What it was: The Army Ballistic Missile Agency’s attempt to capitalize on their successful riposte to Sputnik, Explorer 1, after the embarrassment of Vanguard TV3. Having lost the laurel of “first satellite” in frustrating fashion, Wernher von Braun‘s group quickly suggested a manned suborbital program, building on the US Air Force’s Project Manhigh, to try and take the prize for “first man in space” as quickly as possible.
Description: By the mid-1950s the USAF had got down to business of studying the effect of extremely high altitudes on pilots. One of the programs they ran was Project Manhigh, which lifted a pilot to 30 kilometers high twice in the months immediately preceding the launch of Sputnik 1.
Manhigh crammed a human being into a pressurized aluminum gondola weighing just 598 pounds (not including ballast), or 271 kilograms. The pill-shaped craft was 8 feet tall and 3 feet wide, or 244 cm × 91 cm, and that’s the first time I’ve had to use that unit in describing a crew compartment. Unsurprisingly, it housed one, though on the second flight it housed him for a remarkable 32 hours.
However, in the scramble that followed the unexpected dawn of the Space Age, the Manhigh gondola was a resource, and it was one that the ABMA latched on to, firing off a proposal in January of 1958, a few weeks before their modified Jupiter-C put the USA’s first satellite into orbit.
Not even the 1950s military was quite prepared to fire a naked Manhigh gondola to space—they were usually lifted and returned gently by balloon, with only a shock absorber needed for the landing. So the question was what needed to be done to bridge the gap between its original capabilities and a minimal craft that could withstand a swift trip above the atmosphere. Von Braun’s proposal gave one possible answer.
First named Man Very High, the initial proposal was for the Army to supply a modified Redstone based on the Jupiter-C used to launch Explorer 1 and an exterior shell using the principles of the Jupiter’s nose cone to handle the heat of flight and re-entry. The Air Force would supply a passenger cabin derived from the Manhigh capsule, and the Navy would handle recovery procedures. As part of this von Braun invited Manhigh fliers Joseph Kittinger and David Simons to Huntsville to see about adapting a Manhigh gondola for even greater altitude.
The Air Force as a whole was uninterested, though, so by March 1958 the ABMA rebranded Man Very High to Project Adam (a biblical reference, not a Frankenstein riff), and made it a joint Army/Navy project. Now the Army handled everything to do with the rocket and spacecraft, with the Navy continuing to be relegated to recovery and the USAF doing nothing at all. This they then submitted to ARPA the next month, this being the newly formed agency devoted to the military and civilian use of new technology and the unspoken mandate “Don’t let the Russians surprise us again”.
This ultimate version of Adam used two nose-cone derivatives arranged base-to-base. The upper cone would occupy the usual position of a Redstone missile’s tip, while the lower cone would be embedded tip-down in the body of the missile. This lower cone would house the astronaut and the various life-support and guidance equipment he would need. In particular, a Manhigh-like capsule would be rigidly installed horizontally, at the cone’s widest point, and the pilot would be loaded in from the gantry tower on a sliding wheeled sled before the cap sealed him in. This horizontal arrangement strongly implies that the capsule would have been even smaller than the Manhigh gondola, as the Jupiter-C was not quite 70 inches in diameter (177 cm), and no sketch of the Adam perched on top of its launcher shows a bulge near the top of the rocket. On the other hand, another diagram showing only the lower cone has its base clearly larger than this, and a third schematic of the crewed interior shows the pilot at a slight angle, feet downward. Make of that what you will.
In any case, with the pilot bolted into place more than seated, the Jupiter-C would be lit and our astronaut would be underway on his journey. After reaching the end of the rocket’s burn time, the double-cone craft would be cut loose, sail past apogee at 150 miles (240 km), the cut loose the upper cone as superfluous. The lower cone containing its crewman would re-enter, with deployable vanes supplying some steering, to water-land under a parachute.
Much like the first two Mercury flights he wouldn’t be going too far or for too long: six minutes of burn time, ten of free-fall, and a symmetrical 150 miles downrange to a splashdown to the north of the Caribbean Sea. Total price tag was claimed to be US$4.75 million (down from about US$12 million for the earlier, USAF-using version), with the flight to take place before the end of 1959.
What happened to make it fail: When first proposed, it was subjected to some rough handling by NASA’s predecessor, NACA, which was then working on the X-15 program with the Air Force, and the USAF itself, which was working on their Man Into Space Soonest project. Ironically enough, considering how Project Mercury flew its first couple of times, NACA head Hugh Dryden pooh-poohed it by comparing it to a circus’s Human Cannonball act.
Dryden did have a point. Though the Army dressed up Adam as leading to troop drops from space, the hybrid Adam capsule-craft had no development potential. Conversely, once NASA absorbed Man In Space Soonest and Max Faget sketched out the Mercury capsule, they were on their way to something that could go into orbit on top of the Air Force’s pending Atlas and Titan boosters. That would lead the way to Apollo in the long run (Gemini not being even a twinkle in anyone’s eye at that point). Meanwhile, while the Army had boosters in development to match the two Air Force rockets they were much further behind.
With all of NACA’s relevant people now heading NASA, and with NASA given a strong mandate to run the space program, von Braun’s group and the Army were frozen out until such time as the Redstone Arsenal was handed off to the new agency too, to become Marshall Space Flight Center. By then it was July of 1960, and Adam was long sidelined in favor of Mercury.
What was necessary for it to succeed: In the event, the key part of Adam—using a Redstone missile derivative to lob a capsule of some sort on a suborbital trajectory—was quickly absorbed into Mercury, and Americans #1 and #2 into space flew Adam-like missions downrange from Cape Canaveral to the Atlantic northeast of the Bahamas. So that part of the mission presents no real problems.
As for the capsule…Adam was proposed in a short section of time where everything about the United States in space was in flux. It’s largely forgotten now that NASA was actually the second agency set up in response to the USSR’s public relations coup, and that from February to the end of July in 1958 the responsible party was ARPA (modern-day DARPA). ARPA’s leaders were definitely interested in becoming something like NASA when it came to space: when NASA was formed, ARPA’s director, Roy Johnson, resigned in protest.
Fitting the project through this window of February to July ’58 would mean the USAF-less Project Adam would have had to be the proposal out of the gate, rather than ABMA trying to get the Air Force to develop the capsule as they did early on. As it was, the opposition from the Air Force and NACA meant that the ultimate Project Adam came too late to have a chance to move forward.
It’s actually a bit surprising that von Braun didn’t get his chance here—it’s hard to overestimate the prestige he had in the United States immediately following Explorer 1. Certainly his instinct that the Space Age was as much about the USSR and US showing each other up as it was about research was correct, despite the pushback on this from Dryden and crew.
As it was, Project Mercury won out and, notoriously just missing out on the first that Project Adam looked to accomplish: the USSR launched Yuri Gagarin on the first flight into space on April 12, 1961. The United States followed with Alan Shepard just five weeks later.
Von Braun: Dreamer of Space, Engineer of War, Michael Neufeld.
“First Up?”, Tony Reichardt. Air & Space Magazine, Sep. 2000.
“How the U.S. Almost Beat the Soviets to the First Man in Space“, Ron Miller. Gizmodo, April 17, 2014.