may 24, 1962

Happy 60th Anniversary, Project Mercury’s Aurora 7!

Dr. Voula Saridakis revisits this mission of firsts.

May 24, 2022

Today marks the 60th anniversary of the Mercury-Atlas 7 mission of NASA’s Project Mercury. The Museum of Science and Industry is the current home of the capsule from that mission, the Aurora 7 (on loan to MSI from the National Air and Space Museum), which launched into space on May 24, 1962. Piloted by astronaut Scott Carpenter, this was the fourth crewed flight of Project Mercury and repeated the three Earth orbits of John Glenn’s previous Mercury-Atlas 6 mission. Carpenter was the first astronaut to perform science experiments in space. These included the first study of liquids in weightlessness, Earth photography, and an (unsuccessful) attempt to observe a flare fired from the ground. This mission set the precedent for conducting scientific research and experiments in space that are now everyday activities on the International Space Station (ISS). This orbital science research, from Aurora 7 to the ISS, has expanded humanity’s scientific and technological knowledge while also advancing human space exploration.

Why this mission?

Initiated in 1958 and completed in 1963, Project Mercury was the United States’ first human spaceflight program. These missions were aimed at placing a crewed spacecraft into Earth orbit, investigating a human’s ability to function in space, and recovering both the astronaut and spacecraft safely. Aurora 7 was the fourth out of a total of six Mercury missions, and the second to place an American in orbit around the Earth, following that of John Glenn.

What happened during the mission?

Although astronaut Scott Carpenter orbited the earth three times in the Aurora 7, the same number of orbits as John Glenn in the Friendship 7 three months earlier, Carpenter's goal was to demonstrate that humans could work in space for up to a day at a time. For the first time in American spaceflight history, the astronaut had specific tasks to perform. And not just any tasks, but several related to scientific experiments. For Carpenter, this included testing a liquid's behavior in microgravity and photographing terrestrial features and meteorological phenomena. Another experiment, which was to provide atmospheric drag and color visibility data in space by deploying an inflatable sphere, was only partially successful.

What makes this mission so important?

The Aurora 7 mission further demonstrated NASA's ability to send humans into space and into orbit around the Earth. It also provided evidence that we could live in space for longer periods of time and with increasingly complex system requirements and activities. Carpenter's experiments not only helped us learn more about space, it also tested our ability to work in space. This set the stage for the space programs that followed like Gemini and Apollo. The Aurora 7 flight launched a full year after President Kennedy's speech before Congress, where he pledged that America would send a man to the Moon and return him safely before the end of the decade, so the ultimate goal of landing on the Moon was already in sight by the time of Aurora 7's launch. In the end, the astronauts and ground teams for the Mercury missions proved that people could fly safely to space and return, and laid the groundwork for the technology and mission practices still followed today, as we journey to the ISS and beyond.

Dr. Voula Saridakis is a curator in the Collections department and is part of the team that is responsible for the care of MSI's 35,000+ artifacts.

Visit the mission-flown Aurora 7 capsule in the Henry Crown Space Center at MSI. Exhibit included in Museum Entry.