Project Adam: or, How the US Could Have Beat the Soviets in Putting a Man Into Space
Updated: Mar 24
Before the Soviet Union had Vostok and before the United States had Project Mercury, Wernher von Braun on behalf of the US Army pitched Project Adam to the National Advisory Committee for Aeronautics (NACA), the predecessor to NASA. Approval of the project would have possibly put American astronauts in space before Soviet cosmonauts.
Mission components of Project Adam (Public domain image)
Following the success of the Army's Explorer 1 satellite in January 1958, von Braun proposed Project Adam, originally called Man Very High, as a method of putting an American in space by the end of 1959. Its method of doing so was rather uncomplicated: Send a human being on a suborbital flight using already existing hardware.
Back in December 1955, the Air Force developed Project Manhigh to obtain scientific data on the very edges of Earth's atmosphere as well as the effects of cosmic rays on human beings. It was performed by a series of three high-altitude balloon flights that reached higher than 99% of the Earth's atmosphere. The pilots rode in gondolas stuffed with equipment that would later be critical to manned spaceflight such as pressure suits and telemetry and communication systems. The three Manhigh flights are considered the very first steps ever taken to send man into outer space.
Illustration of the Manhigh balloon gondola (nationalmuseum.af.mil)
The overarching idea for Project Adam was to use one of the Army Ballistic Missile Agency's rockets to boost a Manhigh balloon gondola. It would save time and money by using already existing hardware instead of developing everything from scratch like the Air Force was doing for its Man In Space Soonest project (MISS), its own plan to send men into space. Von Braun was so confident in his proposal that he invited Manhigh pilots Joe Kittinger and David Simons to the Redstone Arsenal in Huntsville, Alabama for support. However, the gondola had no development potential unlike what would become the Mercury capsule designed by Max Faget later that year. The Mercury capsule was upgraded to the Gemini capsule a few years later and became the baseplate for American capsules to this day.
The planned vehicle was a modified Redstone rocket based on the Jupiter-C rocket used to launch Explorer 1. The gondola would have been protected by the heat-resistant nose cone of the Jupiter. The spacecraft would have used two nose-cone derivatives with the upper cone acting as the standard Redstone missile tip and the lower cone housing the astronaut and equipment. In order to get inside the gondola, the pilot would be loaded in from the gantry on a sliding wheeled sled before being sealed. He would not be lying on his back but rather standing, or at least bolted in vertically (unlike the actual Manhigh capsules that the pilots sat upright in). It would launch from one of the various launch sites at Cape Canaveral, Florida. As the rocket reached the end of its burn time, both cones would separate from the booster and before reentry, the upper cone would be jettisoned. The lower cone would return to Earth in a fireball with deployable vanes supplying some steering. It would finally splash down in the Atlantic Ocean off the coast of Bermuda under a parachute.
Project Adam's mission profile (Public domain image)
The astronaut would be subjected to psycho-physiological experiments during the periods of acceleration during liftoff and reentry, as well as the weightlessness during the middle six minutes or so of actual time in space. He would also have no influence on flight guidance.
As far as I have been able to research, only one mission was ever planned but it is possible more would have occurred during the development of orbital missions.
The project's total cost was an estimated $12 million with immediate funding of only $4.75 million to get started. This is compared to the $100 million the Air Force needed for MISS.
By April 1958, mere months after it was proposed, Project Adam was nearly terminated. The Air Force was unwilling to provide the Army with its Manhigh gondola because it saw the project as a threat to their own MISS. This inter-service rivalry would have dissipated (at least a little bit) by the time the Mercury Program was operational, as cooperation between all the branches were necessary for overall mission success. Instead, Project Adam was submitted to the Advanced Research Project Agency (ARPA) as an Army-only affair with Navy recovery support (the Navy originally had their Manned Earth Reconnaissance program but it was shelved). The head of ARPA, Roy Johnson, believed the project was not practical for manned spaceflight. When submitted to NACA, agency director and future NASA Deputy Administrator Hugh Dryden claimed Adam's goal had "about the same technical value as the circus stunt of shooting a young lady from a cannon." No one seemed to take it seriously. Still, the Army persevered and convinced the CIA the project was a "national political psychological demonstration" that would earn the US points in the Cold War and significantly advance the nation in the Space Race. However, by the time the CIA reviewed the proposal fully, NASA was established and it was uncertain which federal agency would undertake the challenge of manned spaceflight. This was initially a good thing for Project Adam; once NASA became responsible for manned spaceflight, it would be seen as more than a mere "circus stunt". Manned suborbital flights could now potentially happen. And they did happen, though not exactly in the way von Braun proposed, three years later by two young pilots named Alan Shepard and Gus Grissom.
Though Project Adam has been mostly forgotten about over the decades, the major mission components— using a Redstone IRBM derivative to send an astronaut on a suborbital trajectory— 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 yet everyone wanted a piece of the action. If Project Adam 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 and share this post. Thanks for reading!
Drye, Paul. “Man Very High/Project Adam: Mercury Before Mercury.” False Steps, 28 Aug. 2017, falsesteps.wordpress.com/2017/08/25/man-very-highproject-adam/.
Miller, Ron. How the U.S. Almost Beat the Soviets to the First Man in Space, Gizmodo, 16 Dec. 2015, io9.gizmodo.com/how-the-u-s-almost-beat-the-soviets-to-the-first-man-i-1517622370.
Reichl, Eugen. Project Mercury: America in Space Series. Schiffer Publishing Ltd, 2016.
cover image: Chrysler
photo of Mercury-Redstone launch: NASA