Mercury Atlas

Mercury Atlas

As a subset of Project Mercury, the Atlas D missile was considered a good choice since it was the only launch vehicle in the US arsenal that could put the spacecraft into orbit. The Atlas D rocket as configured for Mercury launches was 94 feet tall, 10 feet in diameter and weighed 260,000 lbs. when loaded with fuel. It also had the necessary payload capacity of 3,000 lbs., which was enough for Mercury capsule and pilot.  However, its reliability was far from perfect in its military form and therefore could not be qualified to carry astronauts. NASA did not want to wait on a new rocket design and subsequent testing program or for the next generation of Titan II rocket to move the Mercury project forward, so Convair had to make significant changes to render the Atlas D safe and reliable for human launches. Also, NASA felt that the Atlas D stage-and-a-half launch configuration was preferable to the two stage Titan from a preflight check list perspective. Despite Atlas’s reliability issues, NASA had the benefit of conducting Project Mercury testing simultaneously with Atlas R&D, which provided very useful data sets as well as a test environment for modified equipment for Mercury launches.

Mercury Atlas test launch at 11:15 AM EST on April 25, 1961 from Cape Canaveral, Florida. Image Credit: NASA/MSFC archives

As a government agency, NASA is a decidedly conservative body and prefers to error on the side of caution with respect to all spaceflight activities. Therefore, they much preferred to avoid making random or unnecessary changes to the Mercury vehicles once they were qualified for orbital flight. So, making or recommending changes to the Atlas D configuration would be limited to improved pilot safety while retaining all the performance attributes of the rocket. Changes would be allowed for new equipment and procedures that had been used in previous Mercury vehicles as they were tested and approved for flight. To reinforce this policy, any new equipment or hardware changes made to Mercury vehicles had to be flown on at least three Atlas D test rockets before NASA would approve them for use. Regardless of this cautious approach, a significant number of changes did take place over the lifespan of the program. Additionally, as emphasis on quality control was increased, the last two manned Mercury flights were given preflight inspections at a level that was unheard of when the Atlas D first flew.

In terms of actual flight testing, suborbital Mercury-Atlas flight number 1 was flown on July 29, 1960. Unfortunately, the rocket failed shortly after launch and could not place the unmanned spacecraft into orbit. A second suborbital launch, Mercury-Atlas number 3 also failed and had to be destroyed by the Range Safety Officer (RSO) shortly after liftoff. In all, Nine Mercury-Atlas’s launches were conducted; two unmanned suborbital flights, three unmanned orbital flights and four manned Mercury flights. All Atlas launches were conducted from Launch Complex 14 at Cape Canaveral Air Force Station, Florida with the last launch on May 15, 1963. NASA had originally planned to use leftover rockets to launch Gemini-Agena Target Vehicles. But an increase in funding in 1964 meant that the agency could afford to buy new Atlas rockets for Project Mercury.


Estes Mercury Atlas

New in 1995, the 1:35 scale Mercury Atlas [#2111] stood 33 inches tall and contained a wealth of intricate detail thanks to the injection molded and vacuumed formed plastic parts. The Mercury Atlas also featured simulated chrome-colored stainless steel body wraps and came with decals for all four manned Mercury Atlas missions. Thanks to the slick and shiny wraps, this rocket required a minimal amount of painting. Special fins were included to stabilize the rocket during flight, which are easily removed for display. A single D12-3 or E15-4 engine created enough power to launch the 7.8 ounce rocket into the air. Gone in 2000, the Mercury Atlas has been unavailable for the last two decades.


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