The Space Race refers to the 20th-century competition between the former Soviet Union (USSR) and the United States (US) for dominance in space. Following the end of World War II, a nuclear arms race evolved between the two countries leading to the evolution in rocket technology that enabled both sides to develop Earth-orbiting satellites. The Space Race had its initial beginnings on August 2, 1955, when the Soviet Union responded to an announcement stating the US would launch a satellite “in the near future”. However, the US lost the opportunity to be first in space as on October 4, 1957, the Soviet Union successfully launched Sputnik 1. The Soviet Union was also first to place the first human into space on April 12, 1961, though the Soviet Union eventually lost the Space Race when, on July 20, 1969, the US landed the first humans on the moon and the race was over by December 1991 when the Soviet Union was dissolved.
Running from 1959 through 1963, Project Mercury was the first human spaceflight program for the United States with the objective of putting a man into Earth orbit and return him safely to earth. It conducted twenty unmanned flights and six successful flights by astronauts during this period. The astronauts for the program were collectively known as the “Mercury Seven” and each spacecraft was given a name ending with a “7” by its pilot. The US met its goal on February 20, 1962, when John Glenn made three orbits around the Earth.
The actual Mercury-Redstone Launch Vehicle was an 83-foot (25 m) tall, single-stage launch vehicle used for suborbital flights and was a descendant of the German V-2 developed for the U.S. Army during the early 1950s. The Atlas was modified for Project Mercury by removing the warhead and adding a special collar for supporting the spacecraft. Its rocket motor was produced by North American Aviation and had a liquid-fueled engine that burned alcohol and liquid oxygen, producing about 75,000 pounds of thrust. Both the Atlas-D and Redstone launch vehicles contained an automatic abort sensing system which allowed them to eject the Mercury capsule if something were to go wrong.
The Mercury space capsule was produced by McDonnell Aircraft and carried supplies of water, food and oxygen for about one day in a pressurized cabin. Mercury flights were launched from Cape Canaveral Air Force Station in Florida with flight controlled from the ground via the Manned Space Flight Network with a system of tracking and communications stations and back-up controls in the capsule. Small retrorockets were used to bring the spacecraft out of its orbit, after which an ablative heat shield protected it from the heat of atmospheric reentry. Finally, a parachute slowed the craft for a water landing and helicopter recovery of the pilot.
The success of the Mercury project laid the groundwork for the Gemini (two astronauts) and Apollo (3 astronauts) programs announced a few weeks after the first manned Mercury flight.
Originally produced in the fall of 1970, the Estes’ Mercury Redstone is an accurate and detailed model of the vehicle Gus Grissom flew, nicknamed the Liberty Bell 7. Measuring 2 in. in diameter and standing almost 29in. tall, the Mercury Redstone, both then and now, is a big, impressive model.
Taking a few hiatuses over the years, the Mercury Redstone has had a few facelifts since its initial release in 1970. The original 1/42 scale model, which ran from 1970 to 1981, was made with 100% light-weight wood and paper materials and stood 23.5 in. tall. From 1984 to 1990, Estes’ released an easier- to-assemble plastic 1/35 scale model with a detailed molded capsule and fin parts.
The Mercury Redstone was once again refurbished and re-released in 2015. Holding true to the 1970 version, today’s Redstone still contains authentic detailing, however a combination of materials was used to create a lighter, higher flying model. The tower and mercury capsule are still injection molded, high-impact plastic while the fins have switched to laser-cut balsa wood to help reduce the overall weight of the rocket. Additional improvements to the new model include a single 15 in. (38.1 cm) parachute recovery system to return both the rocket and capsule assembly back down to earth at the same time. Large waterslide decals with roll patterns and all the markings found on the real rocket are still included. Today’s Mercury Redstone flights are still slow and realistic, yet now powered on a C6-3 engine.