65 years ago, America announced the names of its first astronauts

The Mercury 7: 'Not one of us knew what he was in for'

Sixty-five years ago this week, NASA introduced its first astronauts, saying they'd be launched into space in the agency's new capsule. They were immediately dubbed The Mercury 7.

The astronaut selection, which took place on April 2, 1959, followed a three-month process. The seven were unveiled to the press a week later, on April 9, 1959. All seven were drawn from the US military and had to be aged less than 40, measure less than 5 feet 11 inches tall (180cm), and be in "excellent physical condition." Other requirements included having 1,500 hours of jet time under their belts and they also had to be test pilot school graduates.

The basic age and flying requirements narrowed it down to 508 possibles, which were then whittled down to 110 qualified candidates. Further trimming down of the group produced 32 potential astronauts who were put through various tests until the final seven were chosen.

Neal Thompson's biography of one of the seven, Alan Shepard, Light This Candle provides a summary of each. Scott Carpenter "had the least amount of experience as a test pilot – and one day that would show," Gordon Cooper "had a subtle wit and hoped to have some 'real good fun' as an astronaut," John Glenn "believed deeply in God – and in himself" and Gus Grissom, who was the youngest and shortest, had flown more combat mission that any of the others, except for Glenn.

The group was rounded off by Wally Schirra; Deke Slayton – described as "shy and taciturn, the no-bullshit one of the group,"; and Al Shepard, who would go on to be the first American man to be launched in a Mercury capsule.

In his book Deke!, co-authored with Michael Cassutt, Slayton gave his first impression of Shepard as "kind of cold and stand-offish" while Schirra was somewhat of a joker.

Reeling from the recent Soviet successes in space, the US greeted the seven with giddy delight. However, as Thompson noted, "All they had done was volunteer for some creepy tests and pose for some embarrassing pictures."

That said, the seven were unprepared for what was to come. Glenn recalled, "Not one of us knew what he was in for." Slaton said, "I've never seen anything like it, before or since. It was just a frenzy of light bulbs and questions… it was some kind of roar."

The US civilian space program was run in the open, meaning that both the public and the astronauts were treated to some spectacular failures before one of the seven would be strapped into a spacecraft for that first flight (Slayton claimed credit for getting NASA to call the capsule a "spacecraft"). Shortly after their selection, the seven took a trip to Cape Canaveral to watch their first missile launch. The Atlas exploded spectacularly, prompting Shepard to quip to Glenn: "Well, I'm glad they got that one out of the way. I sure hope they fix that."

Shepard became the first of the seven to be launched. His Mercury capsule was sent on a sub-orbital trajectory shortly after Yuri Gagarin's historic first for the Soviet Union. Shepard railed against the caution and delays that resulted in him being the first American but the second human. According to Thompson, "Shepard kept saying the same thing over and over: We could have, should have, gone sooner. 'We had them,' he repeated. 'We had them by the short hairs, and we gave it away.'"

Still, Shepard did get to walk on the Moon for Apollo 14. Grissom might have done so too if he had not died in the Apollo 1 fire. Slayton, who was dropped from flight status due to medical reasons and became NASA's first Chief of the Astronaut Office, said, "One thing that might have been different if Gus had lived: the first guy to walk on the Moon would have been Gus Grissom, not Neil Armstrong."

Slayton would also get his flight on the last hurrah of Apollo: the Apollo Soyuz Test Project. He had missed out on two Mercury missions — the first being MR-6, canceled after Gus Grissom's near-disastrous MR-4 mission, and the second being MA-7, which became Scott Carpenter's only trip to space in a Mercury capsule.

Schirra flew on Mercury-Atlas 8 and went on to command Gemini 6A and Apollo 7. Cooper was launched on the final crewed Mercury mission – MA-9, and subsequently commanded Gemini 5. Grissom flew on MR-4 – the second Mercury flight with a human crew – then commanded the first Gemini mission before perishing in the Apollo 1 accident.

Glenn became the first American man to orbit the Earth and, in 1998, flew on the Space Shuttle as part of the STS-95 crew. ®

More about


Send us news

Other stories you might like