The Mercury Seven were the group of seven Mercury astronauts selected by NASA on April 9, 1959. They are also referred to as the Original Seven or Astronaut Group 1. They piloted the manned spaceflights of the Mercury program, from May 1961 to May 1963. These seven original American astronauts were Alan Shepard, Gus Grissom, John Glenn, Scott Carpenter, Wally Schirra, Gordon Cooper, and Deke Slayton.
Members of the group flew on all classes of NASA manned orbital spacecraft of the 20th century—Mercury, Gemini, Apollo, and the Space Shuttle. Of the seven, only John Glenn, who was the oldest, is still living; he went on to become a U.S. senator. Gus Grissom died in 1967, in the Apollo 1 fire. The others all survived past retirement from service.
Although NASA planned an open competition for its first astronauts, President Dwight D. Eisenhower insisted that all candidates be test pilots. Because of the small space inside the Mercury spacecraft, candidates could be no taller than 5 feet 11 inches (180 cm) and weigh no more than 180 pounds (82 kg). Other requirements included an age under 40, a bachelor's degree or equivalent, 1,500 hours of flying time, and qualification to fly jets.:14
After an advertisement among military test pilots drew more than 500 applications, NASA searched military personnel records in January 1959 and identified 110 pilots — five Marines, 47 from the Navy, and 58 from the Air Force—who qualified. Sixty-nine candidates were brought to Washington, DC, in two groups; the candidates' interest was so great, despite the extensive physical and mental exams from January to March, that the agency did not summon the last group.:14–15 The tests included spending hours on treadmills and tilt tables, submerging their feet in ice water, three doses of castor oil, and five enemas. Six candidates were rejected as too tall for the planned spacecraft. Another 33 failed or dropped out during the first phase of exams. Four more refused to take part in the second round of tests, which eliminated eight more candidates, leaving 18.:16
From the 18, the first seven NASA astronauts were chosen, each a "superb physical specimen" with a genius-level IQ, and the ability to function well both as part of a team and solo. Three (Grissom, Cooper, and Slayton) were Air Force pilots; three (Shepard, Carpenter, and Schirra) were Navy pilots, and one (Glenn) was a Marine Corps pilot. Despite the extensive medical evaluation, two of the seven (Shepard and Slayton) were soon grounded for undiagnosed medical conditions and sat out the entirety of Project Gemini and most of the Apollo program (and Mercury as well, in Slayton's case) supervising the active astronauts.
NASA introduced the astronauts in Washington on 9 April 1959. Although the agency viewed Project Mercury's purpose as an experiment to determine whether humans could survive space travel, the seven men immediately became national heroes and were compared to "Columbus, Magellan, Daniel Boone, and the Wright brothers." Two hundred reporters overflowed the room used for the announcement and alarmed the astronauts, who were unused to such a large audience.:16–18
Because they wore civilian clothes, the audience did not see them as military test pilots but "mature, middle-class Americans, average in height and visage, family men all," ready for single combat versus worldwide Communism. To the astronauts' surprise, the reporters asked about their personal lives instead of war records or flight experience, or about the details of Mercury. After Glenn responded by speaking eloquently "on God, country, and family" the others followed his example,:18–19 and the reporters "lustily applauded them."
The astronauts participated in Project Mercury's design and planning.:25–26 While busy with such duties and the intense training for their flights,:22 the men also "roughhoused and drank and drove fast and got into sexual peccadilloes," likely due to the dangerous nature of their work.:35 NASA actively sought to protect the astronauts and the agency from negative publicity and maintain an image of "clean-cut, all-American boy[s].":20
The seven astronauts agreed to share equally any proceeds from interviews regardless of who flew first. In August 1959, they and their wives signed a contract with Life magazine for $500,000 in exchange for exclusive access to their private lives, homes, and families.:16 They wrote first-hand accounts of their selection and preparation for the Mercury missions in the 1962 book We Seven. Additionally, each of them separately wrote at least one book describing their astronaut experiences. In 1979, Tom Wolfe published a less sanitized version of their story in The Right Stuff. Wolfe's book was the basis for the popular film of the same name directed by Philip Kaufman.
Their official spokesman from 1959-1963 was USAF Lt. Col. John "Shorty" Powers, who as a result became known in the press as the "eighth astronaut".
- Alan Bartlett Shepard, Jr. (1923–1998), U.S. Navy (2 flights)
- MR-3 (Freedom 7) – May 1961 – First manned Mercury flight; Shepard became the first American in space
- Apollo 14 – January 1971 – Commander – Third manned lunar landing; fifth man to walk on the Moon
- Virgil Ivan (Gus) Grissom (1926–1967), U.S. Air Force (2 flights)
- MR-4 (Liberty Bell 7) – July 1961 – Final suborbital Mercury flight; Liberty Bell 7 sank after splashdown and was not retrieved until 1999
- Gemini 3 – March 1965 – Command Pilot – First manned Gemini mission, first manned mission to change orbital plane; Grissom became the first person to be launched into space twice
- Apollo 1 – January 1967 – Commander – Killed in a fire during a launch pad test one month before the launch
- John Herschel Glenn, Jr. (b. 1921), U.S. Marine Corps (2 flights)
- MA-6 (Friendship 7) – February 1962 – First orbital Mercury flight; Glenn became the first American to orbit the Earth
- STS-95 Discovery – October 1998 – Payload Specialist – Spacelab mission, Spartan 201 release; Glenn became the oldest person in space
- Malcolm Scott Carpenter (1925–2013), U.S. Navy (1 flight)
- MA-7 (Aurora 7) – May 1962 – Second orbital Mercury mission
- Walter Marty (Wally) Schirra, Jr. (1923–2007), U.S. Navy (3 flights)
- MA-8 (Sigma 7) – October 1962 – Third orbital Mercury flight
- Gemini 6A - December 1965 – Command Pilot – First rendezvous in space, with Gemini 7
- Apollo 7 - October 1968 – Commander – First manned Apollo mission; Schirra became the first person to be launched into space three times and the only person to fly Mercury, Gemini, and Apollo missions
- Leroy Gordon (Gordo) Cooper, Jr. (1927–2004), U.S. Air Force (2 flights)
- MA-9 (Faith 7) – May 1963 – Final Mercury mission, first American mission to last more than a day
- Gemini 5 - August 1965 – Command Pilot – First eight-day space mission, first use of fuel cells
- Donald Kent (Deke) Slayton (1924–1993), U.S. Air Force (1 flight)
- Apollo-Soyuz Test Project – July 1975 – Docking Module Pilot – First joint American–Soviet space mission, first docking of an American and Russian spacecraft
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- Slayton, Donald K.; Cassutt, Michael (1994). Deke!. New York: Forge. p. 87. ISBN 0-312-85918-X.
- Slayton, Donald K.; Alan Shepard, Jay Barbree, Howard Benedict (1994). Moon Shot: The Inside Story of America's Race to the Moon. Turner Publishing. ISBN 1-57036-167-3.
- Logsdon, John M. with Roger D. Launius (editors) Exploring the Unknown: Selected Documents in the History of the U.S. Civil Space Program / Volume VII Human Spaceflight: Projects Mercury, Gemini, and Apollo The NASA History Series, 2008.
- No Army pilot that had attended test pilot school and met other qualifications were found.
- "Rendezvous with Destiny" Time, 20 April 1959.
- Carmichael, Mary (Nov–Dec 2007). "Actually, It Is Rocket Science: NASA's Brilliant, Far-Out History". Mental Floss 6 (6): 42.
- "The Big Story" Time, 24 August 1959.