Prepared by:
Steven Kovachevich © 2013

General Dynamics Seal of Reliabilitity combined with the astronomical symbol for Mercury.

General Dynamics Seal of Reliabilitity combined
with the astronomical symbol for Mercury.

Reliability in Project Mercury was a major issue, with multiple systems composed of thousands of parts in the capsule and booster that all had to function properly to achieve mission success. Early in the effort the reliability of the Atlas booster was around fifty to sixty percent (50% - 60%); "those things just blew-up regularly".1 Methods for measuring reliability were much debated.2 Statistical analysis or "the numbers game", and testing to prove an "ability" were among the approaches evaluated, but eventually combined into a design, inspect and test program to achieve greatest reliability.3 To increase reliability redundancy was built into the various systems and subsystems that included the astronaut as a redundant factor that could take over operation of the spacecraft in case of malfunction. However, even here there was debate over the reliability of the astronaut and whether he should be integrated into the equation as a primary or secondary factor.4

Among the reliability variables successfully addressed was the human factor in the production of components that made-up the capsule and booster. NASA and the contractors were aware of the need to properly motivate production personnel to achieve the greatest result in a complex undertaking. The technique focused on increasing the probability of mission success through a reduction of errors in the manufacture and check-out of hardware.

Positive motivation was promoted through the use of symbols and identification. Early in Project Mercury, Redstone managers adopted the anthropomorphic god Mercury toting a missile vaulting earth as their symbol; while, Atlas managers selected the alchemical and astrological symbol for Mercury as theirs.5 These symbols were used to identify part and person associated with the man-in-space effort for special handling and recognition.6 As soon as possible components were identified with a label as going into Project Mercury, which stayed with the part until incorporated into the vehicle. Using the symbols in combination with a campaign of training sessions, Mercury posters, letterhead, pamphlets, and other identifiers to connect personnel with the vehicle and astronaut safety reduced errors by an average of forty percent (40%).7

The reduction in production errors was the result of a serious effort to apply identification and personalization to the production chain wherever possible. AirResearch, a subcontractor in the supply chain, initiated a 10 week poster program utilizing 10 different multi-color silk screen posters. Fifty different locations were posted.8 Training sessions were also held to familiarize personnel with the methods and requirements of the Mercury-Atlas Program. AirResearch noted a reduction in errors to one third their level prior to the identification program. Similarly, General Dynamics Astronautics used identification to create a sense of teamwork by assembling teams identified by special badges as a mark of identification.9 After a while, it became a "badge of honor" to wear the special Mercury badges and there was active competition to get on a team so identified.

Mercury Badge worn by General Dynamics Astronautics personnel identifying association with Project Mercury.
Mercury Badge worn by General Dynamics Astronautics personnel identifying association with Project Mercury.
A range of identification methods were used to create a positive emotional link between personnel and their product the booster or capsule. One of the more effective techniques was visits by the astronauts to the production facilities. It was during a visit early in 1960, that Gus Grissom coined the famous "Do good work" slogan.10 Interaction between the astronaut and production worker fostered a greater sense of personal interest in the project and concern for the safety of the astronaut.
Other identification techniques involved the use of company newsletters and publications to present information on the Mercury Project.11 Identification was further enhanced by the issuance of Mercury pins made available to employees including the Mercury 7 Symbol and Mercury Capsule as a device to identify people with projects. Special brochures were printed to familiarize personnel with the goals of Project Mercury to enhance awareness. Reliability stickers were employed on the assembly line as a means of identifying critical components so employees were aware of the parts importance. Photo packs commemorating successful flights were produced and distributed. The General Dynamics reliability symbol, the circle with the "R", together with the Mercury symbol was one of the strongest visual devices that when used in conjunction with knowledge of their meaning and personnel training sessions produced a positive attitude on the part of people engaged in the man-in-space effort.12 The effect of the identification program was reflected in a reduction in errors with corresponding reduction in costs and shortening of production schedules that was critical to achieving a successful result in Project Mercury. The cost of the identification program; while substantial, was more than compensated in a reduction in cost and delays. Six of the Mercury 7 at Convair Astronautics, San Diego. Six of the Mercury 7 at Convair Astronautics, San Diego.

Pins and buttons associated with Project Mercury

1 Oral History Interview with Glynn S. Lunny, March 9, 8, p.1205; and Slayton, Deke with Michael Cassutt, Deke! US Manned Space: from Mercury to the Shuttle. Tom Doherty Associates Books, New York, 1994, p.84.

2 George C. Marshall Space Flight Center, NASA, The Mercury - Redstone Project, N67-37935, TMX-53107, 1961, pp.39-41; and Swenson, Loyd S., Jr., James M. Grimwood, and Charles C. Alexander. This New Ocean: A History of Project Mercury. NASA SP-4201, 1966, p. 178-189.

3 This New Ocean, pp.182 & 187.

4 This New Ocean, p.193.

5 This New Ocean, p.255.

6Space Systems Division of the Air Force Systems Command and General Dynamics Astronautics, with NASA, Proceedings of the Mercury-Atlas Booster Reliability Workshop, Code-1 NASA CR52665, N64 10904, 1964, p.7.

7 Mercury-Atlas Booster Reliability Workshop, p.11.

8 Mercury-Atlas Booster Reliability Workshop, p.12.

9 Mercury-Atlas Booster Reliability Workshop, p.6.

10Schirra, Wally with Billings, Richard N., Schirra's Space, Naval Institute Press, 1988, p.70

11Mercury-Atlas Booster Reliability Workshop, pp. 16-17.

12Mercury-Atlas Booster Reliability Workshop, pp.20-21.

Human Factors in Project Mercury: Reliability and Identification
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