How the U.S. Almost Beat the Soviets to the First Man in Space

The US was in something of a panic after the Soviets put Sputnik in orbit. There was already a satellite program in the works, but Wernher von Braun proposed something more spectacular. He suggested that an astronaut be launched on a suborbital, ballistic flight.

How the U.S. Almost Beat the Soviets to the First Man in Space

How the U.S. Almost Beat the Soviets to the First Man in Space

The pilot would occupy a near-duplicate of the capsule used in the Air Force's Man High stratosphere balloon flights, which had successfully carried pilots to altitudes of nearly 30 miles.

The idea was very similar to the British Megaroc that had been proposed shortly after the war. This would have utilized a German V-2 to launch a pilot on a sub-orbital ballistic flight.

Von Braun's capsule would be contained in a sealed cylinder which in turn would be carried in a horizontal position in the rocket's nose cone. In the case of an emergency during launch, the cylinder could be ejected into a nearby pool of water. The nose cone also contained the recovery parachutes and life support equipment.

How the U.S. Almost Beat the Soviets to the First Man in Space

This assembly would be placed atop an Army Redstone missile, which would act as the booster. By using almost entirely off-the-shelf equipment, von Braun believed the flight could be made before the end of 1959 at a cost of less than $12 million.

"Project Adam" would launch an astronaut to an altitude of 150 miles. After experiencing nearly 6 minutes of free fall, he would splash down into the Atlantic, 150 miles away from the launch site at Cape Canaveral.

How the U.S. Almost Beat the Soviets to the First Man in Space

How the U.S. Almost Beat the Soviets to the First Man in Space

The entire project would require the cooperation of the Army, which had developed the Redstone rocket, the Air Force, which had developed the capsule, and the Navy, which would provide the recovery. Unfortunately, one of the major factors in the downfall of Project Adam proved to be resistance from the Air Force, which was promoting funding for its own manned space flight project, the $100 million Man-in-Space-Soonest program. Von Braun then pitched the idea as an Army-only project, with the Navy still providing recovery, and reduced the price tag to $4.75 million.

How the U.S. Almost Beat the Soviets to the First Man in Space

Although Hugh Dryden, the director of NACA (which became NASA when the Mercury program was created shortly thereafter), sneered that "tossing a man up in the air and letting him come back . . . is about the same technical value as the circus stunt of shooting a young lady from a cannon. . . ." it is exactly what occurred only a couple of years later, when a Redstone rocket launched Alan Shepard on a suborbital flight...only a few weeks after the Russians placed the first man in orbit. Shepard's flight cost $360 million.