On Sept. 13, 1961, the Mercury Atlas 4 (MA-4) spacecraft launched into orbit. The automated (non-crewed) flight orbited the Earth just once, but it became America’s first capsule to orbit the planet, and it paved the way for American astronauts to venture into space.
The mission demonstrated the capabilities of the Atlas LV-3B rocket to provide enough life to put the Mercury capsule into orbit and of the systems in the capsule to operate autonomously. The flight also succeeded in obtaining images of the Earth from space. It was the first successful orbital flight test of the Mercury program (all previous successes were of suborbital flights).
Splashdown of the MA-4 capsule occurred just 1 hour and 49 minutes after launch. The spacecraft was then recovered by the destroyer USS Decatur (DD-936) roughly 200 miles east of Bermuda. That day, the sailors on the Decatur helped handle a great piece of space exploration history, and thus, became a part of that story themselves.
Thomas Moore was not one of the sailors there that day on the DD-936, but he did serve on another Decatur vessel, the DDG-31 (as ships are retired, their name will sometimes be recycled to newer vessels), and inherently, felt a close connection to the crew that recovered the MA-4 capsule.
Each year, a member of the Decatur Association, a group that has served sailors from four different Decatur ships (DD-341, DD-936, DDG-31, and DDG-73) since the early 60s, can volunteer to host a reunion at the city of their choice. This year, Moore volunteered to host the gathering in Houston to commemorate the crew of the DD-936 and their role in America’s first space program. A fitting choice since the reunion falls in 2018, a year which celebrates the 60th birthday of NASA and of the Mercury program.
57 years later, on the exact date of the MA-4 mission, Decatur Association members met at Space Center Houston to pay tribute to the crew of the DD-936 for their unique role in a historic moment of space travel history, when they recovered the MA-4 capsule.
The ship’s bell, which is housed at NASA Johnson Space Center, will be on public display at Space Center Houston Sept. 15 and 16 to give a glimpse into a great American achievement and to honor those that were there when history was made.
Space Center Houston is a valued global convening and learning meeting place for all things associated with space exploration, science, and engineering. We are honored to host such a special event and to foster this unique connection between Decatur members, in remembering the sailors that retrieved this historic spacecraft as they became a part of space exploration history.
If you’d like to know more about this mission and the Decatur’s role (shown briefly at the end), watch this clip, compiled by NASA on the MA-4 flight or read the Mercury mission archives from NASA. If you’re visiting soon and are interested in the Mercury missions, be sure to visit our Starship Gallery to see the flown Mercury 9 “Faith 7” spacecraft which was piloted by Gordon Cooper in 1963.