How We Found the Mercury Astronauts

Manned space exploration is dangerous business. Sure, we’ve been sending people into orbit for over 50 years, and now we’re planning even bolder adventures like manned trips to asteroids and to Mars. But make no mistake. There is nothing routine about putting people on the top of a rocket filled with tens of thousands of pounds of fuel and blasting them into a weightless vacuum where the slightest mechanical flaw or unforeseen natural occurrence can spell disaster.

That won’t stop us from continuing to explore the stars, nor should it. Danger’s never been something that people have shied away from. And modern technology and experience have made things a little bit safer than a few decades ago when we shot people into orbit and counted on Isaac Newton to do all the work. Nowadays, we have precedents to follow and history to guide us.

The Mercury Seven on the cover of Life Magazine, Sept. 1959. Image: Time Inc.

The Mercury Seven on the cover of Life Magazine, Sept. 1959.
Image: Time Inc.

But imagine what it was like before there were precedents, before there was a pattern to follow, before there was even a first. That’s what a fledgling NASA had to deal with when it first put out the call in January 1959 for men willing to sign up for Project Mercury.

Naturally, test pilots and Navy fliers flocked to the opportunity, many barely aware of what was being asked of them. The 508 names that were submitted were quickly whittled down to 110 who met the basic standards set by the agency in advance.

Only jet pilots with college degrees need apply. The candidates had to have mechanical and engineering knowledge along with superior reflexes, agility, and cognitive skills. They had to be sharp and fearless. And being a bit crazy probably didn’t hurt, either. After all, these guys were volunteering to be shot up into space in a pressurized tin can not much bigger than a Mini Cooper.

They also had to fit very specific physical requirements for the sake of the design of the Mercury capsule. The astronauts couldn’t be taller than 5 feet 11 inches tall, and they couldn’t weigh more than 180 pounds.

By February 1959, the group had been further trimmed to 56 pilots who took a series of written tests and physical and psychiatric exams. And by the following month, just 32 men were left. They were shipped off to New Mexico where they were put through a grueling series of medical examinations and physical trials. These tests, some as obscure as seeing how many balloons you could blow up in an hour, were meant to ensure that the astronaut candidates could withstand the physical and mental challenges of takeoff, space flight, and reentry.

The examinations included x-rays, encephalograms, cardiograms, various blood and fluid analyses, ophthalmological and otolaryngological tests, physical endurance trials, psychiatric studies, pressure suit tests, acceleration tests, heat tests, vibration tests, loud noise and bright light tests. Whatever could be done in the name of science, and maybe even sadism, was done.

The Mercury Seven were so popular that toys were modeled after them. Image:

The Mercury Seven were so popular that toys were modeled after them.

On April 9, 1959, the last seven men who made it through the gauntlet were announced to the public and to the world as the Mercury astronauts. They were: Scott Carpenter, Gordon Cooper, John Glenn, Gus Grissom, Wally Schirra, Alan Shepard, and Deke Slayton. They became instant celebrities and public spokesmen for America’s space program. They also played an important role in the technical discussions regarding the development of the capsule that was designed to carry them into orbit.

Shepard became the first American to go into space, but Glenn was more widely celebrated for being the first American to orbit the Earth. Slayton was the only one of the group who never actually went up. He was grounded after being diagnosed with an irregular heartbeat, but went on to serve as top coordinator of astronaut activities.

The love of adventure, the ignorance of fear, and the desire to reach the stars were embodied in the Mercury Seven. They were the first of many Americans who embraced that spirit and continue to follow their lead into orbit and, hopefully soon, beyond the reach of the Earth.

To learn more about the space program, check out my book, Space Exploration, available on Amazon.