On April 9th 1959, America’s first seven astronauts were introduced to the public. They were Scott Carpenter, L. Gordon Cooper Jr, John H. Glenn Jr, Virgil “Gus” Grissom, Walter Schirra Jr, Alan Shepard Jr, and Donald Slayton. They were all military pilots, selected to take part in Project Mercury, America’s first manned space program. The project was run by the National Aeronautics and Space Administration (NASA), who planned to begin manned orbital flights in 1961.
Actually, prior to this group, another group of potential astronauts had been named on June 25th 1958, They were Neil Armstrong, William B. Bridgeman, Albert S. Crossfield, Iven C. Kincheloe, John B. McKay, Robert A. Rushworth, Joseph A. Walker, Alvin S. White and Robert M. White. These nine test pilots from the National Advisory Committee for Aeronautics (NACA), the United States Air Force (USAF), North American Aviation (NAA), and Douglas Aircraft Corporation were selected for the Man In Space Soonest project, a USAF initiative to put a man in space before the Soviet Union did. The project was cancelled on August 1st, before it “got off the ground,” but two of these men would later reach space. Walker made two X-15 flights above 100 kilometres in 1963. Neil Armstrong joined NASA in 1962 and flew in Project Gemini and Apollo, becoming the first human to set foot on the Moon on July 21st 1969.
The USSR had taken an early lead in the “space race” on October 4th 1957, when it successfully launched the world’s first artificial satellite, Sputnik, into Earth’s orbit.The United States response was to consolidate its various military and civilian space efforts into NASA, which was dedicated to beating the Soviets to manned space flight. The astronaut selection procedure began in January 1959, when NASA began screening the records of 508 military test pilots, choosing 110 candidates. They were divided into three groups, and the first two groups reported to Washington. Because of the high rate of volunteering, the third group was eliminated. Of the 62 pilots who volunteered, six were found to have grown too tall since their last medical examination. An initial battery of written tests, interviews, and medical history reviews further reduced the number of candidates to 36. After learning of the extreme physical and mental tests planned for them, four of these men dropped out.
The final 32 candidates travelled to the Lovelace Clinic in Albuquerque, New Mexico, where they underwent exhaustive medical and psychological examinations. The men proved so healthy, however, that only one candidate was eliminated. The remaining 31 candidates then travelled to the Wright Aeromedical Laboratory in Dayton, Ohio, where they underwent the most gruelling part of the selection process. For six days and three nights, the men were subjected to various tortures that tested their tolerance of physical and psychological stress. Among other tests, the candidates were forced to spend an hour in a pressure chamber that simulated an altitude of 65,000 feet, and two hours in a chamber that was heated to 130 degrees Fahrenheit. At the end of one week, 18 candidates remained. From among these men, the selection committee was to choose six based on interviews, but seven candidates were so strong they ended up settling on that number.
After they were announced, the “Mercury Seven” became overnight celebrities. The Mercury Project suffered some early setbacks, however, and on April 12th 1961, Soviet cosmonaut Yuri Gagarin orbited Earth in the world’s first manned space flight. Less than one month later, on May 5, astronaut Alan Shepard was successfully launched into space on a suborbital flight. On February 20th 1962, in a major step for the U.S. space program, John Glenn became the first American to orbit Earth. NASA continued to trail the Soviets in space achievements until the late 1960s, when NASA’s Apollo program put the first men on the moon and safely returned them to Earth.
In 1998, 36 years after his first space flight, John Glenn travelled into space again. Glenn, then 77 years old, was part of the Space Shuttle Discovery crew, whose 9-day research mission launched on October 29th 1998. Among the crew’s investigations was a study of space flight and the aging process.