There has never been an American moment quite like Project Mercury.
It was one of the great undertakings of American power, one of the great expressions of American ingenuity, one of the great successes of American engineering, one of the great statements of American daring — and one of the great dividing lines in modern American culture.
If you know what Project Mercury was, the passion it prompted needs no explanation and has no contemporary equivalent. If you don’t know what it was, no amount of explaining, including this column, can begin to capture the thrill and sense of possibility it symbolized.
Project Mercury, a uniquely American combination of rocket propulsion and spiritual inspiration, ended 50 years ago this spring, with 22 orbits of the Earth by L. Gordon Cooper aboard a space capsule named Faith 7.
Its conclusion preceded the death of John F. Kennedy, who didn’t begin the program but whose vital spark animated it, by six months — and the combination of the two, the demise of Project Mercury and of the president who seemed to personify its spirit and who gave the undertaking its elan, marked an important passage in American life.
The space program continued, with Project Gemini and then Project Apollo, but never again with its innocence, its purity, its brio. By the time Cooper returned to space, with Pete Conrad aboard Gemini 5 (120 orbits in eight days in August 1965), Watts was aflame, the American sense of rectitude was jolted by the moral questions raised by the civil rights movement, 200,000 GIs were in Vietnam, and increasing numbers of people were questioning the virtue of the efforts in space when so many challenges remained on Earth.
None of that touched Project Mercury, which seemed to fly on the wings of dreams.
There was, to be sure, a large Cold War element to Project Mercury; its booster rockets were military missiles and the drive to beat the Soviets to the moon was a proxy for the struggle to defeat communism on Earth. And there was a hokey all-Americanism gauze to the effort, fortified by breathless accounts on television and fawning articles and double-page picture spreads in LIFE magazine, the photo album of the American Century.