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The First American Unmanned Test Flights for Travelling Space

A wonderful view of the Mercury-Atlas 1 as it lit-off.
A wonderful view of the Mercury-Atlas 1 as it lit-off.
The decade 1950’s is considered to be one of the most interesting years in human history. After so many years nations engaged on war, they come up with different ideas how to show their power, and it is to heighten the level of industrialization. With the great minds of that era, travelling to space is one their greatest contribution in the history of mankind.


The United States of America, due eagerness to escalate their space program is when the Soviet Union successfully launched an unmanned artificial satellite, the Sputnik 1. In connection with this, America tried to launched a Vanguard Satellite but it was a failure. However, it gave them motivation to create a space program that every American and other citizens on this planet had been very proud.



The America’s Project Mercury was the beginning of the country’s very successful space exploration. Of course, success can be achieved by failures, and that thing would be our topic in this article. Let’s take a look on the following photos on how Americans worked so hard in accomplishing their first human space flight.
Here is a timeline of the first unmanned test flights made by Project Mercury .

Little Joe 1 (August 21, 1959)

Project Mercury testing the launch escape system. The flight test  failed because of electrical malfunction causing the escape tower to ignite half an hour before launching time, and it took the spacecraft with it as it left the rocket on the ground. 

 Flight Duration: 20 seconds [Via]


Big Joe (September 9, 1959)

The testing of the spacecraft interface and heat shield was somewhat successful. It was actually the Mercury-Atlas first flight. The spacecraft crashed 2,407 kilometers, SouthEast of Cape Canaveral which was recovered by USS Strong (DD758).

Flight Duration: 13 minutes [Via]

Little Joe 6 (October 4, 1959)

The trial of the spacecraft’s aerodynamic and integrity was partially successful, and no other tests conducted.

Flight Duration: 5 minutes and 10 seconds [Via]

Little Joe 1A (November 4, 1959)

The spacecraft was equipped with boiler plate capsule during the test flight resulting to obtain a partial success on its test of launch escape system. There was a 10 seconds delay on the rescue tower rocket ignition. Crashed on 11.5 miles, Southeast of Wallops Island and recovered by USS Opportune.

Flight Duration: 8 minutes 11 seconds [Via]

Little Joe 2 (December 4, 1959)

The launch escape system test on this aircraft was successful. Little Joe 2 took on board a primate named Sam (a rhesus macaque) on a high altitude which proved the success of the experiment.

Flight Duration:  11 minutes and  6 seconds [Via]


Meet Sam! The primate test subject wearing geared with the Mercury fiberglass on contour couch. [Via]

Little Joe 1B (January 21, 1960)

The spacecraft Little Joe 1B lit-off carrying the monkey test subject. A successful maximum-Q abort and escape test was achieved during this test.

Flight duration: 8 min, 35 sec



Sam being placed inside a safety  [Via]

Beach Abort (May 9, 1960)

A successful test “Off-the-Pad” abort system. [Via]

Test Duration: 1 m 31 s

Mercury-Atlas 1 (July 29, 1960)

The first Atlas (Mercury-Atlas 1) test has a failure result. The spacecraft has exploded as it exceed the max-q in order to save weight. But a temporary solution was made which strengthened the next Atlas, whereas the rest were built from the same specs as Big Joe.

Flight Duration: 3 minutes and 18 seconds


Little Joe 5 (November 8, 1960)

Little Joe 5 posed as it was ready to be launched. The test failed due to erroneous wiring which led to early ignition and failure to break away the spacecraft and launch vehicle. It flew 10 miles above before crashing.[Via]

Mercury-Redstone 1 (November 21, 1960)

The test failed as the engine shutdown due to improper separation of electrical cable. [Via]


Mercury-Redstone 1A (December 19, 1960)

This was the first flight made by the Redstone combination which was successful. It flew 130 miles and recovered by USS Valley Forge.

Flight Duration: 15 minutes and  45 seconds



Mercury-Redstone 2 (January 31, 1961)

The Mercury-Redstone 2 test took on board a Ham, a chimpanzee for a suborbital flight. The spacecraft flew an altitude of 157 miles. It was recovered 422 miles Southeast of Cape Canaveral by USS Donner.

Flight duration: 16 minutes and 39 seconds


A chimpanzee named Ham was 3 years old when he rode MR-2 for a suborbital test flight. He worked for NASA as a lever-puller. Primates were the often used by NASA as test subjects for examining the Mercury capsule before launching the manned spaceflight. The successful flight and recovery of Mercury-Redstone  proved the wellness of its systems.[Via]

An apple handed over to Ham while sitting inside the capsule waiting for the flight.



Mercury-Atlas 2 (February 21, 1961)

Because of the incident happened to MA-1, they strengthened the upper part of Mercury-Atlas 2 by gearing it up with an eight-inch wide stainless steel band. The recovery of the capsule only took half an hour after launch. It traveled on the speed of 13,000 mph with an altitude of 108 miles.

Flight Duration: 17 minutes and 56 seconds [Via]


Little Joe 5A (March 18, 1961)

Mercury capsule #14 lifted by a launch vehicle into Little Joe-5B.

Flight Duration: 23 minutes and 48 seconds


Mercury-Redstone BD (March 24, 1961)

The Mercury-Redstone Booster Development was the last test flight of Redstone which took place at Cape Canaveral. The launch vehicle seen on the image above was carrying a “boilerplate” model of the Mercury spacecraft.

Flight Duration: 8 minutes and 23 seconds



Mercury-Atlas 3 (April 25, 1961)

Amazing view of Mercury-Atlas 3 lit-off in Cape Canaveral. [Via]

Flight Duration: 7 minutes and 19 seconds


Little Joe 5B (April 28, 1961)

On April 28, 1961, an astonishing view was captured as the Little Joe-5B lit-off at Wallops Island, Virginia. The third successful escape system test with a production of spacecraft which ended the Little Joe Program. [Via]

Flight Duration: 5 minutes and 25 seconds


The Project Mercury monument made to tribute the first seven American Astronaut. The site was located at the Launch Complex Pad 14. (1964) [Via]


The rivalry of The United States of America and The Soviet Union during that time has lead us to so many discoveries, and answers to those who were seeking.

Neil Patrick

Neil Patrick is one of the authors writing for The Vintage News