In January 1959, NASA selected McDonnell Aircraft Corp.
to build the vehicle
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.
sent 40 companies preliminary specifications for the
capsule and its subsystems in
October 1958 in preparation
bidders’ conference the following month
, according to the NASA History Web site
Following the bidders’ conference, 19 companies threw their hats in the ring
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
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
A team at NASA headquarters
rated each proposal for
management approach and cost accountability. A
technical assessment committee
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.
president and founder of McDonnell Aircraft Corp.,
signed the Mercury capsule contract Feb. 5, 1959, for an estimated initial
– 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