One stamp commemorates the National Aeronautics and Space Administration’s (NASA) Project Mercury, America’s first manned spaceflight program, and NASA astronaut Alan Shepard’s historic flight on May 5, 1961, aboard the spacecraft Freedom 7.
The other stamp draws attention to NASA’s unmanned MESSENGER mission, a scientific investigation of the planet Mercury. On March 17, 2011, MESSENGER became the first spacecraft to enter into orbit around Mercury.
These two historic missions—Shepard’s Mercury flight and MESSENGER’s orbit of Mercury—frame a remarkable fifty-year period in which America has advanced space exploration through more than 1,500 manned and unmanned flights.
The Mercury Project stamp depicts Alan Shepard, the Mercury capsule Freedom 7, and the Redstone launching rocket. The MESSENGER Mission stamp depicts the MESSENGER spacecraft in orbit around the planet Mercury.
As the world watched on television, Shepard blasted off from Cape Canaveral, FL, on May 5, 1961. The flight reached a maximum speed of 5,100 mph, roughly eight times the speed of sound, and a zenith of 116 miles above the Earth. With parachutes deploying, the space capsule safely splashed down in the Atlantic some 300 miles from the launch site. The New York Times declared that Shepard’s 15-minute flight “roused the country to one of its highest peaks of exultation since the end of World War II.”
Emboldened by this achievement, President John F. Kennedy declared in a historic speech on May 25, 1961, that America “should commit itself to achieving the goal, before this decade is out, of landing a man on the moon and returning him safely to the Earth.”
The Mercury project set the country on a path that would lead to the stunning Apollo 11 moon landing eight years later on July 20, 1969, a crowning technological achievement of the 20th century.
On March 17, 2011, MESSENGER became the first spacecraft to enter into orbit around Mercury. MESSENGER (MErcury Surface, Space ENvironment, GEochemistry, and Ranging) is a scientific mission to investigate Mercury, which some scientists say is “the least-studied terrestrial planet” in our solar system.
Launched from Cape Canaveral Air Force Station, FL, on Aug. 3, 2004, the spacecraft made six “flybys” of planets, including one of Earth, two of Venus, and three of Mercury. The flybys were done to collect data, to conserve fuel through gravity assists, and to make adjustments critical to achieving the precise trajectory for successfully inserting the spacecraft into orbit around Mercury.
Entering orbit in March 2011 represented a major milestone in space exploration. The data obtained by MESSENGER before and during the year-long orbit will be analyzed for many years to come. Scientists think the data may explain how the planet took shape and also offer clues about the origin of the solar system.
Title: Mercury Project and MESSENGER Mission
Date of Issue: 4 May 2011
Denominations: $0.44 x 2