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.


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


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


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


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;



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.

expressed concern that


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