There was a time when we Americans clung to our TV sets to watch our first astronauts accomplish what we thought no man could. I recall standing in my yard and staring up into the October (1957) sky to look for a pinpoint of moving light, the Soviet spacecraft Sputnick I, the first artificial Earth satellite.
It was an event, which quite literally, changed my life. As a ten-year-old with a relatively high IQ, it became my role in school “to beat the Soviets,” such was the unspoken new emphasis on academics in the U.S. public classrooms of the time. The U. S. had suffered several failures, including payloads which had went off course or had caught fire upon the launch pad, leading to the premise that we were falling behind the eight ball in science, mathematics, and technology.
However, less than two years later, we were introduced to our first space pioneers: Scott Carpenter, Gordon Cooper, John Glenn, Gus Grissom, Wally Schirra, Alan Shepard, and Deke Slayton. From a list of 540 candidates, these seven had survived the selection process. Each had to be a college graduate, be under the age of 40, and be less than 5 feet 11 inches in height (to squeeze into the Mercury capsule). They also had to excel at both physical tests and psychological screenings. The chosen seven’s IQs were all above 135. The seven were also all Protestants, avid outdoorsmen, and from small town America.
The group spent two years in training, and on 5 May 1961, Al Shepard became the first American to travel into space. His Mercury flight was designed to enter space, but not to achieve orbit. (In 1971, Shepard piloted the Apollo 14 mission. He became the fifth and the oldest person [at age 47] to walk on the moon, the only astronaut of the original Mercury 7 to do so.) With repeated delays during the countdown, Shepard is quoted as saying, “Why don’t you fix your little problems and light this candle?” This first American launch came some three weeks after Soviet cosmonaut Yuri Gagarin had made his flight.
Some three months later on 21 July 1961, Gus Grissom piloted the second Project Mercury flight. Mercury Redstone 4, popularly known as Liberty Bell 7, was a suborbital flight that lasted 15 minutes and 37 seconds. After splashdown, emergency explosive bolts unexpectedly fired and blew the hatch off, causing water to flood into the spacecraft. Quickly exiting through the open hatch and into the ocean, Grissom nearly drowned, as water filled his spacesuit. A recovery helicopter attempted to lift and recover the spacecraft, but it was too heavy. Sinking to the bottom of the ocean, the craft was not recovered until 1999.
John Glenn made three orbits of Earth on 20 February 1962 in Friendship 7, but again the American program had come behind the Soviets’. On 6 August 1961, Gherman Titov had become the second man to orbit Earth aboard Vostok 2. Deke Slayton was next up for flight, but he was replaced by Scott Carpenter because Slayton had an erratic heartbeat in pre-flight medical tests.
Carpenter flew into space on 24 May 1962, atop the Mercury-Atlas 7 rocket for a three-orbit science mission that lasted nearly five hours. His Aurora 7 spacecraft attained a maximum altitude of 164 miles (264 km) and an orbital velocity of 17,532 miles per hour (28,215 km/h). Working through five onboard experiments dictated by the flight plan, Carpenter helped, among other things, to identify the mysterious ‘fireflies’ (which he renamed ‘frostflies’, as they were in reality particles of frozen liquid around the craft), first observed by Glenn during MA-6. Carpenter was the first American astronaut to eat solid food in space.
Carpenter was highly criticized for an “over expenditure of fuel,” which turned out to be an intermittently malfunctioning pitch horizon scanner (PHS). Upon reentry, Carpenter was forced to control his flight manually, and he overshot his splashdown point by 250 miles (400 km).
Wally Schirra became the fifth American to travel into space. On 3 October 1962, Shirra made a six-orbit, nine-hour, 13 minutes, and 11 seconds Mercury-Atlas 8 (Sigma 7) flight. His would said to have been a “textbook” flight, one without incident. The capsule attained a velocity of 17,557 miles per hour (28,255 km/h) and an altitude of 175 statute miles (282 km) and landed within 4 miles (6.4 km) of the main Pacific Ocean recovery ship.
