Pioneering Mercury Astronauts Launched Future Of America
May 5, 2014

America’s Future Launched By Pioneering Mercury Astronauts

By Bob Granath, NASA

From ancient astronomers to fantasy authors to modern-day scientists, visionaries dreamed for centuries about travel beyond Earth into outer space. On a spring day in 1959, America's fledgling space agency introduced seven military test pilots who would turn the stuff of science fiction into the "right stuff," launching the nation into the future.

Over the coming years these new astronauts would make frequent trips to Florida's Space Coast and Cape Canaveral Air Force Station training for flights into the "new frontier." All would go on to become early heroes in space exploration and in the Cold War competition with the Soviet Union.

In a Washington D.C. news conference on April 9, 1959, 55 years ago, Dr. Keith Glennan, NASA's first administrator, announced the names of the long-awaited first group of astronauts. Now known as the "Original Seven," they included three Naval aviators, M. Scott Carpenter, Walter M. Schirra Jr., and Alan B. Shepard Jr.; three Air Force pilots, L. Gordon Cooper Jr., Virgil I. (Gus) Grissom, and Donald K. (Deke) Slayton; along with Marine Corps aviator John H. Glenn Jr.

"Today we are introducing to you and to the world these seven men who have been selected to begin training for orbital spaceflight," Glennan said. "These men, the nation's Project Mercury astronauts, are here after a long, and perhaps unprecedented, series of evaluations which told our medical consultants and scientists of their superb adaptability to their coming flight."

On Oct. 7, 1958, the space agency announced plans to launch humans into space. Project Mercury became NASA's first major undertaking. The objectives of the program were simple by today's standards, but required a major undertaking to place a human-rated spacecraft into orbit around Earth, observe the astronaut's performance in such conditions and safely recover the astronaut and the spacecraft.

President Dwight D. Eisenhower's decision that the military services could provide the pilots simplified the astronaut selection process. From a total of 508 service records screened in January 1959, 110 men were found to meet the minimum standards. This list of names included five Marines, 47 Naval aviators and 58 Air Force pilots.

NASA officials were pleased so many agreed to participate in the man-in-space project. At the introductory news conference, Shepard said that he was eager to participate as soon as he learned NASA was seeking pilots for spaceflight.

"I think that I was enthusiastic about the program from the start and I enthusiastically volunteered," he said.

Carpenter pointed out that his eagerness extended to his wife.

"When I was notified that I was being considered during the second and third days of the competitive program, I was on duty at sea," he said, "so my wife called (NASA Headquarters in) Washington and volunteered for me."

When the group was asked why they wanted to travel into space, Slayton explained his belief that aviation had extended around the globe and it was now time to start looking up.

"I feel that this is the future of not only this country but for the world," he said. "It is an extension of flight and we have to go somewhere and that is all that is left. This is an excellent opportunity to be in on something new."

The initial battery of written tests, technical surveys and medical history reviews were administered to 56 pilots during February 1959. Those who declined or were eliminated reduced the total at the beginning of March to 36. They were then invited to undergo extraordinary physical examinations at the Lovelace Clinic in Albuquerque, N.M., and extreme mental and physical environmental tests at the Wright Air Development Center in Dayton, Ohio.

When asked to name the toughest test during the extensive evaluations, Glenn pointed to the physical examinations.

"We had some pretty good tests," he said. "It is difficult to pick one because if you figure how many openings there are on a human body and how far you can go into any one of them, you answer which one would be the toughest for you."

During the introductory news conference, Schirra noted that his father was a pioneer in the early days of flight. The elder Schirra went to Canada during World War I and earned his pilot rating, later becoming a barnstormer.

"My father was one of the very early aviators," he said, "so I feel going into space is an expansion in another dimension, much as aviation was an expansion from the surface of the Earth."

Grissom saw volunteering to be an astronaut as another way to help America as an Air Force officer.

"My career has been serving the nation, serving the country and here is another opportunity where they need my talents," he said. "I am just grateful for an opportunity to serve in this capacity."

Cooper was quick to express faith in the thousands of people who would be designing, building and preparing the launch vehicles and spacecraft for flight.

"I have faith in the people that I am working with in this program," he said, "and I know it will be a success."

Glenn compared Project Mercury to the Wright Brothers' first powered aircraft flight in North Carolina in 1903.

"My feelings are that this whole project with regard to space is like the Wright Brothers standing at Kitty Hawk about fifty years ago, with Orville and Wilbur pitching a coin to see who was going to shove the other one off the hill," he said. "I think we stand on the verge of something as big and as expansive as that."