National Geographic : 1960 Jul
200 miles down the Atlantic Missile Range. Similar brief lob flights will follow, all de signed to check out men and equipment. NASA was only four days old when it set up a special unit, the Space Task Group, to plan epoch-making Project Mercury. Within weeks engineers designed the spectacularly ugly capsule, shaped like a television tube (page 60). Its blunt face bears a coating of resinous glass fiber that vaporizes under the savage blast of air friction and streams away, carrying with it most of the intense heat. This process, known as ablation, protects missile nose cones as they enter the atmosphere. Similarly, it will protect the astronaut. Temperatures on the heat shield may reach 2,600°F. But the astronaut sits within a double-walled hull, insulated, airtight, and watertight. His cabin instruments will detect only a brief rise to 120 0 F., easily tolerated by a man in an air-conditioned space suit. Unlike a nose cone, the capsule requires controls. After entering orbit, it must be turned end for end so that the heat shield faces forward, and it must be kept stable during descent. So engineers installed jets of hydrogen peroxide vapor to counter roll, pitch, and yaw. These jets operate automati cally, but the astronaut can take control at any time (page 61). NASA is trying to make orbital flight no riskier than tests of experimental aircraft. EKTACHROMESBY NASA AND HIGH SPEED EKTACHROME(OPPOSITE, ABOVE) BY NATIONALGEOGRAPHICPHOTOGRAPHERDEAN CONGER© N.G.S.