On December 15, 1965, Schirra flew into space a second time as command pilot of Gemini 6A, with pilot Tom Stafford. Gemini 6, originally scheduled to launch on October 25, was planned to perform the first space rendezvous and docking with an unmanned Agena target vehicle launched separately, but the Agena was destroyed in a launch failure. It was decided to defer launch of the alternate mission 6A to after the December launch of Gemini 7, during which Schirra would perform rendezvous, but without docking. During the first rescheduled launch attempt, the booster rocket unexpectedly shut down seconds after ignition and did not launch. Although mission rules called for the crew to eject from the spacecraft in that situation, Schirra used his pilot’s judgement and did not eject, as he had not detected any upwards motion. This turned out to be the correct call for their personal safety. The flight was launched successfully three days later, and Schirra successfully performed the first rendezvous with Gemini 7 containing astronauts Frank Borman and James Lovell, Jr., station-keeping his craft to distances as close as 1 foot (30 cm). Gemini 6 landed in the Atlantic Ocean the next day, while Gemini 7 continued on to set a 14-day manned space record.
While on the Gemini mission, Schirra played a Christmas practical joke on the flight controllers by first reporting a mock UFO (implying Santa Claus) sighting, then playing “Jingle Bells” on a four-hole Hohner harmonica he had smuggled on board, accompanied by Stafford on sleigh bells. Hohner subsequently produced a “Wally Schirra” commemorative model.L. Gordon Cooper piloted the longest and final Mercury spaceflight in 1963. He was the first American to sleep in space during that 34-hour mission and was the last American to be launched alone to conduct an entirely solo orbital mission. In 1965, Cooper flew as command pilot of Gemini 5. Cooper was launched into space on 15 May 1963, aboard the Mercury-Atlas 9 (Faith 7) spacecraft, the last Mercury mission. He orbited the Earth 22 times and logged more time in space than all five previous Mercury astronauts combined—34 hours, 19 minutes and 49 seconds—traveling 546,167 miles (878,971 km) at 17,547 mph (28,239 km/h), pulling a maximum of 7.6 g (74.48 m/s²). Cooper achieved an altitude of 165.9 statute miles (267 km) at apogee. He was the first American astronaut to sleep not only in orbit but on the launch pad during a countdown.
After joining NASA, Donald Kent “Deke” Slayton was selected to pilot the second U.S. manned orbital spaceflight, but was grounded in 1962 by a heart murmur. He then served as NASA’s director of flight crew operations, making him responsible for crew assignments at NASA from November 1963 until March 1972. At that time he was granted medical clearance to fly, and was assigned as the docking module pilot of the 1975 Apollo–Soyuz Test Project, becoming the oldest person to fly in space at age 51. This record was surpassed in 1983 by 53 year old John Young and in 1998 by his fellow Project Mercury astronaut John Glenn, who at the age of 77 flew on Space Shuttle mission STS-95.
After leaving NASA,Slayton retired from NASA in 1982. After retirement, he served as president of Space Services Inc., a Houston-based company earlier founded to develop rockets for small commercial payloads. He served as mission director for a rocket called the Conestoga, which was successfully launched on 9 September 1982, and was the world’s first privately funded rocket to reach space. Slayton also became interested in aviation racing. Shortly after he moved to League City, Texas, in 1992, Slayton was diagnosed with a malignant brain tumor. He died from the illness, at the age of 69, on 13 June 1993.
Wally Schirra later served as a consultant to CBS News during the Apollo missions, joining Walter Cronkite to co-anchor the network’s coverage of the seven Moon landing missions, starting with Apollo 11 (joined by Arthur C. Clarke), including the ill-fated Apollo 13. Schirra died on 3 May 2007 of a heart attack due to malignant mesothelioma at Scripps Green Hospital (currently The Heart Center at Scripps) in La Jolla, California. A memorial service for Schirra was held on 22 May at Fort Rosecrans National Cemetery in California. The ceremony concluded with a three-volley salute and a flyover by three F/A-18s. Schirra was cremated and his ashes were committed to the sea on 11 February 2008. The burial at sea ceremony was held aboard the Nimitz-class aircraft carrier USS Ronald Reagan (CVN-76) and his ashes were released by Commander Lee Axtell, CHC, USN, the command chaplain aboard.
