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Project Mercury

America’s first astronauts


Many years ago the great British explorer George Mallory, who was to die on Mount Everest, was asked why did he want to climb it. He said, “Because it is there.” Well, space is there, and we’re going to climb it, and the moon and the planets are there, and new hopes for knowledge and peace are there. And, therefore, as we set sail we ask God’s blessing on the most hazardous and dangerous and greatest adventure on which man has ever embarked.

– John F. Kennedy, Rice University, Sept. 12, 1962.


America’s First Astronauts

Many Americans forget, given the eloquence of John F. Kennedy in describing their nation’s aims in space, that he wasn’t the president under whom NASA’s Project Mercury was devised on Oct. 7, 1958 – a year after the Soviet Union’s launch of Sputnik 1. President Dwight D. Eisenhower, who never really saw the point of a lunar landing, had a more sober aim for space exploration, and a simpler answer to the question of why the United States wanted to send men into space: Because the Russians were there.

Of course Kennedy, his successor, understood the delicate power balance between the world’s two superpowers, and the strategic importance of gaining a technological edge on the Soviets – he simply preferred to frame the space effort as a noble quest that would bring out the very best in humankind. As the competition known as the “space race” played out as a kind of geopolitical soap opera, the public statements of U.S. and Soviet leaders revealed fascinating differences in how each nation conceived and pursued its aims in space – and a reminder that our headlong rush into space was driven by equal parts pragmatism and grandeur.

mercury seven

The Project Mercury astronauts, whose selection was announced April 9, 1959, only six months after the National Aeronautics and Space Administration was formally established on Oct. 1, 1958. Front row, left to right, Walter M. Schirra Jr., Donald K. Slayton, John H. Glenn Jr., and M. Scott Carpenter; back row, Alan B. Shepard Jr., Virgil I. ‘Gus’ Grissom and L. Gordon Cooper. NASA photo

In the United States, the first effort at manned space flight – Project Mercury – was a carefully designed set of unmanned and manned flights that achieved a logical sequence of practical goals. But it was also an emblem of the idealism of America’s president, and of its citizens.


Choosing the Mercury Seven

The objectives of Project Mercury were simple, and there were only three: to place a manned spacecraft in orbital flight around the earth; to investigate the ability of a human to perform capabilities and function in the environment of space; and to recover the man and the spacecraft safely.

While advances in rocketry had made the idea of flight far into the vacuum of space into a realistic expectation by the mid-1950s, there was still very little known about whether a living organism could survive in space. Many scientists were hesitant to predict how a person would behave under the conditions encountered in space flight, while others offered dire predictions: In zero gravity, humans would not be able to swallow; their cardiovascular systems would fail; their bodies would be either crushed or torn apart by the force of the launch. By 1958, hundreds of studies had been done in the new field of space medicine, and the Space Task Group at Langley Research Center in Hampton, Va., was steeped in research in the potential medical issues of space flight – a field of inquiry spearheaded by the U.S. military – and was confident that a human could safely enter the realm of space.

nasa mercury 7 crew

The original Mercury Seven astronauts with a U.S. Air Force F-106B jet aircraft. From left to right: M. Scott Carpenter, Leroy Gordon Cooper, John H. Glenn, Jr., Virgil I. Gus Grissom, Jr., Walter M. Wally Schirra, Jr., Alan B. Shepard, Jr., and Donald K. Deke Slayton. NASA photo

The military, Eisenhower insisted, would supply the pilots who would help to navigate these spacecraft – men who would be called “astronauts,” a word coined from the Greek words for “star sailors.” Chosen from a pool of more than a hundred applicants, subjected to a rigorous, often baffling, and now legendary battery of physiological and psychological examinations, the seven astronauts who would form Astronaut Group 1, or the “Mercury Seven,” were college-educated engineers in excellent health, talented specialists who had made careers of flying the most powerful and advanced military aircraft. They were also relatively small in stature; the Mercury capsule, designed by NASA’s chief engineer, Maxime Faget, and built by McDonnell, was too compact to accommodate anyone taller than 5 feet 11 inches.

On April 9, 1959, when these men – M. Scott Carpenter, L. Gordon Cooper, John H. Glenn, Virgil I. “Gus” Grissom, Walter M. Schirra, Alan B. Shepard, and Donald K. “Deke” Slayton – were introduced before live television cameras, it was another moment that would capture the striking differences between the American and Soviet space programs. As famous as the Mercury Seven are today – and they are as familiar to American history as nearly any politician, soldier, or entertainer – they were bigger than Elvis in 1959. The over-the-top celebrity worship of America’s first astronauts was fueled by enormous public curiosity, along with overwhelming political pressure to win the space race.

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Craig Collins is a veteran freelance writer and a regular Faircount Media Group contributor who...