Jan. 12, 1959: McDonnell Aircraft Selected To Build Mercury Capsules

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  Space News Business

Jan. 12, 1959: McDonnell Aircraft Selected To Build Mercury Capsules

By CLINTON PARKS
Space News Staff Writer
posted: 09 January 2008
12:04 pm ET





washington



In January 1959, NASA selected McDonnell Aircraft Corp.




to build the vehicle




that would




send the first U.S. astronauts into space.

By the time the U.S. space agency began




taking bids to build what would become the Mercury capsule, McDonnell




had been working on the design for a manned orbiter for more than a year.

Then-NASA




administrator T. Keith Glennan approved a




human spaceflight feasibility study




Oct. 7, 1958, according to




Roger Launius, chairman of the space history division of the Smithsonian Institute in Washington




. The next day Glennan established the Space Task Group (STG) at Langley Research Center in Hampton, Va., under Robert Gilruth




to design, procure and manage




flight operations of




a




manned orbiter. The




STG included 35




key staff members from Langley




including Gilruth, who previously had worked with the U.S. Department of Defense on its




Man in Space program, Launius said.





The group




sent 40 companies preliminary specifications for the




capsule and its subsystems in




October 1958 in preparation




for a




bidders’ conference the following month




, according to the NASA History Web site




.





Following the bidders’ conference, 19 companies threw their hats in the ring




and were




provided




with a 50-page prospectus titled “Specifications for Manned Space Capsule,”




the NASA History Web site said.




The prospectus included requirements and other details of the capsule




such as




structural design, missions, orbital flight tests, instrumentation, stabilization and control.

About 20 engineers at McDonnell had been working on a manned orbiter since October 1957 as part of the




U.S. Air Force’s




Manned Ballistic Rocket Research System program, Andrew LePage, a physicist and freelance writer who specializes in spaceflight history,




said in the April 15, 1999, issue of SpaceViews.










By June 1958, as many as 70 McDonnell employees were working on the Manned Ballistic Rocket Research System program




.

McDonnell was one of




12 teams that submitted




proposals to build




the Mercury




capsule.

A team at NASA headquarters




in Washington




rated each proposal for




management approach and cost accountability. A






technical assessment committee




at Langley









oversaw 11 evaluation teams consisting of




four to six research engineers;




each




team




was responsible for reviewing a different system.

The proposals of the




two finalists, McDonnell and Grumman Aircraft Engineering Corp., were found to have managerial and technical excellence, the NASA History Web site said. McDonnell was awarded the contract over Grumman in part because of Grumman’s ongoing work with the U.S. Navy.




Glennan
expressed concern that




Grumman’s




work on several lower-priority Navy projects still in their conceptual phases would have stretched its manpower too thin and might have




delayed work on the capsule, the NASA History Web site said.



James McDonnell,




president and founder of McDonnell Aircraft Corp.,




signed the Mercury capsule contract Feb. 5, 1959, for an estimated initial




value of




$18.3 million




– a compromise between




McDonnell’s $17.6 million bid and the STG’s $22 million estimate.

















By the end of the program in May 1963, McDonnell’s final contract value was












$142.8 million, including $40.2 million for research and development and almost $49.4 million for 20 Mercury capsules of varying designs




, according to the NASA Web site.



Project Mercury sent




the first U.S. astronaut into space, Alan Shepard, May 5, 1961,




and the first U.S. astronaut into orbit, John Glenn, Feb. 20, 1962




.