In July 1964 in Bermuda, Scott Carpenter sustained a grounding injury from a motorbike accident while on leave from NASA to train for the Navy’s SEALAB project. In 1965, for SEALAB II, he spent 28 days living on the ocean floor off the coast of California. During the SEALAB II mission, Carpenter’s right index finger was wounded by the toxic spines of a scorpion fish. He returned to work at NASA as Executive Assistant to the Director of the Manned Spacecraft Center, then returned to the Navy’s Deep Submergence Systems Project in 1967, based in Bethesda, Maryland, as a Director of Aquanaut Operations for SEALAB III. In the aftermath of aquanaut Berry L. Cannon’s death while attempting to repair a leak in SEALAB III, Carpenter volunteered to dive down to SEALAB and help return it to the surface, although SEALAB was ultimately salvaged in a less hazardous way. Carpenter retired from the Navy in 1969, after which he founded Sea Sciences, Inc., a corporation for developing programs for utilizing ocean resources and improving environmental health.Carpenter had a stroke and entered The Denver Hospice Inpatient Care Center at Lowry, where he died on 10 October 2013; he was 88.
John Glenn likely achieved the most “public” fame of the original seven Mercury astronauts. Glenn became a U. S. senator from Ohio (1974-1999), a 1976 Vice-Presidential nominee, and a 1984 Democratic Presidential nominee. Glenn helped found the John Glenn Institute for Public Service and Public Policy at the The Ohio State University in 1998 to encourage public service. On 22 July 2006, the institute merged with OSU’s School of Public Policy and Management to become the John Glenn School of Public Affairs. Today he holds an adjunct professorship at both the Glenn School and OSU’s Department of Political Science.
Gus Grissom was killed along with fellow astronauts Ed White and Roger Chaffee during a pre-launch test for the Apollo 1 mission at Cape Canaveral Air Force Station (then known as Cape Kennedy), Florida. He was the first of the Mercury Seven to die. He was also a recipient of the Distinguished Flying Cross and, posthumously, the Congressional Space Medal of Honor.
After leaving NASA, Gordon Cooper served on several corporate boards and as technical consultant for more than a dozen companies in fields ranging from high performance boat design to energy, construction, and aircraft design. During the 1970s, he worked for The Walt Disney Company as a vice-president of research and development for Epcot. Cooper developed Parkinson’s disease late in life. At age 77, he died from heart failure at his home in Ventura, California, on 4 October 2004. His death occurred on the 47th anniversary of the Sputnik 1 launch and the same day that SpaceShipOne made its second official qualifying flight, winning the Ansari X-Prize.
After Alan Shepard left NASA, he served on the boards of many corporations. He also served as president of his umbrella company for several business enterprises, Seven Fourteen Enterprises, Inc. (named for his two flights, Freedom 7 and Apollo 14).
In 1994, he published a book with two journalists, Jay Barbree and Howard Benedict, called Moon Shot: The Inside Story of America’s Race to the Moon. Fellow Mercury astronaut Deke Slayton is also named as an author. The book generated some controversy for use of a staged photo purportedly showing Shepard hitting a golf ball on the Moon. The book was also turned into a TV miniseries in 1994.
Shepard died of leukemia near his home in Pebble Beach, California, on 21 July 1998, two years after being diagnosed with that disease. He was the second person to die who had walked on the Moon (Jim Irwin was the first in 1991). His wife of 53 years, Louise Brewer, died five weeks afterward. Both were cremated, and their ashes were scattered together by a Navy helicopter over Stillwater Cove, in front of their Pebble Beach home.