Mercury's Tethered Balloon Experiment


A periodic check on eBay for Project Echo-related material turned up this photo from April 29, 1963: "NASA-MERCURY, HANGAR 5, CCMTA - Left to Right - William Carmines and William Armstrong of NASA describe the balloon experiment for the MA-9 mission."

MA-9 was Mercury-Atlas 9, the last of the first series of manned US space flights. L. Gordon Cooper was the first American to spend more than a day in space. "The balloon experiment" was designed to measure atmospheric drag at various altitudes by inflating a 30-inch balloon behind the orbiter, which would trail at the end of a 100-ft nylon cable. Cooper was also supposed to take photos of the tethered balloon to test visibility in space.


The balloon experiment was a carryover from MA-7, 1962, in which astronaut M. Scott Carpenter became the second American [after John Glenn] to orbit the earth. As the MA-7 flight plan describes it, the balloon experiment was a color test:

Objective: The objective of the visual portion of the experiment is to evaluate the relative merit of various colors for optimum visibility in space at short and long ranges.


The test device consists of a 30-inch diameter balloon constructed of 30 gores of 1/2 mil Mylar - 1/2 mil aluminum foil material. It will be divided into five equal size lunes composed of uncolored aluminum foil, yellow and orange Day-Glo, flat white paint, and phosphorescent paint (figure 1, below).



The balloon, [inflating] bottle, and shock absorber will be packaged between two balsa half cylinder shells in a metal cylinder which si three inches in diameter and seven and one-half inches long. It will be mounted in the Mercury spacecraft antenna fairing. [The assembly would be ejected out of a spring-loaded door by the firing of an electric squib.]


A small quantity of 0.250-inch diameter Mylar disks will be placed in the folds of the balloon. The Mylar is backed by aluminum foil on one side and is coated with Claray (diffuse-reflecting) compound on the other. These will disperse as the balloon inflates.

So, small explosion, burst of mylar confetti, and deployment of beach ball-like balloon on the end of a 100-ft cord. Then photos of the whole thing. Sounds awesome.

Unfortunately, the MA-7 balloon tore on inflation, and only the aluminum and orange Day-Glo lunes were visible. The orange was so much brighter, that the MA-9 balloon, above, was painted entirely in orange. Unfortunately again, the MA-9 balloon failed to deploy at all.

Those balloons would look nicer in color.

Since 2001 here at, I've been blogging about the creative process—my own and those of people who interest me. That mostly involves filmmaking, art, writing, research, and the making thereof.

Many thanks to the Creative Capital | Warhol Foundation Arts Writers Program for supporting that time.

comments? questions? tips? pitches? email
greg [at] greg [dot ] org

find me on twitter: @gregorg

post info

first published: December 12, 2009.

next older post:
Making Eames Shell Chairs, c. 1970

next newer post:
Slight Of Hand

recent projects, &c.

Our Guernica Cycle, 2017 –
about/kickstarter | exhibit, 2017

Social Medium:
artists writing, 2000-2015
Paper Monument, Oct. 2016
ed. by Jennifer Liese
buy, $28

Madoff Provenance Project in
'Tell Me What I Mean' at
To__Bridges__, The Bronx
11 Sept - Oct 23 2016
show | beginnings

Chop Shop
curated by Magda Sawon
1-7 March 2016

eBay Test Listings
Armory – ABMB 2015
about | proposte monocrome, rose

It Narratives, incl.
Shanzhai Gursky & Destroyed Richter
Franklin Street Works, Stamford
Sept 5 - Nov 9, 2014
about | link

TheRealHennessy Tweets Paintings, 2014 -

Standard Operating Procedure
about | buy now, 284pp, $15.99

CZRPYR2: The Illustrated Appendix
Canal Zone Richard Prince
YES RASTA 2:The Appeals Court
Decision, plus the Court's
Complete Illustrated Appendix (2013)
about | buy now, 142pp, $12.99

"Exhibition Space" @ apexart, NYC
Mar 20 - May 8, 2013
about, brochure | installation shots

HELP/LESS Curated by Chris Habib
Printed Matter, NYC
Summer 2012
panel &c.

Destroyed Richter Paintings, 2012-
background | making of
"Richteriana," Postmasters Gallery, NYC

Canal Zone Richard
Selected Court Documents
from Cariou v. Prince (2011)
about | buy now, 376pp, $17.99