The Rocket That Launched the First American into SpaceS

John Glenn and Neil Armstrong are household names in the US. But on May 5th, we remember the less-talked-about Alan Shepard, the first American to make it to outer space. And the rocket that got him there.

On May 5, 1961, the 83-foot-tall Mercury-Redstone 3 hurtled Shepard toward space with 78,000 pounds of thrust at sea level, powered by ethyl alcohol and liquid oxygen. Really just a space-worthy version of the US Army's Redstone liquid-fueled ballistic missile, the 66,000-pound lug at its best could travel at almost 7 times the speed of sound (5,143 mph) with a peak acceleration of 108 m/s2.

(Of course, that totally pales in comparison to the rockets of today—each of the pair of Solid Rocket Boosters weighs 1,300,000 pounds at launch and generates 2,800,000 pounds of thrust at sea level.)

The Rocket That Launched the First American into SpaceS

At a fundamental level, this thing's a giant bomb. So NASA needed to implement some safety mechanisms. They designed an in-flight abort sensing system so the Mercury capsule (and the astronaut inside) could quickly escape if anything, well, bad started happening. The geniuses at NASA also had to make sure that this thing didn't shut down during the first 30 seconds of flight because it would still be over land. And that would be bad. After lift-off, when the rocket hit a predetermined velocity (calculated by two gyros and an integrating accelerometer), the propulsion system cut off and it would splashdown near the Bahamas.

NASA launched six Redstone rockets in all between 1960 and 1961. Here's to hoping it wasn't all in vain. [NASA]

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