Hidden Histories: Man In Space Soonest
Updated: Oct 17
Before the Soviet Union had Vostok and before the United States had Project Mercury, the U.S Air Force developed MISS, or Man In Space Soonest. Approval and adoption of the project would have put an American in space before a Soviet cosmonaut.
Concept for the MISS spacecraft (US Air Force)
It all began on February 15, 1956 in Baltimore, Maryland. Commander of Air Research and Development Command (ARDC) General Thomas S. Power held a staff meeting and called for studies to begin on manned space vehicles that would succeed the joint USAF/NACA X-15 spaceplane program. There were two types of vehicles to choose from; winged and ballistic. One winged approach that would later receive funding was the X-20 Dynamic Soarer (see "Hidden Histories: X-20 Dynamic Soarer"). The Task 27544 Manned Ballistic Rocket Research System consisted of a reentry capsule boosted by an intercontinental ballistic missile, or ICBM. Unlike the spaceplane approach, ballistic vehicles could be used for two purposes; speedy delivery of cargo to any point on Earth during an emergency and manned spaceflight.
The Air Force developed a multistage plan with the goal of landing men on the moon by the mid-1960s called Man in Space. Man in Space was split into four phases, the first being MISS. This phase had two objectives; the demonstration of the technological capability and superiority of the United States, and the exploration of the functional capabilities and limitations of the human body in space. Twenty-five flights would have taken place, twelve using the Thor-Vanguard rocket and thirteen using what was referred to as the "Thor-Fluorine" . The first six flights would have been robotic missions that tested the spacecraft's hardware and flight systems. The next six would have flown animals over a period of six months to test the life support system and develop reentry and recovery techniques. They also would have studied the effects of weightlessness and radiation on living creatures. Finally, the first man would fly in space as early as October of 1960. These flights would have used both Thor and Atlas boosters.
Even though the Air Force knew exactly which rockets to use, and therefore already had launch sites picked out as well, one major component was missing— the spacecraft. Even though winged vehicles were still being developed, it was agreed that the optimal choice for MISS was the ballistic reentry capsule. The requirements for such a craft included an ablative heat shield, a window, a 30-inch hatch, and a flared skirt. It also needed to be a high-drag, zero-lift, blunt-nosed cylinder 8 feet in diameter. The flared skirt would contain reaction control jets for attitude control while in orbit, the retrorockets for reentry, and the recovery parachutes that would be deployed during splashdown. Cockpit instrumentation included the main guidance, navigation, and control system, a secondary power pack, and the telemetry and voice communications system. The pilot would lie on his back on a couch during the orbital portion of the mission inside a pressurized cabin. His suit would also be pressurized for safety. According to "Proposal for Man-in-Space (1957-1958)", the astronaut would have been given some control over the spacecraft's attitude and the action of the reentry rockets if he was capable of making decisions during his flight. It was still unknown if microgravity effected cognitive functions.
Schematic of the desired MISS spacecraft (USAF)
In June 1958, the first astronaut selection in history took place. Nine pilots were chosen to be the world's first space explorers. Their names were Neil Armstrong, William Bridgeman, Scott Crossfield, Iven Kincheloe, John McKay, Robert Rushworth, Joseph Walker, Alvin White, and Robert White. Armstrong was the only member to join NASA's Astronaut Corps after MISS (and the X-20 program) were cancelled. He flew in space during Gemini 8 in 1966, where he performed the first docking of two spacecraft, and Apollo 11 in 1969, where he became the first person to set foot on the moon. Walker became the first member of the group to reach space according to the Fédération Aéronautique Internationale's definition of space while Robert White because the first to do so according to the USAF definition .
Neil Armstrong, the young X-15 pilot (NASA)
Three stages of Man in Space followed MISS. The next was Man in Space Sophisticated, or MISSOPH. The eventual manned flights would use not a blunt-end ballistic reentry capsule but a flat triangular lifting body-type vehicle for more control. After that was Lunar Reconnaissance, or LUREC, which would fly simultaneously with MISSOPH and scout future landing sites on the moon as well as attempt soft landings on the surface. Last was Manned Lunar Flight, or LUMAN.
Concurrently, the Army was developing its own plan to put man in space called Project Adam (see "Project Adam: or, How the US Could Have Beat the Soviets in Putting a Man Into Space"). It was originally called Man Very High because instead of developing a new spacecraft, it would have used a balloon gondola from the Air Force's Manhigh project. The astronaut enclosed would have been boosted into space on a Redstone missile derivative. Unlike MISS, Adam would have been purely suborbital and more aimed at achieving the goal of "first man in space" than building up the technology needed to go to the moon. In that respect, MISS was very much similar to the Mercury program.
When Man in Space was pitched in 1958, the entire project was projected to cost $1.5 billion from the first unmanned MISS missions to LUMAN. To be successful, Man in Space needed to receive priority status as quickly as possible to secure funding and the freedom to use whatever resources it needed. The Air Force claimed the program would also improve reconnaissance, communication, and early warning systems for protection against enemy attacks. However, it was decided that with its long-term phases Man in Space was a bit much, so it was scaled back to promote MISS as something that could be done quickly. Since the Air Force already had a partnership with NACA in developing and flying the X-15, it assumed it would lead any national spaceflight effort as well. That was not the case. When President Eisenhower called for the creation of a civilian space agency, the goal of sending men into space was granted to NASA. Man In Space Soonest and its parent program were cancelled on August 1, 1958 and replaced by NASA's Project Mercury. The Air Force's primary role in sending the first men into space was supplying the rockets to do so. One of these was the Atlas, which sent the first Americans into Earth orbit four years later.
Though Man In Space Soonest is part of a mostly forgotten portion of military space history, the major components— using an Atlas rocket to send an astronaut into orbit inside a blunt-nosed spacecraft with an ablative heat shield and first testing the methods of doing so by using animals— were absorbed into Project Mercury and therefore secured in history. It was proposed during a time in the Space Race when no one was quite sure what the next move was. If MISS had triumphed over Project Mercury, would the United States have beat the Soviet Union in putting a man in space? Let me know your thoughts in the comments and remember to like, share, and check out my other posts. Thanks for reading!
Astronaut John Glenn poses with Friendship 7 spacecraft before becoming first American to orbit the Earth, 1962 (NASA)
 "Thor-Fluorine" was included in the Air Force's "Proposal for Man-in-Space (1957-1958)" but no definition was provided. The text implied it was a Thor rocket with a fluorine second stage.
 The FAI defines the start of space to be the Kármán line, or an altitude of 62 miles (100 km). The Air Force and NASA define the start of space to be only 50 miles (80 km) above sea level.
ARDC Historical Division. Proposal for Man-in-Space (1957-1958). United States Air Force, 1958.
LePage, Andrew. “The Origins of NASA's Mercury Program.” Drew Ex Machina, 17 Dec. 2020, www.drewexmachina.com/2018/12/17/the-origins-of-nasas-mercury-program/.
Teitel, Amy Shira. “How the Air Force Planned to Put Men on the Moon.” Popular Science, 25 Oct. 2017, www.popsci.com/how-air-force-planned-to-put-men-on-moon/.
Wade, Mark. Man-In-Space-Soonest, www.astronautix.com/m/man-in-space-soonest.html.
Adam: public domain image