This Day in History: Mercury Seven, the first astronauts
On this day in 1959, NASA announces the names of its first astronauts. The “Mercury Seven” were an elite group, selected only after an arduous application process.
Or maybe the word “arduous” is too kind. Applicant Pete Conrad would later say that he felt like a “lab rat.”
The selection process for astronauts began in December 1958 when NASA solicited and received applications from 508 military test pilots. Candidates’ service records, educational history, and total flying time helped NASA narrow the list down to 110 men. Interviews and written tests narrowed the applicant pool down yet again, this time to 32 pilots.
These men would spend the next few weeks enduring grueling physical tests, first in New Mexico, then in Ohio. The idea was to test their physical and mental endurance to see if they could handle the stress of space. But many felt that the tests went too far.
Candidate Jim Lovell would call his week in Albuquerque a “nightmare week,” while another candidate concluded that it was “an embarrassment, a degrading experience . . . sick doctors working on well patients.”
“In submitting to these whole-body violations,” Lovell later said, “the candidate astronauts would have their livers injected with dye, their inner ears filled with cold water, their muscles punctured by electrified needles, their intestines filled with radioactive barium, their prostate glands squeezed, their sinuses probed, their stomachs pumped, their blood drawn, their scalps and chests plastered with electrodes, and their bowels evacuated by diagnostic enemas . . . .”
The doctors likely had more reasons for their tests than the potential astronauts knew, but the doctors didn’t feel the need to explain themselves, either. It added to the candidates’ frustration. “Any questions like ‘What’s that for?’ were met by grunts,” candidate Gordon Cooper later said.
Would you believe that was just the first phase of the process? The next phase, in Ohio, tested physical endurance and psychological well-being.
Candidate John Tierney described the “torture machines” that followed.
“We would put on flight suits with a hole in the bottom,” he wrote, “and sit on a chair in an oven with a rectal thermistor inserted as the scientists cracked the kiln up to 130 degrees. Later, we sat in an airplane simulator as the operators on the outside tilted and shook the mockup violently. Inside, we were blindfolded, and had to use our other senses to keep the test craft level . . . .”
Psychologists and scientists hovered everywhere, taking notes as if the candidates were specimens in a lab.
Not everyone went along with it all the time, as when Conrad retorted to a psychologist that he couldn’t tell what was on a blank white card because “you’ve got it upside down.” Other men, though, simply endured. “Not that I liked any particular bodily examination or psychological test,” Tom Hayward said, “[but] the very compliment that I might have a chance at being chosen as one of the original astronauts made all this ‘part of the course.’”
In the end, 31 men passed the test. NASA officials would ultimately narrow the list down to 7. They’d only intended to select 6 pilots, but they found themselves stuck between two candidates at the end and took both.
The Mercury Seven were introduced to the country at a press conference on April 9, 1959: Scott Carpenter, Gordon Cooper, John Glenn, Gus Grissom, Wally Schirra, Alan Shepard, and Deke Slayton.
Members of the Mercury Seven would travel in all of NASA’s subsequent space programs, starting with Mercury and ending with John Glenn’s 1998 trip aboard the Space Shuttle.
Naturally, those are stories for another day.
Colin Burgess, Selecting the Mercury Seven: The Search for America's First Astronauts (2011)
George Leopold, Calculated Risk: The Supersonic Life and Times of Gus Grissom (2016)
Neal Thompson, Light This Candle: The Life and Times of Alan Shepard (2004)
The 40th Anniversary of the Mercury Seven (NASA website)
Tom Wolfe, The Right Stuff (2008)