Above NASA Photo left to right:
V. Grissom, A. Shepard, S. Carpenter, W. Schirra, D. Slayton, J. Glenn, L. Cooper
NASA had originally considered opening the selection of the astronaut corps to the general public, but it was decided, thanks from a directive by President Eisenhower, that due to the inherent riskiness of spaceflight, and the potentially national security implications of the program, the search for candidates should be limited to military personnel. Not only did this reduce the candidate pool, but it also shortened the selection process during a time when speed was of the essence in getting an American into space.
Military test pilots had already mastered a skills et that NASA wanted its astronauts to possess. They were accustomed to flying high-performance aircraft, detecting problems, diagnosing the cause and communicating that analysis to the engineers and mechanics. Plus, they were accustom to military discipline, rank, and order. They would be able to take orders.
In November 1958, aeromedical consultants working for the Space Task Group at Langley had worked out preliminary procedures for the selection of astronauts to pilot the Mercury spacecraft. Through a series of advertisements seeking candidates for astronauts among American military test pilots they received a total of 508 applications. The selection process involved reviewing records, biomedical tests, psychological profiles, and a host of interviews. From these they found 110 men that met the minimum standards established for the Mercury Project.
The initial requirements included:
- Age—less than 40
- Height—less than 5'11"
- Excellent physical condition
- Bachelor's degree or equivalent
- Graduate of test pilot school
- 1,500 hours total flying time
- Qualified jet pilot
Having met the initial requirements for inclusion in the program, each candidate then went through an increasingly difficult series of testing procedures designed to winnow candidates with the goal of selecting 12 candidates. With the high degree of success in the testing program it was decided to only select 7 candidates for the initial program.
Even before all of the testing had been completed and results studied, it was decided that the final criteria for selecting candidates be limited to the technical qualifications of the men that matched up with the technical requirements of the program.
After NASA decided on the final seven, these men became American heroes almost overnight, partially due to a deal made with Life magazine for exclusive rights to their stories. When presented to the press for the first time in Washington DC, they were overwhelmed at the standing ovation given to them by the press. During the applause, Deke Slayton whispered to Alan Shepard:
"They're applauding us like we've already done something, like we were heroes or something."
Instead of mathematics, physics and the great unknown, these seven astronauts became an understandable and important link between the mysterious world of science and Joe Public. They became known as the Mercury 7.
Gus was born in 1926 and joined the Air Force in 1950. He served during the Korean War. In 1959 he became part of Project Mercury. He became the 2nd American to venture into space on board Liberty Bell 7 in 1961.
Grissom took such an active role in designing the new 2-man Gemini capsule, that his fellow crew members began calling it the "Gusmobile." Gus Grissom flew the first Gemini Mission in 1965.
In 1967 during a pre-launch testing of Apollo 1, a fire broke out in the capsule and Grissom and his crew were killed.
As a result of this tragedy, NASA was forced to step back and re-examine its procedures. The Apollo project was set back, but became a relatively safer craft.
Before being selected by NASA to be America's first man in space, Alan Shepard had over 8,000 hours flying time for the NAVY. Shepard served in the Pacific during World War II. In 1950 he entered the Navy Test Pilot School where he tested for high-altitude aircraft.
When asked what was going through his mind as he waited for the final countdown of his historic flight, he said: "The fact that every part of the ship was built by the low bidder."
Shepard was scheduled to pilot the first Gemini mission but was scrubbed because of an inner-ear disorder. He would later command Apollo XIV
and make it to the lunar surface. Alan Shepard died in 1998 of leukemia.
Carpenter underwent intensive training in communication and navigation. He served as Glenn's backup pilot during the preparation for Americas first manned orbital space flight. Carpenter then flew the second orbital mission. Although it was almost a picture perfect mission, a malfunctioning horizon scanner caused the onboard rockets to misfire. Over the course of the mission, the misfiring rockets had to be manually corrected by Carpenter, thus proving the value of manned flight controls. At the time of re-entry, the scanner again caused rockets to misfire and he once again had to take control of the firings causing an overshoot of the landing spot by about 250 miles. Carpenter never flew another mission after a motorcycle accident injured his arm.
Schirra was the 5th American in space and he became the first person to go into space 3 times when he would fly on Apollo 7. On his first trip into space, Schirra piloted the Sigma 7 which successfully orbited the Earth 6 times during its 1962 flight.
During his Apollo flight, Schirra came down with a cold, making for an uncomfortable mission. During the flight, the flight surgeon suggested he take some Actifed cold tablets to relieve his symptoms. After this flight, Schirra retired and among other things became a spokesman for the cold tablet company. Schirra died unexpectedly in 2007 of a heart attack.
Donald Kent "Deke" Slayton ? Delta 7
Slayton was the only member of the Mercury Seven who did not fly on the Mercury program. He was scheduled for the second orbital flight (to have been named "Delta 7", the name coming from the mission being the fourth spaceflight, but because of an erratic heart rate, he was grounded. After his grounding, Slayton retired from the Air Force and joined NASA as a civilian. It became Slayton's role to chose the crews for all of the Gemini and Apollo missions. It was Slayton who decided who would become the first man to step foot on the moon.
In 1972 Slayton's was cleared for space flight and took part in the Apollo-Soyuz docking.
Donald "Deke" Slayton died of a malignant brain tumor in 1992.
Ohio borne John Glenn became the first American to actually orbit the planet. Alan Shepard and Gus Grissom both broke the glass ceiling of outer space, but it was Glenn's famous Friendship 7 flight, February 20, 1962 proving extended space flight was possible. Today we may look back on Glenn's flight with jaded eyes, after all we have people that have been orbiting the Earth everyday for decades. But in the early 1960s, space flight was nothing more than science fiction. Glenn's flight wasn't without drama. Technical difficulties with the onboard autopilot failed on 2 of 3 orbits putting the mission and Glenn's life in grave jeopardy. As soon as Glenn splashed down, he became a national hero and the president forbade him from flying again.
Gordon Cooper was the last of the Mercury 7 astronauts to make it into space during the Mercury program. During the flight which was designed to be mostly a programmed mission, technical problems arose that required Cooper's decisive action to correct and manually guide the space craft back to Earth. His successful efforts at saving his life and the mission, forced NASA engineers to reconsider the role of the onboard astronaut and his role in future missions.
Two years after his Mercury flight, Cooper and Pete Conrad established a new endurance space record, proving that astronauts could survive in space at least long enough to make it to the moon and come back without serious consequences.
Cooper died in 2004 from consequences of Parkinson's disease.