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Tue Apr 9, 2019, 05:06 AM

60 Years Ago Today; NASA names the Mercury Seven


The Mercury Seven were the group of seven astronauts for Project Mercury announced by NASA on April 9, 1959. They are also referred to as the Original Seven and Astronaut Group 1. They piloted all the manned spaceflights of the Mercury program from May 1961 to May 1963. These seven original American astronauts were Scott Carpenter, Gordon Cooper, John Glenn, Gus Grissom, Wally Schirra, Alan Shepard, and Deke Slayton.

Members of the group flew on all of the NASA crewed orbital programs of the 20th century – Mercury, Gemini, Apollo, and the Space Shuttle. Gus Grissom died in 1967, in the Apollo 1 fire; the others all survived past retirement from service. Alan Shepard became the first American in space in 1961, and walked on the Moon on Apollo 14 in 1971. John Glenn became the first American in orbit in 1962, and went on to become a U.S. senator. He flew on the Shuttle in 1998 to become the oldest person to fly in space. He was the last living member of the Mercury Seven when he died in 2016 at the age of 95.


On November 5, the Space Task Group (STG) was established at the NASA Langley Research Center in Hampton, Virginia, with Robert R. Gilruth as its director. On November 26, 1958, NASA Administrator T. Keith Glennan and his deputy, Hugh Dryden, adopted a suggestion by Abe Silverstein, the director of Space Flight Development at STG, that the manned spaceflight project be called Project Mercury. The name was publicly announced by Glennan on December 17, 1958, the 55th anniversary Wright brothers' first flight. The objective of Project Mercury was to launch a man into Earth orbit, return him safely to the Earth, and evaluate his capabilities in space.

Selection criteria
The STG next had to decide on a name for the people who would fly into space. A brainstorming session was held on December 1, 1958. By analogy with "aeronaut", someone came up with the term "astronaut", which meant "star traveller", although Project Mercury's ambitions were far more limited. They thought that they had coined a new word, but the term had been used in science fiction since the 1920s. A three-man panel consisting of Charles J. Donlan, Warren J. North and Allen O. Gamble drew up a civil service job specification for astronauts. The panel proposed that astronauts be in civil service grades 12 to 15, depending on qualifications and experience, with annual salary of $8,330 to $12,770 (equivalent to $71,594 to $109,755 in 2018). The panel described the duties of an astronaut:

Although the entire satellite operation will be possible, in the early phases, without the presence of man, the astronaut will play an important role during the flight. He will contribute by monitoring the cabin environment and by making necessary adjustments. He will have continuous displays of his position and attitude and other instrument readings, and will have the capability of operating the reaction controls, and of initiating the descent from orbit. He will contribute to the operation of the communications system. In addition, the astronaut will make research observations that cannot be made by instruments; these include physiological, astronomical and meteorological observations.

Although the panel considered that many people might possess the required skills—aircraft pilots, submariners, deep sea divers and mountain climbers were all considered likely prospects—it decided that they could be best met by military test pilots. Use of military test pilots would not only simplify the selection process, it would also satisfy security requirements, as the role would almost certainly involve the handling of classified information. The decision to restrict selection to military test pilots was taken by Glennan, Dryden and Gilruth in the last week of December 1958, but the irony of using military test pilots in a civilian program was not overlooked, and in view of the President's express preference for a civil space program, Glennan thought it best to run the decision past Eisenhower. A meeting was arranged with the President, who was convinced by their arguments, and approval was given.

The panel also drew up selection criteria. Astronauts had to be:

Less than 40 years old;
Less than 5 feet 11 inches (1.80 m) tall;
In excellent physical condition;
With a bachelor's degree or equivalent;
A graduate of test pilot school;
With a minimum of 1,500 hours total flying time; and
A qualified jet pilot.

The height limit was a function of the design of the Mercury spacecraft, which could not accommodate someone taller. It was still uncertain as to whether piloting in the conventional sense would ever be possible in a spacecraft, but from the beginning the spacecraft design provided for some degree of manual control.

Selection process

The Mercury Seven in front of an F-106 Delta Dart

The first step in the selection process was to obtain the service records of graduates of test pilot schools from the United States Department of Defense. All services agreed to cooperate fully, and handed over their records. There were 508 military test pilots in total, of whom 225 were Air Force, 225 Navy, 23 Marine Corps and 35 Army. Donlan, North, Gamble and Robert B. Voas then went through the records in January 1959, and identified 110 pilots—five Marines, 47 from the Navy, and 58 from the Air Force—who met the rest of the minimum standards. The 110 were then split into three groups, with the most promising in the first group.

Sixty-nine candidates were brought to the Pentagon in Washington, DC, in two groups. The first group of 35 assembled at the Pentagon on February 2, 1959. The Navy and Marine Corps officers were welcomed by the Chief of Naval Operations, Admiral Arleigh Burke, while the United States Air Force officers were addressed by the Chief of Staff of the United States Air Force, General Thomas D. White. Both pledged their support to the Space Program, and promised that the careers of volunteers would not be adversely affected. NASA officials then briefed them on Project Mercury. They conceded that it would be a hazardous undertaking, but emphasized that it was of great national importance.

The candidates were given three briefings by NASA officials. The first was about NASA and Project Mercury; the second concerned the role of the pilot in the project; and the third was about the proposed astronaut training syllabus. In the afternoon candidates had short individual meetings with the NASA selection committee. It was emphasised that participation was entirely voluntary, that candidates were free to decline, and that there would be no career repercussions if they did so. Several declined at this point.

The rest reported to NASA Headquarters in Washington, DC, the following day for further screening. Voas gave them a series of standardized tests: the Miller Analogies Test to measure IQ; the Minnesota Engineering Analogies Test to measure engineering aptitude; and the Doppelt Mathematical Reasoning Test to measure mathematical aptitude. Donlan, North and Gamble conducted interviews in which they asked technical questions, and queried candidates about their motivations for applying to the program. Candidates were evaluated by two USAF psychiatrists, George E. Ruff and Edwin Z. Levy. A USAF flight surgeon, William S. Augerson, went over the candidates' medical records. Some were found to be over the height limit, and were eliminated at this juncture.
The process was repeated with a second group of 34 candidates a week later. Of the 69, six were found to be over the height limit, 15 were eliminated for other reasons, and 16 declined. This left NASA with 32 candidates: 15 Navy, 15 Air Force and two marines. Since this was more than expected, NASA decided not to bother with the remaining 41 candidates, as 32 candidates seemed a more than adequate number from which to select 12 astronauts as planned. The degree of interest also indicated that far fewer would drop out during training than anticipated, which would result in training astronauts who would not be required to fly Project Mercury missions. It was therefore decided to cut the number of astronauts selected to just six.

Then came a grueling series of physical and psychological tests at the Lovelace Clinic and the Wright Aerospace Medical Laboratory from January to March, under the direction of Albert H. Schwichtenberg, a retired USAF brigadier general. The tests included spending hours on treadmills and tilt tables, submerging their feet in ice water, three doses of castor oil, and five enemas. Only one candidate, Jim Lovell, was eliminated on medical grounds at this stage, a diagnosis that was later found to be in error; thirteen others were recommended with reservations. The director of the NASA Space Task Group, Robert R. Gilruth, found himself unable to select only six from the remaining eighteen, and ultimately seven were chosen.

The 25 finalists who were passed over were still a distinguished group. Three eventually became astronauts: Pete Conrad and Jim Lovell, who were selected with the next intake in 1962; and Edward Givens, who was selected with the fifth intake in 1965. Others achieved high rank: Lawrence Heyworth Jr. became a rear admiral, Robert B. Baldwin and William P. Lawrence became vice admirals, and Thomas B. Hayward became an admiral. He commanded the Seventh Fleet and the Pacific Fleet, and was Chief of Naval Operations.

The seven original American astronauts were Scott Carpenter, Gordon Cooper, John Glenn, Gus Grissom, Wally Schirra, Alan Shepard, and Deke Slayton. Grissom, Cooper, and Slayton were Air Force pilots; Shepard, Carpenter, and Schirra were Navy pilots, and Glenn was a Marine Corps pilot.

(L to R) Cooper, Schirra (partially obscured), Shepard, Grissom, Glenn, Slayton, and Carpenter

All were male and white, which was unsurprising as women were not yet accepted into the military test pilot schools, and the first African-American to graduate from the USAF Experimental Test Pilot School, John L. Whitehead Jr., did so only in January 1958, and was not one of the finalists. Yet the Mercury Seven were similar beyond what was a simple result of the section criteria. Four were their fathers' namesakes. All were the eldest or only sons in their families. All were born in the United States, and were raised in small towns. All were married with children, and all were Protestants.

All had brown hair except Glenn, who was a redhead. Shepard was the tallest, at the maximum height of 5 feet 11 inches (1.80 m); Grissom, the shortest at 5 feet 7 inches (1.70 m). Their ages at the time of selection ranged from 32 (Cooper) to 37 (Glenn). Cooper was also the lightest, at 150 pounds (68 kg), while Glenn was at the maximum weight of 180 pounds (82 kg), and Schirra was slightly overweight at 185 pounds (84 kg), and had to slim down to be accepted. Both had to watch their weight carefully while in the space program. Cooper, Shepard and Slayton had blue eyes; Grissom and Schirra's were brown; and Glenn and Carpenter's were green. IQs ranged from 135 to 147.

All seven had attended postsecondary institutions in the 1940s. Of the five astronauts who had completed undergraduate degrees before being selected, two (Shepard and Schirra) were graduates of the United States Naval Academy at Annapolis, Maryland. Following a decade of intermittent studies, Cooper completed his degree at the Air Force Institute of Technology (AFIT) in 1956. Grissom earned a bachelor's degree in mechanical engineering from Purdue University in 1950, and second bachelor's degree, in aeromechanics, from the AFIT in 1956. Slayton graduated from the University of Minnesota with a bachelor's degree in aeronautical engineering in 1949.

Glenn and Carpenter did not meet all of their schools' degree requirements, including the completion of Glenn's senior year in residence and final proficiency exam, and Carpenter's final course in heat transfer. Although both were admitted on the basis of professional equivalency, Glenn had also completed additional coursework as a part-time student at the University of Maryland, College Park from 1956 to 1959. Both were ultimately awarded their bachelor's degrees after their 1962 space flights.

Despite the extensive physical examinations, Slayton had an undiagnosed atrial fibrillation, which resulted in his grounding on the eve of what would have been his first space flight, and the second manned orbital mission.


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Reply 60 Years Ago Today; NASA names the Mercury Seven (Original post)
Dennis Donovan Apr 9 OP
Soxfan58 Apr 9 #1
Sherman A1 Apr 9 #2
Vinca Apr 9 #3
Tommy_Carcetti Apr 9 #4
edbermac Apr 9 #5
akraven Apr 9 #6

Response to Dennis Donovan (Original post)

Tue Apr 9, 2019, 06:17 AM

1. I just missed the cut!

Impressive for a 1yr. old.

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Response to Dennis Donovan (Original post)

Tue Apr 9, 2019, 06:51 AM

2. The Mercury Capsules were built

Not too far from where I lived at the time.

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Response to Dennis Donovan (Original post)

Tue Apr 9, 2019, 07:48 AM

3. Those were exciting times. Great men.

I remember how sad it was when Grissom died.

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Response to Dennis Donovan (Original post)

Tue Apr 9, 2019, 07:53 AM

4. From one of the greatest movies of all time:

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Response to Dennis Donovan (Original post)

Tue Apr 9, 2019, 08:43 AM

5. Astronaut Carpenter later became an aquanaut.

For the Navy’s Sealab project. Explored outer space and then under the sea.

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Response to Dennis Donovan (Original post)

Tue Apr 9, 2019, 06:19 PM

6. My dad was there - and we got to meet all but Deke Slayton.

I grew up on Merritt Island.

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