On May 16th, hundreds of thousands of people gathered in the vicinity of Cape Canaveral to watch the Endeavor, the NASA space shuttle, lift off on its final journey into space. As mission commander Mark Kelly—husband of Arizona’s Congresswoman, Gabrielle Giffords—put it, "It's in the DNA of our great country to reach for the stars and explore.” Interestingly, just as NASA is winding down its 30-year-old shuttle program, Arizona State University (ASU), in conjunction with NASA, has just announced the launch, on the Internet, of a cache of archival images from the earliest years of the United States’ space program. The Project Mercury Digital Archive makes available high-res scans of some two thousand images made in the early 1960s by astronauts using hand-held cameras and by automated cameras mounted on brackets and pointing out space capsule windows. Fifty years ago, the manned and unmanned Project Mercury space flights riveted Americans who had become fixated on Cold War rivalries, fearful that the United States was falling behind the Soviet Union on military, surveillance, science and education fronts. While those space missions played a critical role in setting the stage for NASA’s later and better known Apollo mission (1966–1975), which landed astronauts on the Moon, the Mercury flights are have been mostly forgotten by the public. It’s hoped that posting this archive of historic images available online and for the first time (where it joins another ASU/NASA project that’s releasing digital images of Apollo missions, too) will help to rectify that.
According to Arizona State University Professor Mark Robinson, a team of scientists and technicians are using new digital tools to bringing these historic images (which were originally made with Swedish-designed Hasselblad cameras, known for producing images of great quality) back to life. Their work includes color enhancement and contrast adjustments to boost the general visual quality of the material which will perhaps encourage us, as we enter the sixth decade of space exploration, to think about past and future efforts to view our lives on Earth and as part of a larger universe in vivid images and a larger context. As you might imagine, the Smithsonian is also a great place to see outstanding artifacts from and images of the Project Mercury missions. To see a sampling of those, just click here.