Little Joe: Mercury's First Steps

DVD cover

OK, I should say this up front: I helped provide 'commentary' for the modeler's notes section of this DVD, so I could be considered a bit biased. That said...

Before the first American could be launched into space, NASA had to prove that the system designed to save the astronaut's life in case of a booster malfunction would work. The Launch Escape System (LES) was designed to pull the Mercury capsule away from an exploding booster by means of a solid fueled rocket attached to the nose of the capsule via a latticework tower. To test the concept, a low cost solid fueled rocket called the Little Joe was developed and flown from the NASA test site at Wallops Island, Virginia. James Duffy of has spent a lot of time researching the Little Joe vehicles and flights and has produced a DVD containing an original documentary with commentary, all of the film pertaining to booster construction and the flights, still photographs, and bonus footage of Mercury space suit testing.

The main feature of the DVD is an original documentary written and edited by James Duffy. It covers the program in an expedient 22 minutes, making great use of the available film and photos. My biggest complaint about it, however, is the synthesized disco soundtrack. At times it intrudes over the narration, but then my hearing isn't what it used to be. But if you like seeing rockets fly to a disco beat, you'll probably enjoy it. You can watch the same footage while listening to an alternate soundtrack consisting of James Duffy, David Carlton, and me talking about the Little Joe program from a modeler's perspective. We don't really comment on what's playing on the screen, though... mostly it just sounds like a few guys sitting around talking. I hope it's interesting to others. I know I enjoyed hanging out with James and David for an afternoon talking about rockets and models.

The other sections of the DVD include "Little Joe in Detail," which consists of the raw footage of the booster construction, prototype flights, and production flights. Folks, this is rocket porn at its best! You can count the number of rivets on the boosters if you are so inclined. James has done an invaluable service by making this footage available. I recognized a lot of shots that have been posing as manned Mercury flights in countless other programs. This is the section that modelers will find the most useful as there are multiple view shots of each launch, along with much more detailed footage of vehicle preparations. So if you're looking to model a particular Little Joe flight, you can get all the details right using this part of the DVD.

Under "Special Features" are a Little Joe slideshow and silent footage of Mercury pressure suit testing. The slideshow is the weakest part of this DVD, in my opinion. Stills are displayed every five seconds for about five and a half minutes. None of them are captioned and the last few are of the Shen Zhou Chinese escape tower tests. The pressure suit testing footage is amusing if nothing else. It's just begging for a "What's Up Tiger Lily>" treatment. Sounds like a good programming idea for an IPMS or NAR convention to me...

I can highly recommend this DVD for anyone interested in the early days of the Mercury program, and especially for modelers interested in building scale models of the Little Joe vehicles.

Thanx to James Duffy of for the review copy.

Little Joe: Mercury's First Steps
Published by
$19.95 US's web page is at:

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Sven Knudson