This painting was inspired by a still from the movie The Right Stuff. Based on the book of the same name by Tom Wolfe, it tells the story of test pilot Chuck Yeager‘s attempts to break the sound barrier in a rocket powered plane and of the seven astronauts of NASA’s Project Mercury. The Cold War was at it’s height and America and Russia were locked in the Space Race, the original impetus for which was the desire to build bigger and more powerful intercontinental missiles to carry the atomic warheads they were both stockpiling.
Project Mercury was something of a stop-gap. The Americans had talked of building a small winged vehicle along the lines of what would eventually become the much larger space shuttle, however the launch of Sputnik 1 by the Russians in October 1957 convinced the Americans that the soviets were way ahead of them in terms of lifting power. If they were to put a man into space before the Russians they would have to rely on their existing rocketry. The Mercury spacecraft was basically ‘a man in a can’ which would be shot into space atop a Redstone missile. The original design called for the craft to be ‘flown by wire’ from the team on the ground, but the Mercury astronauts – all test pilots – baulked at this and the capsule was fitted with a manual override.
In the event, the Russians beat them to it when on the 12th April 1961, Yuri Gagarin became the first man to orbit the earth. Ten months later John Glen would become the first American to do the same in the Mercury capsule ‘Freedom 7’.
Original oil painting on canvas copyright Chris Niblock