Pigs CAN Fly… on Mercury… almost…

posted in: Project Mercury | 1

Our Mercury set is 6-DVDs packed with over 24 hours of material. This week we’re highlighting some of our favorite finds from the Project Mercury experience.

Configuration for PIG Mercury. NASA.
Configuration for PIG Mercury. NASA.

What does a fledgling group of engineers do when they need to test a brand new spacecraft? Find subjects to test inside the spacecraft, during flight. Before the original seven astronauts, before even Sam, Miss Sam, and Ham the Chimp, for Project Mercury the first flying test subjects were very nearly pigs.

Project Mercury used a solid-fueled rocket called the “Little Joe” to conduct tests of the Mercury launch escape system. Mercury used a solid-fuel tractor rocket to pull the spacecraft away from launch vehicle or pad danger. The solid fuel rocket was supplied by the Grand Central Rocket Company (Grand Central was later purchased by Lockheed).

The escape rocket was of simple design, a canister containing the cast solid propellant, with three nozzles at the business end. The rocket generated around 231 kiloNewtons (52,000 pounds) of thrust. The escape rocket was actually used as intended on an unmanned Atlas and pulled the MA-3 spacecraft away from its errant launch vehicle, just before it was destroyed by range safety.

In our first piece of rare footage, here’s a quick look at the casting of the launch escape tower. No real protective clothing here, this is Project Mercury, and we’ll just cast them out here in the ground, thank you very much.


Eight Little Joe tests of the Mercury escape system were conducted at Wallops Island. Since a Redstone at the time cost about $1 million each, and an Atlas cost around $2.5 million, the Little Joe (at $200,000 a round) was an economical alternative for testing. Little Joe was a cluster of Recruit and Pollux solid rockets, and was built by North American Avaiation in Downey, CA. (All of the Little Joe flights are contained on the Mercury set)

Now back to the pigs. The Little Joe flight tests were not only launch escape system tests, but the first chance to test the Mercury spacecraft and its effect on creatures taken along for the trip. Initially the creatures were to be pigs. Provision was made for the Mercury spacecraft to support its pig payload, and a pig was even used to mold a couch for the trip.

The flying pigs of Mercury were not to be. On May 6, 1959, in a memo from George Low to the NASA administrator, it was noted that pigs had been eliminated as test subjects when studies disclosed that they could not survive long periods of time on their backs. McDonnell did use a pig, “Gentle Bess,” to test the impact crushable support, and the test was “successful.” (We’re not sure how successful the test was for Bess.)

We believe this may very well be the only footage of a pig getting a mold created for flight in a spacecraft. (This piece is silent, because what can one really say when you’re molding with a pig?)


Final Note: The footage are clips from much longer pieces on our Mercury set. This week we are offering the set at a reduced price, $20 off the regular price. More fun tomorrow…

One Response

  1. Raymond Ramirez
    | Reply

    I hope it wasn’t a waste of ham!

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