Space History Photo: Launch of Mercury-Atlas

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This spacecraft booster was launched from Cape Canaveral in what was known as a Project Mercury test. (Image credit: NASA.)

In this historical photo from the U.S. space agency, this Project Mercury test on Feb. 21, 1961, a spacecraft booster by a modified Atlas, was launched from Cape Canaveral, Florida. The Mercury capsule reached a peak altitude of 107 statute miles and landed 1.425 miles down range.

Atlas was designed to launch payloads into low Earth orbit, geosynchronous transfer orbit or geosynchronous orbit. NASA first launched Atlas as a space launch vehicle in 1958. Project SCORE, the first communications satellite that transmitted President Eisenhower's pre-recorded Christmas speech around the world, was launched on an Atlas. For all three robotic lunar exploration programs, Atlas was used. Atlas/ Centaur vehicles launched both Mariner and Pioneer planetary probes.

The current operational Atlas II family has a 100% mission success rating. For more information about Atlas, please see Chapter 2 in Roger Launius and Dennis Jenkins' book To Reach the High Frontier published by The University Press of Kentucky in 2002 (in which Dennis Jenkins notes on page 98 that "as a space launch vehicle there is no question that Atlas has made a mark for itself, and a great deal of money for its manufacturers").

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The National Aeronautics and Space Administration (NASA) is the U.S. government agency in charge of the civilian space program as well as aeronautics and aerospace research. Founded in 1958, NASA is a civilian space agency aimed at exploring the universe with space telescopes,  satellites, robotic spacecraft, astronauts and more. The space agency has 10 major centers based across the U.S. and launches robotic and crewed missions from the Kennedy Space Center in Cape Canaveral Florida. It's astronaut corps is based at the Johnson Space Center in Houston. To follow NASA's latest mission, follow the space agency on Twitter or any other social channel, of visit: