April 9 – Up and away

Today’s Factismal: The USA’s first seven astronauts were announced in 1959.

Fifty-five years ago today, the US took a small step forward by announcing that the first seven astronauts had been selected from a field of thousands. Because they would fly in a Mercury capsule, they were called the Mercury Seven. (It seemed logical at the time, but caused all kinds of problems when the seventh Mercury capsule was launched in 1962.) In order of their flights, the seven astronauts were John Glenn, Alan Shepard, Gus Grissom, Scott Carpenter, Wally Schirra, Gordon Cooper, and Deke Slayton.

The seven new astronauts were also test pilots. Left to right: Scott Carpenter, Gordon Cooper, John Glenn, Gus Grissom, Walter Schirra, Alan Shepard, and Deke Slayton(Image courtesy NASA)

The seven new astronauts were also test pilots. Left to right: Scott Carpenter, Gordon Cooper, John Glenn, Gus Grissom, Walter Schirra, Alan Shepard, and Deke Slayton
(Image courtesy NASA)

Interestingly, at the same time that NASA ran its tests to decide which man would make the best astronauts, several women took the same tests; in many cases, they took them in the same facilities as the NASA astronaut candidates. What was surprising about the women’s test results is that, on average, they did better than the men did. However, this was 1959 and women’s liberation was a decade away. As a result, despite strong support from the researchers and some in Congress, the women were excluded from consideration; it would be 24 years before America would have a woman astronaut.

The official Mercury flight patch. The individual flights didn't have patches.(Image courtesy NASA)

The official Mercury flight patch. The individual flights didn’t have patches.
(Image courtesy NASA)

The most interesting thing about the Mercury Seven was that they weren’t all that different from the average person. Six were engineers, and one had no college degree. What the seven were selected for was temperament more than anything else. As little was known about flying in space, a phlegmatic temperament was an astronaut’s best asset in the early days. Though they were all test pilots, that was because spacecraft were (and still are) classified as “experimental vehicles”. Only two of the Mercury Seven ever actually “flew” their craft (Carpenter and Slayton); the other astronauts were, in Chuck Yeager’s infamous words “spam in a can”.

The Mercury program was a rousing success. It soon proved not only that people could be sent into space and survive, but also that astronauts could and should fly their capsules – something that the Russian program never permitted. Though it lasted only four years, it had twenty successful unmanned flights and six successful manned flights. Those milestones led directly to the Gemini and Apollo programs and to our landing on the Moon a decade later.

Today, there are several groups trying to bring spaceflight to ordinary people like you and me. If you’d like to follow in the contrails of the Mercury Seven, then why not join the Citizens in Space group?
http://www.citizensinspace.org/

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