Science

The Magnificent Mercury Seven: NASA's First Astronauts, 50 Years Ago Today

Fifty years ago today NASA announced The Mercury Seven: the seven men to make up their first astronaut class. To commemorate this event, here are some interesting factoids about these American heroes.


The Mercury Seven were chosen in Washington, DC from a body of 69 candidates. The name comes from Mercury, a Roman mythological god who is seen as a symbol of speed. Because of the small space inside the Mercury capsule, candidates could be no taller than 5 feet 11 inches and weigh no more than 80 kilos. The initial flights took off throughout the early 1960s, though some astronauts were active in later decades. Here are the guys:

Malcolm Scott Carpenter (born 1925) was a US Navy piolot aviation cadet who flew missions during the Korean War. He was on board the MA-7 (Aurora 7) and was the first American astronaut to eat solid food in space. He successfully overcame an overexpenditure of fuel due to hardware problems on his one and only mission. Carpenter was forced to retire from spaceflight after sustaining a motorbike accident. After retiring from the Navy, he founded Sea Sciences Inc., a corporation for developing programs for utilising ocean resources and improving environmental health.

Leroy Gordon (Gordo) Cooper Jr. (1927 – 2004) was very active in the Boy Scouts of America and achieved the second highest rank of Life Scout. Prior to joining NASA, Cooper also served in the US Air Force and Marine Corps. He was on board the MA-9 (Faith 7) and Gemini 5, and developed a personal survival knife for astronauts to carry. Cooper was the first American to sleep in orbit. Interestingly, he took photos of and reported UFO sightings to the Pentagon, but they swept the incident under the rug.

John Herschel Glenn Jr. (born 1921) began his career as a US Marine Corps fighter pilot. He was on board the MA-6 (Friendship 7) and STS-95. Noticed for his heroics in space, Glenn became friendly with the Kennedys and a prominent public figure. After retiring from NASA, he ran as a Democrat and represented the state of Ohio in the United States Senate from 1974 to 1999.

Virgil Ivan (Gus) Grissom (1926 – 1967) was a US Air Force pilot before joining NASA. He was on board the MR-4 (Liberty Bell 7), Gemini 3, and Apollo 1. Grissom was tragically killed along with fellow astronauts Ed White and Roger Chaffee during a pre-launch test for the Apollo 1 mission. After death, his family was involved in a spacesuit controversy: NASA insisted Grissom got authorisation to use his spacesuit for a show and tell at his son’s school and never returned it, but his family claimed the he had rescued the spacesuit from a scrap heap and that it rightfully belonged to them.

Walter Marty (Wally) Schirra Jr. (1923 – 2007)’s father was a pilot, and his mother performed wing walking stunts when he was on duty. Schirra served as an officer in the US Navy, and was later dispatched to South Korea as a pilot on loan to the US Air Force. On board the MA-8 (Sigma 7), Gemini 6A, and Apollo 7, he was the only person to fly in all of America’s first three space programs. Schirra gained notoriety for playing “Jingle Bells” on a harmonica he smuggled on board Gemini.

Alan Bartlett Shepard Jr. (1923 – 1998) began as a US Navy as test pilot. He was the first American in space, and flew on board the MR-3 (Freedom 7) and Apollo 14. It’s said that shortly before one launch, Shepard blurted out “Please, dear God, don’t let me fuck up.” This has since become known among aviators as “Shepard’s Prayer.” A successful businessman, Shepard was the first astronaut to become a millionaire while still in the program. His hometown of Derry, NH almost changed its name to “Spacetown” in honour of Schirra’s career.

Donald Kent (Deke) Slayton (1924 – 1993) was also a US Air Force pilot before joining NASA. He was grounded from space flight by a heart condition, but served as NASA’s Director of Flight Crew Operations. Slayton served as head of Astronaut selection. In 1972 he was granted medical clearance to fly as docking module pilot of the Apollo-Soyuz Test Project. At the time of the flight, he became the oldest person to fly into space. [NASA and Wikipedia]


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