Space Cover #56, Project Mercury's Original Iron Man -- Astronaut Alan Shepard? Steve Durst
Once Project Mercury had met its mission requirements and was able to put astronauts into Earth orbit, NASA officials had planned to launch additional Project Mercury orbital spaceflights to further assess the capability of astronauts to live and work in the extreme hostile environment of space. Astronaut Gordon Cooper's spaceflight in spacecraft Faith 7 and mated to Mercury-Atlas 9, was planned for May 15-16, 1963, and would be launched from Cape Canaveral, Florida. Cooper's subsequent remarkable and extremely successful flight was a twenty-two Earth orbit flight that captured the world's attention.
NASA officials additionally had planned a three-day Project Mercury orbital flight, had assigned an astronaut, and were awaiting approval for the mission. Alan Shepard was named as the astronaut to pilot the flight. Shepard's new spacecraft, Freedom 7 II, would be mated to Mercury Atlas-10, the launch vehicle for Project Mercury's "endurance mission," planned for an October 1963 launch from Cape Canaveral, Florida. The new Project Mercury mission would utilize the Mercury 15B spacecraft that had already been modified and set aside for the endurance mission flight.
Shepard along with others had pushed very hard for the endurance mission and had already had the name of the spacecraft painted on the side of the spacecraft. The endurance mission would cover the biological objectives of the first two manned Gemini missions but would markedly surpass the rather restrictive three orbit missions anticipated for Gemini 3 and Gemini 4. Although astronaut Alan Shepard certainly was up to the task, things did not work out the way he expected.
The textbook spaceflights of both astronaut Wally Schirra in Sigma 7 and astronaut Gordon Cooper in Faith 7 had fully met Project Mercury's stated mission requirements. Project Gemini was already in full swing with the first orbital Gemini flight planned for November 1963. The risks and work pending on Project Gemini convinced NASA managers not to undertake another Project Mercury mission or to extend the present project. Additionally, the Project Mercury tracking network could only accurately track missions of one to a few days. Shepard's flight in MA-10 was cancelled June 12, 1963, by NASA Administrator James Webb stating before the U.S. Senate Space Committee, "There will be no further Mercury shots...."
Alan Shepard, America's first astronaut and Project Mercury's original Iron Man, would fly again. He would fly as Mission Commander of Apollo 14, January 31, 1971, on its nine-day mission and would orbit the Earth briefly before heading with his crew to land on the Moon at the Fra Mauro Highlands, but that's the subject of another story.