In the 1960s, the United States had two goals when it came to space: 1) Putting a human in orbit; 2) Beating the Soviet Union to the punch.
Project Mercury was the first US human spaceflight program. In effect from 1959 to 1963, it didn’t reach the second goal (the Soviets had put Yuri Gagarin into space just one month prior to the US).
The program consisted of 20 unmanned launches, in addition to two suborbital and four orbital flights using astronaut pilots. Among them: Alan Shepard (who became the first American in space), John Glenn (the first American to reach orbit) and Malcolm Scott Carpenter, who piloted three Earth orbits.
On May 24, 1962, after orbiting the Earth, a targeting mishap during reentry caused the Aurora 7 spacecraft to venture 250 miles off course, delaying recovery of the aircraft and Carpenter.
Today, fifty years later, you can watch a stunning NASA documentary on Aurora 7, its pilot, and controlling everything in space from a control room on Earth. The video runs about half an hour, and includes lots of raw and amazing footage.