Wallops Island is a little island off the Eastern Sea Shore of Virginia. In 1945, NACA (the predecessor to NASA) began launching small rockets from here, including the first use of a telemetry system in a research rocket. Later, Wallops Island would play host to the training wheels for the Project Mercury capsules. Aboard a Little Joe rocket, the capsule’s launch abort system, life support systems, and other subsystems were tested before we were willing to stick Alan Shepard, John Glenn, Gus Grissom, Scott Carpenter, and Gordon Cooper in the capsules and shoot them into the sky.
Little Joe was the first rocket designed for a NASA program. Up until then, and even for the manned launches of the Mercury program, the rockets used were modified ICBMs. When NASA needed a booster rocket to test out systems on the first manned capsules, they first looked to the Atlas and Redstone rockets. However, they would cost $2.5 million and $1 million per launch, respectively. Considering the number of planned test launches to prove out the various systems that would keep our astronauts safe, NASA decided that using the big stick rockets was too costly and called on North American Aviation to build them a low cost rocket. Little Joe could be launched for about $200,000 each. This marked a last for NASA — the last time they did anything on the cheap. (Just kidding…mostly.)
During design, the design team began calling the rocket “Little Joe” because one of its cross-sectional drawings showed the four holes for its rocket cluster. Apparently, North American’s engineering staff was a fan of playing craps. The name stuck, and was adopted as the official rocket system name by NASA. Little Joe was the first rocket to use a rocket cluster, and proved out the design that would be used on Saturn, Space Shuttle and countless other rockets over the last 60 years.
This little-known rocket, which made only 8 flights (6 successful) over a 2 year period, was critical to our nation’s goal of putting a man on the moon. With it, NASA was able to prove out the capsule that would carry the first American to space and the first American to orbit. While we were falling behind in the space race, we didn’t give up. National pride and a spirit of exploration united us.
[Image Credit: NASA]