsules, concern was for a heat shield protecting the astronaut on his return to Earth and weight concerns. A few things come out here that I didn’t know. The heat shield was composed mostly of beryllium and the main chassis of titanium because it was lighter than steel and far tougher. The interior was changed for each flight so nothing was ever the same twice. It was a learning curve.

When I was a youngster, there was a lot of stuff out about the Mercury Program that was eagerly absorbed but meant little. With age and knowledge, a lot of the ramifications of what was done sinks in more. The Mercury capsule was really small and confining and on landing in the ocean, the heat shield stretched out on a fabric tube to take some of the impact.

By far the biggest chapter at 126 pages is the examination of the Mercury spacecraft systems. Although this is split into 8 sub-sections, I can see this size being a little intimidating for some people. Each launch had different things tried and learnt from. The astronauts themselves were also heavily involved in various design aspects outside of the flights.

I did wonder on how much they could see from the front window but there was a periscope incorporated into the design to let them look down on the Earth and be able to make note of altitude and other information. The nearest thing they had to a calculator was a circular slide-rule. It makes what we have today show how far we’ve come and don’t forget our current computers are a spin-off from the space program to come.

Although the astronauts wore a pressurised spacesuit, the cabin itself was pressurised so they weren’t totally confined. When you see the photos and diagrams, there wasn’t much room to move anyway but with only a few Earth orbits, it wasn’t as though they were up there long. One thing that Baker does gloss over is the fact that the astronaut team argued and won their case that they did not just want to be passengers in the capsule as they needed to have manual control and act as the test pilots that they are. When you read the problems that John Glenn had with his flight at the end of the book, this was clearly justified. Even the two chimpanauts, Ham and Enos, had to press buttons to get things done but they were fed as rewards.

About the only thing not noted is the various experiments carried out by the astronauts en flight. As Baker points out that this book is about the Mercury capsule itself. It might be worth Haynes considering doing a book covering the various experiments and the results from all these space missions or maybe I’m just too much of a completest.

Odd little facts emerge from time to time. Neil Armstrong was in the short list of three other astronaut programs but not Mercury. In the first Appendix, you get to see a list and diagram of where the Mission Control people are. In some respects, I wish the diagram was a full page. This is also another area that might be worth exploring and how it might have changed over the years with the development of technology.

There is so much I can say about this book. It really is a look into the past nearly 70 years ago. As pointed out at the end, all the Mercury astronauts are no longer with us so this book is also of historical importance as well. If you want insight into how the Americans got into space then you will want this book. Seeing the style of technology used will also make you marvel at how brave these people were.

GF Willmetts

May 2017

(pub: Haynes. 204 page illustrated large hardback. Price: £22.99 (UK). ISBN: 978-1-78521-064-8)

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Geoff Willmetts has been editor at SFCrowsnest for some 21 plus years now, showing a versatility and knowledge in not only Science Fiction, but also the sciences and arts, all of which has been displayed here through editorials, reviews, articles and stories. With the latter, he has been running a short story series under the title of ‘Psi-Kicks’ If you want to contribute to SFCrowsnest, read the guidelines and show him what you can do. If it isn’t usable, he spends as much time telling you what the problems is as he would with material he accepts. This is largely how he got called an Uncle, as in Dutch Uncle. He’s not actually Dutch but hails from the west country in the UK.

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