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ASU, NASA commemorate Project Mercury with digital image archive

Mercury mission 4 view of the earth below.
May 05, 2011

Beginning in 1958, NASA’s Project Mercury was conceived as a bold experiment to give the United States its first human spaceflight experience, develop techniques and hardware for more ambitious space endeavors, and evaluate whether astronauts could safely function in space. The Mercury program was highly successful, yet the whole Mercury image collection has rarely been seen by the public – until now. A team of scientists led by Arizona State University Professor Mark Robinson is bringing these historic flights to life by making high-resolution scans of the original Mercury flight films.

On 5 May 1961, Alan Shepard became the first American in space aboard the Freedom 7 spacecraft. To celebrate the fiftieth anniversary of this milestone, the NASA Johnson Space Center (JSC) and the School of Earth and Space Exploration at ASU have released the Project Mercury Online Digital Archive. In this new digital archive, high-resolution scans of the raw and enhanced versions of the original Mercury flight films are available to both researchers and the general public, to browse or download, at:

“It was a real privilege to lead up this effort, especially working with the dedicated professionals at JSC who handled and scanned the images with the greatest care,” says Robinson, a professor in the School of Earth and Space Exploration in ASU’s College of Liberal Arts and Sciences. Robinson, the principal investigator for the Lunar Reconnaissance Orbiter Camera, a suite of three separate cameras on board NASA's Lunar Reconnaissance Orbiter, is also partnering with JSC to scan the original Apollo films, which are being posted online since scanning started in 2007.

Robinson’s team received the raw scans from JSC, and ASU was responsible for the processing and archiving of the scanned photographs. Among the steps taken to improve the visual quality of the images was the adjustment of contrast and the enhancement of colors. According to Robinson, once he had worked out a procedure it only took a few seconds of processing per image. Of course, a handful of the images did need individual “hand processing” and thus took longer.

Between 1960 and 1963, NASA launched numerous unmanned and six manned Mercury flights. To record their historic voyages and collect scientific observations from Earth’s orbit, astronauts snapped nearly 2,000 photographs in 70 mm format with handheld and automated cameras. Many of the images (specifically those from the unmanned flights) were taken with cameras mounted on brackets looking out the window on a timer. Robinson’s team assembled these into movies and they are posted on the webpage also.

The collection of scanned images, most taken with the Swedish designed Hasselblad 500c camera that was first introduced in 1957 and renowned for its clarity, are now available in high-resolution for scientists, engineers and the public. After the missions returned to Earth, the films were developed and stored at JSC.

“When the first scans arrived I was surprised to see writing on the images,” says Robinson. “At first I was appalled – these images are part of history, how could somebody have written on them? Then it dawned on me – these were engineering test flights, the imperative was to get an American into space. Analysis of the images far outweighed any historical imperative; the Mercury team was pushing towards the project goals! Now I see the notations as dedication to the cause, a signal of the urgency to succeed.”

A Time to Remember

As we start the 10th year of a permanent human presence aboard the International Space Station and the sixth decade of American spaceflight, it is hard for many people to remember that there was a time when we simply didn't know whether humans could live and work in space.

The first Mercury flight named Freedom 7, piloted by Alan Shepard, lasted a mere 15 minutes. Shepard was launched 100 hundred miles into space and then fell back to Earth into the Atlantic Ocean. The flight, though short, was a huge relief. At the time the Soviet Union had orbited a cosmonaut (April 12, 1961), Yuri Gagarin, about the Earth while the United States was having problems getting rockets off the pad without an explosion. The American public was deeply concerned that the United States had indeed fallen behind the Soviet Union in the realm of rocketry, and technology development in general.

Less than three weeks after Shepard’s flight (May 25, 1961) President Kennedy challenged America “to send a man to the Moon and return him safely to Earth” by the end of the decade. With only fifteen minutes of manned spaceflight experience to build upon, sending a man to the Moon in this short time frame was an audacious goal. Project Mercury was followed by the successful Gemini Program and then, of course, the Apollo Program, which fulfilled Kennedy’s challenge. Today, the other unmanned and manned Mercury flights are mostly forgotten; however, each flight played a critical role in NASA’s early efforts to learn to fly in space.

It has now been 50 years since the United States took those first steps into human spaceflight. In that time Mercury (1960-1963), Gemini (1964-1966), Apollo (1966-1975), and Skylab (1973) have come and gone. The Space Shuttle (1981-2011) is months from retirement, and the International Space Station (1998 -present) has matured into a fully functional science and engineering laboratory.

“The fiftieth anniversary of Alan Shepard’s flight presents an opportunity to reflect not only on what NASA and the United States have accomplished in terms of human space exploration, but perhaps more importantly, where do we go from here?” says Robinson.