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The Aero Experience is a celebration of Midwest aviation and aerospace achievement. We invite you to join us as we explore the treasures of Midwest aviation through first-hand experiences. Our contributors take turns flying lead, and we are always looking for new destinations. Check in with The Aero Experience frequently to see where we will land today, and then go out and have your own aero experiences!

Blue skies,

Carmelo Turdo, Mark Nankivil and Fred Harl - The Aero Experience Team

Monday, February 20, 2012

Firendship 7 50th Anniversary: McDonnell Aircraft Rises to the Challenge With America's First Manned Spacecraft

By Carmelo Turdo
February 20 marks the 50th anniversary of America's first manned orbital flight in the Mercury spacecraft Friendship 7, flown by astronaut John Glenn.  The flight lasted nearly five hours and orbited the earth three times.  McDonnell Aircraft Corporation in St. Louis, MO, by then primarily a producer of fighter aircraft for the U.S. Air Force and Navy, was awarded the contract for the Mercury spacecraft.  NASA documents describe the selection process:

Awarding the Prime Contract

During the first week in January, 1959, another group of men, led by Carl Schreiber at NASA Headquarters, evaluated the procurement aspects of the competitive proposals. This Management, Cost, and Production Assessment Committee was required to rank only eight companies, because four had been disqualified on purely technical grounds. By January 6, four companies were reported to the Source Selection Board as having outstanding management capabilities for the prime contract. But in the final analysis Abe Silverstein and the six members of his board had to decide between only two firms with substantially equal technical and managerial excellence: Grumman Aircraft Engineering Corporation and McDonnell Aircraft Corporation. The NASA Administrator himself eventually explained the principal reason for the final choice:

The reason for choosing McDonnell over Grumman was the fact that Grumman was heavily loaded with Navy projects in the conceptual stage. It did not appear wise to select Grumman in view of its relatively tight manpower situation at the time, particularly since that situation might be reflected in a slow start on the capsule project regardless of priority. Moreover, serious disruption in scheduling Navy work might occur if the higher priority capsule project were awarded to Grumman.

NASA informed McDonnell on January 12 that it had been chosen the prime contractor for the Mercury spacecraft. Contract negotiations began immediately; after three more weeks of working out the legal and technical details, the stickiest of which was the fee, the corporation's founder and president, James S. McDonnell, Jr., signed on February 5, 1959, three originals of a contract.  This document provided for an estimated cost of $18,300,000 and a fee of $1,150,000. At the time, it was a small part of McDonnell's business and a modest outlay of government funds, but it officially set in motion what eventually became one of the largest technical mobilizations in American peacetime history. Some 4,000 suppliers, including 596 direct subcontractors from 25 states and over 1500 second-tier subcontractors, soon came in to assist in the supply of parts for the capsule alone.  (Source:

The development of the Mercury spacecraft and its components, training apparatus, space suits, and other support equipment evolved over the next several years.  The astronauts who would fly the Mercury spacecraft were also involved in the design and modification of the systems and cockpit layout of the Mercury and later Gemini spacecraft, also built by McDonnell Aircraft Corporation.  In hindsight, many, including Lowell Grissom, brother of Astronaut Gus Grissom who lost his life in the Apollo 1 fire, have questioned the decision to award the Apollo moon mission command module contract to North American Aviation rather than McDonnell Aircraft Corporation.  Ironically, a team of Mcdonnell Aircraft Corporation engineers were assigned to assist North American Aviation in the redesign and production of the Apollo command module, which later transported American astronauts to the moon and returned them safely to the earth.

A Mercury Spacecraft mockup at McDonnell Aircraft Corporation, 1959

Production line at McDonnell Aircraft Corporation (Boeing photo)

John Glenn with Friendship 7 (NASA photo)

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