Mercury Seven

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Not to be confused with Mercury-Atlas 7.
The Mercury Seven in 1960. Back row: Shepard, Grissom, Cooper; front row: Schirra, Slayton, Glenn, Carpenter. This was the only time they would appear together in pressure suits.[1] Slayton and Glenn are wearing spray-painted work boots.

The Mercury Seven were the group of seven Mercury astronauts announced 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 Scott Carpenter, Gordon Cooper, John Glenn, Gus Grissom, Wally Schirra, Alan Shepard, 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, and flew on the Shuttle 36 years later to become the oldest person to fly in space.[2] Gus Grissom died in 1967, in the Apollo 1 fire. The others all survived past retirement from service.

Selection process[edit]

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

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).[3] Other requirements included an age under 40, a Bachelor's degree or equivalent, 1,500 hours of flying time, and qualification to fly jets.[4]: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[5]—who qualified. Sixty-nine[6] 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.[4]: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.[6] 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.[4]:16[7]

From the 18, the first seven NASA astronauts were chosen,[8] each a "superb physical specimen" with an IQ above 130, and the ability to function well both as part of a team and solo.[6] Grissom, Cooper, and Slayton were Air Force pilots; Shepard, Carpenter, and Schirra were Navy pilots, and Glenn was a Marine Corps pilot.

All seven attended college or military academies in the 1940s. Shepard exceeded the educational requirement by earning a Master of Arts degree in 1957 at the Naval War College. Glenn and Carpenter, however, did not technically meet all of their schools' degree requirements, but were awarded their Bachelor degrees after their 1962 space flights.[9][10]

NASA introduction[edit]

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

NASA introduced the astronauts in Washington on April 9, 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 by TIME magazine to "Columbus, Magellan, Daniel Boone, and the Wright brothers."[6] Two hundred[6] reporters overflowed the room used for the announcement and alarmed the astronauts, who were unused to such a large audience.[4]: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,[4]:18–19 and the reporters "lustily applauded them."[6]

Group members[edit]

Memorial at LC-14
Plaque at LC-14
MA-7 (Aurora 7) – May 1962 – Second orbital Mercury mission
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
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
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
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
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
Apollo-Soyuz Test Project – July 1975 – Docking Module Pilot – First joint American–Soviet space mission, first docking of an American and Russian spacecraft
The Mercury 7 astronauts examine their 'couches.' Each astronaut's couch was molded to fit his body to help withstand the G-loads of the launch.

The astronauts participated in Project Mercury's design and planning.[4]:25–26 While busy with such duties and the intense training for their flights,[4]:22 the men also "roughhoused and drank and drove fast and got into sexual peccadilloes." [4]: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]."[4]:20

Before Slayton could make his Mercury flight, he was diagnosed in 1962 with an erratic heart rhythm (idiopathic atrial fibrillation), and grounded from flight by NASA and the Air Force. He stayed with the manned space program, first as unofficial "Chief Astronaut", then in November 1963 becoming Coordinator of Astronaut Activities.

Media attention[edit]

The seven astronauts agreed to share equally any proceeds from interviews regardless of who flew first.[6][11] In August 1959, they and their wives signed a contract with LIFE magazine for $500,000[11] in exchange for exclusive access to their private lives, homes, and families.[4]:16 Their official spokesman from 1959 to 1963 was NASA's public affairs officer, USAF Lt. Col. John "Shorty" Powers, who as a result became known in the press as the "eighth astronaut".

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 film of the same name directed by Philip Kaufman.

A chart showing Group 1/Mercury 7 assignments in Mercury, Gemini, and Apollo

Status after Mercury[edit]

Slayton continued as Director of Flight Crew Operations through the Gemini and Apollo programs, responsible for crew selection and training. In an effort to conquer his fibrulation, he gave up cigarettes and coffee, and placed himself on an intensive exercise and nutrition program. In July 1970, it ceased and he was returned to flight status, and flew on the last Apollo spacecraft in July 1975 as second in command on the Apollo-Soyuz Test Project flight.

Shepard was slated to command the first Gemini flight, but was grounded in early 1964 after being diagnosed with Ménière's disease, a condition in which fluid pressure builds up in the inner ear, resulting in disorientation, dizziness, and nausea. He stayed with the program, accepting the position of Chief Astronaut as Slayton's deputy, until an experimental corrective surgery cured his Ménière's disease and he was returned to flight status in May 1969. He commanded the Apollo 14 lunar landing mission in January–February 1971 before leaving the program in August 1974.

Glenn decided to enter politics and left the program in 1964. While a US Senator in 1998, he was chosen to fly as a civilian Payload Specialist on the October–November mission STS-95 of the Space Shuttle Discovery, and became the oldest person to fly in space as of October 2015. He is the last survivor of the seven.

Carpenter's performance on his Mercury flight put him at odds with Flight Director Christopher Kraft. He took a leave of absence from NASA in the fall of 1963 to participate in the Navy's SEALAB program. He later sustained a medically grounding injury to his left arm in a motorbike accident. Two surgical interventions in 1964 and 1967 failed to correct the condition, and he resigned from NASA in August 1967.

Grissom played a role in the design of the Gemini spacecraft, and replaced Shepard as commander of the first flight, Gemini 3 in March 1965. He was also active in the Apollo program, and picked by Slayton to command the first flight, Apollo 1. He was killed along with his crew in a cabin fire during a spacecraft test on the launch pad on January 27, 1967.

Schirra stayed with the Gemini and Apollo programs, commanding Gemini 6A and performing the world's first space rendezvous in December 1965. As Grissom's backup, he commanded the first manned Apollo flight, Apollo 7 in October 1968, just before resigning from NASA. He joined CBS News in 1969 as Walter Cronkite's co-anchor for all of the Apollo Moon landing missions, 11 through 17.

Cooper also stayed with Gemini and Apollo, commanding the eight-day Gemini 5 flight in August 1965. But his lax attitude toward training and his personal safety put him at odds with Slayton, who kept him on lower priority on the Apollo flight rotation. After Shepard was given his slot for the Apollo 14 command, he retired from NASA in 1970.

See also[edit]


  1. ^ Slayton, Donald K.; Cassutt, Michael (1994). Deke!. New York: Forge. p. 87. ISBN 0-312-85918-X. 
  2. ^ Wilford, John Noble (2012-02-14). "At 90, John Glen looks back". Web. Retrieved 2015-08-11 – via Biography in Context. 
  3. ^ 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. 
  4. ^ a b c d e f g h i j 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.
  5. ^ No Army pilot that had attended test pilot school and met other qualifications were found.
  6. ^ a b c d e f g "Rendezvous with Destiny" Time, 20 April 1959.
  7. ^ "Astronaut Selection". Project Mercury Overview. NASA. 30 November 2006. Retrieved 11 January 2015. 
  8. ^ Carmichael, Mary (Nov–Dec 2007). "Actually, It Is Rocket Science: NASA's Brilliant, Far-Out History". Mental Floss 6 (6): 42. 
  9. ^ (4 October 1983), "College says Glenn degree was deserved", The Day (New London, CT).
  10. ^ Carpenter, Scott; Stoever, Kris (2003). For Spacious Skies: The Uncommon Journey Of A Mercury Astronaut. NAL Trade. p. 97. ISBN 978-0-451-21105-7. Retrieved August 27, 2009. 
  11. ^ a b "The Big Story" Time, 24 August 1959.