Atlas Mercury rocket display model. On the heels of the launch of the Russian spacecraft Vostok 1, the United States was ready to send of its own first man into space aboard the Mercury Space Capsule. Although the Russians had managed to beat them so far at every turn of the Space Race, the Americans were undaunted. The Mercury Program resulted in six successful spaceflights, allowing the United States to gain a foothold in space that it would hold onto for years to come.
The spacecraft itself consisted of a conical crew compartment with a set of rocket engines strapped to the back and a cylindrical nosecone set into the front. The rockets were used for the deorbit burn once this ship was ready for reentry. After slowing the craft down, the rockets would fall off. The bottom of the crew compartment was covered with ablative armor, a technology which is still in use today. Ablative armor works by evaporating as it gets hot, taking the heat energy away with it, much in the same way that perspiration works for many humanoid life forms. Two different launch vehicles were used during the Mercury program, Redstone and Atlas. Redstone was only used for two manned, suborbital missions. The much more powerful Atlas ICBM was used for the remainder of the 4 missions.