On This Day

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The Mercury Seven astronauts pictured during training, March 1961. From left: Scott Carpenter, Gordon Cooper, John Glenn, Gus Grissom, Walter Schirra, Alan Shepard and Deke Slayton.

On This Day: NASA Introduces “Mercury Seven”

April 09, 2011 06:00 AM
by findingDulcinea Staff
On April 9, 1959, the United States named the first seven astronauts who would help launch the country’s space program.

“Mercury Seven” Emerge From Selection Process

NASA launched the Mercury project in October 1958 with the aim of putting the first human in orbit around Earth and studying the effects of space travel on the human body.

NASA employed a rigorous and exacting testing process to select the Mercury astronauts. The candidates, chosen from over 500 records of military test pilots, endured an array of physical and psychological tests. They were screened by a NASA selection committee consisting of an engineer, a test pilot engineer, flight surgeons, psychologists and psychiatrists, who believed astronauts would face conditions similar to those experienced by military test pilots.
In the end, seven men were chosen to be the first astronauts: Alan B. Shepard Jr., Walter Schirra Jr., John Glenn Jr., Virgil I. “Gus” Grissom, M. Scott Carpenter, L. Gordon Cooper Jr. and Donald “Deke” Slayton. The men, dubbed the “Mercury Seven,” were introduced to the country at a press conference on April 9, 1959.

The pressures faced by the seven would not be limited to space flight. They became instant national celebrities, seen as American space pioneers in the country’s post-Sputnik competition with the Soviet Union.

“Public excitement and concern over the space race immediately elevated the seven astronauts to the uneasy eminence of heroes, long before their first flight,” wrote journalist and author Tom Wolfe, author of “The Right Stuff,” which examined the psychological drama experienced by the original astronauts.

The Mercury Missions

The Mercury Project used spacecraft that were crude by today’s standards. In each mission, a single astronaut would take a brief trip through Earth’s atmosphere, sitting in a small capsule perched on top of a powerful rocket.

Six of the seven men would take part in Mercury mission; Slayton was excluded after being diagnosed with a heart condition, though he would later participate in an Apollo mission.

Shepard flew the first mission on May 5, 1961, making a suborbital flight that lasted just over 15 minutes. Grissom made a similar flight in July. On Feb. 20, 1962, Glenn became the first American to fly into orbit, circling the Earth three times during a flight that lasted nearly five hours. After flights by Carpenter and Schirra, Cooper flew the final Mercury mission on May 15-16, 1963, completing a 22-orbit flight in over 34 hours.

Each of the astronauts served for five years in Project Mercury, which paved the way for the Gemini and Apollo space programs that followed. Five of the Mercury Seven would take part in these programs.

Space as a Cold War Theater

Project Mercury had symbolic importance for the American government during the Cold War. “Space became a critical theater in this Cold War, as each side competed to best the other's achievements in what became known as the Space Race,” writes the National Air and Space Museum at the Smithsonian Institute.

The Soviet space program was more advanced than the American one, launching the Sputnik satellite in 1957 and sending the first man into orbit in April 1961, 10 months before Glenn did the same.

Upon taking office in 1961, President John F. Kennedy made space exploration a priority, demanding billions of dollars in additional funding for NASA with the aim of reaching the moon by the end of the decade. “He did not justify the needed expenditure on the basis of science and exploration, but placed the program clearly in the camp of the competing ideologies of democracy vs. communism,” explains the Kennedy Library.

NASA achieved its ambitious goal on July 20, 1969, when Apollo 11 astronauts Neil Armstrong and Buzz Aldrin touched down on the moon. The Apollo program would make five more manned moon landings over the next three years, placing 12 men on the moon; these remain the only moon landings ever achieved by any country.

Reference: NASA Publication

NASA’s 1989 publication “This New Ocean: A History of Project Mercury” outlines the events and decisions that led up to the Mercury Project’s inception. The research details not only the science and engineering of the program, but also the political and cultural factors at work during this 1950s initiative.

Related Topic: The Mercury 13

Candidates for the Mercury program were required to have military experience, which excluded women from participating. Physician William Randolph Lovelace II, who helped design the Mercury Seven tests, staged similar tests for 13 women, all of whom passed the first phase of testing. Experienced pilot Jerrie Cobb passed all three phases of testing, but NASA refused to allow her or any other women participate in the astronaut program.

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