On April 9, 1959, NASA named its first seven astronauts.
The Mercury Seven or the “Original Seven” as they were called, were: Navy aviators M. Scott Carpenter, Walter M. Schirra Jr. and Alan B. Shepard Jr.; three Air Force pilots, L. Gordon Cooper Jr., Virgil I. Grissom and Donald K. “Deke” Slayton; and Marine Corps pilot John H. Glenn Jr.
According to NASA, all except Slayton successfully flew in Project Mercury. Slayton had a previously undiscovered heart condition but later flew as a crew member of Apollo Soyuz Test Project.
Project Mercury, according to NASA, “was the United States’ first man-in-space program. The objectives of the program, which made six manned flights from 1961 to 1963 were specific – to orbit a manned spacecraft around Earth, to investigate man’s ability to function in space and to recover both man and spacecraft safely.”
Project Mercury had been announced on Oct. 7, 1958 by the newly created National Aeronautics and Space Administration.
With its goals in mind, NASA also wanted to find out “could a human function ably as a pilot-engineer-experimenter in the harsh conditions of weightless flight? If yes, who were the right people for the challenge?”
“In January 1959, the astronaut selection committee received and screened 508 service records of a group of talented test pilots, from which 110 candidates were assembled. Less than one month later, through a variety of interviews and a battery of written tests, the NASA selection committee pared down this group to 32 candidates.
Each candidate endured even more stringent physical, psychological, and mental examinations, including total body x-rays, pressure suit tests, cognitive exercises, and a series of unnerving interviews. Of the 32 candidates, 18 were recommended for Project Mercury without medical reservations.”
“At a press conference in Washington, D.C., on April 9, 1959, NASA introduced the Mercury Seven to the public. The press and public soon adopted them as heroes, embodying the new spirit of space exploration.”
Lt. Cmdr. M. Scott Carpenter (1925-2013) – Carpenter was the second American in orbit. In Aurora 7, he circled the Earth three times on May 24, 1962, during its 4-hour, 54-minute flight. Carpenter is the only American to serve as both an astronaut and an aquanaut. While on a leave of absence from NASA, he was an aquanaut in the Navy’s man-in-the-sea program. He spent 30 days in the summer of 1965 living and working in a sea-floor habitat 205 below the water surface.
Capt. L. Gordon Cooper Jr. (1927-2004) – Cooper’s first flight was on May 15, 1963, as the pilot of the last Mercury mission, MA-9. In his Faith 7 capsule he orbited the Earth 22 times. During his mission, according to NASA, he became the first American astronaut to sleep in space. His mission was 34 hours and 19 minutes long. His second flight was as the commander of Gemini GT-5 with Charles Conrad Jr. That eight-day mission began on Aug. 21, 1965.
Lt. Col. John H. Glenn Jr. (1921-2016) – Glenn was the first American to orbit the Earth aboard Friendship 7 on Feb. 20, 1962. After his career with NASA, he served as a senator for Ohio from 1974 to 1999. In 1998, he flew on the Discovery Space Shuttle mission, becoming the oldest person to fly in space and the only person to fly in both the Mercury and Space Shuttle programs.
Lt. Col. Virgil I. Grissom (1926-1967) – Grissom was the first man to fly in space twice. His first flight was the MR-4 Liberty Bell 7 on July 21, 1961. It lasted 15 minutes. Gemini-titan 3, the Molly Brown, lifted off on March 23, 1965 with Grissom as commander and Lt. John Young as the pilot. It was a 5-hour flight. Grissom’s next assignment was Apollo 1. Grissom and two other astronauts, Roger Chaffee and Ed White died when the command module caught fire during a launch rehearsal.
Lt. Cmdr. Walter M. Schirra Jr. (1923-2007) – Schirra was the only astronaut to fly in the Mercury, Gemini and Apollo programs. He flew in the fifth Mercury flight in 1962, orbiting the Earth six times. He commanded Gemini 6A in 1965 and Apollo 7, the first manned Apollo flight, 11 days in 1968.
Lt. Cmdr. Alan B. Shepard Jr. (1923-1998) – Shepard was the first American in space and he walked on the moon. Shepard went to space on Freedom 7 on May 5, 1961. He went 116 miles then came back down. The mission last just over 15 minutes. His second flight was Apollo 14 to the moon. On Feb. 15, 1971, he and astronauts Stuart Roosa and Edgar Mitchell landed on the moon. Shepard and Mitchell went on two moonwalks. According to NASA, Shepard was the first person to hit a golf ball on the moon.
Capt. Donald K. “Deke” Slayton (1924-1993) – Slayton was named the pilot of Mercury Atlas-7 however in 1962 NASA discovered Slayton had idiopathic atrial fibrillation – an erratic heart beat. He was restored to flight status in March 1972. His first and only space flight was on July 15, 1975, - the Apollo-Soyuz Test Project - when he was launched for the first meeting in space between American astronauts and Soviet Cosmonaut.
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