Space Cover #133: The Misunderstood Mercury-Scout
Fifty years ago (and a couple of days), NASA launched Mercury-Scout from Cape Canaveral. The cover above was postmarked at Patrick AFB (a few miles down the beach from the Cape, and the HQ for the Air Force detachment at the Cape) on the launch date of November 1, 1961. It carries the Swanson self-service rubber-stamped cachet. An excellent Port Canaveral postmarked Goldcraft Cachet for this mission can be found here on fellow SU member Ross Smith’s website.
Mercury-Scout was a small, low-cost, unmanned communications beacon meant to test the Project Mercury tracking network before the first manned orbital flight. Mercury-Scout had ~18 hours of battery power, and was meant to simulate three three-orbit Mercury flights for the tracking network. It launched on a very small Scout launch vehicle (30 kG to orbit, which for us non-metric Luddites is ~66 lb, the size of a child). Unfortunately the Mercury-Scout launch vehicle’s first stage guidance system was mis-wired, causing the vehicle to go erratic seconds after launch, and be destroyed by the Range Control Officer. Since NASA had already tested the tracking network for one orbit on the unmanned Mercury-Atlas-4 (MA-4) in September, 1961, and was close to doing a three-orbit chimp flight (which ended up being MA-5 on November 29, 1961), it was felt that further Mercury-Scout tests were not warranted.
Now, I have seen a LOT of misconceptions about Mercury-Scout, including speculations that Scout was a candidate Mercury launch vehicle, and that Mercury-Scout was meant to be recovered. Well, the Scout launch vehicle could only launch a 66 lb payload to orbit, nowhere near the multi-thousand pound payload of a Mercury capsule. And the small unmanned satellite was meant to stay in orbit until its orbit naturally decayed, sending the satellite to destruction. However, it never got that far.
So, please don’t read more into Mercury-Scout than there was. It was simply a small, unmanned satellite that failed to reach orbit. But nonetheless, due the association with Project Mercury, covers for this flight still sell high ($50+).