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  • Project Mercury was the first human spaceflight program of the United States led by its newly created space agency NASA. It ran from 1959 through 1963 with the goal of putting a human in orbit around the Earth, and doing it before the Soviet Union, as part of the early space race. It involved seven astronauts flying a total of six solo trips. On May 5, 1961, Alan Shepard became the first American in space in a suborbital flight after the Soviet Union had put Yuri Gagarin into space and orbit one month earlier. John Glenn became the first American to reach orbit on February 20, 1962. He was the third person to do so, after Soviet Gherman Titov made a day-long flight in August 1961. When the project ended in May 1963, the Americans' NASA program was still behind the Soviet space program, but the gap was seen as closing. The space race started in 1957 with the launch of the Soviet satellite Sputnik I. This came as a shock to the American public and led to the creation of NASA to gather the efforts in space exploration already existing in the US. After the launch of the first American satellite in 1958, manned space flight became the next goal. The spacecraft was produced by McDonnell Aircraft; it was cone shaped with room for one person together with supplies of water, food and oxygen for about one day in a pressurized cabin. It was launched from Cape Canaveral in Florida by a modified Atlas D or Redstone missile, and had an escape tower for protection from a failing rocket. The whole flight could be controlled from the ground through a network of tracking stations which also allowed communication with the astronaut. If necessary, the astronaut could override commands from the ground. For reentry into Earth's atmosphere, small rockets were used to bring the spacecraft out of its orbit. A heat shield would protect the spacecraft from the heat of reentry, and a parachute would slow the craft for a water landing. Here both astronaut and spacecraft were picked up by helicopter and brought to a ship. Wikipedia