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NASA and Project Mercury

Prologue: The Cold War, Sputnik, and the Birth of NASA

Project Mercury, and even the advent of NASA itself, is best understood in the context of the Cold War—the epic contest for supremacy between the United States and the Soviet Union in the years following World War II. With the Soviet launch of Sputnik on October 4, 1957, tensions between the two superpowers mounted dramatically. Thus the United States responded by creating the National Aeronautics and Space Administration (NASA) with a congressional act, which was signed into law on July 28, 1958.

The new space agency had, however, inherited its core mission, ethos and staff from the National Advisory Council on Aeronautics (NACA), a government agency that dated to the eve of World War I with venerable research centers. called labs,  based in Langley, Virginia; Cleveland, Ohio; and Mountain View, CA - centers known as Langley, Lewis, and Ames.



Video © and courtesy of Spacecraft Films

The creation of a civilian space agency represented the Eisenhower administration’s measured, nonmilitary response to the Soviet Union’s launch of Sputnik.  This feat perceived in the West as a threat to the primacy of the United States - and its free world allies -  in a global struggle against the threat of communism. The vaunted Soviet space program, off to a head start with the first Sputnik, went on to log a number of spectacular space firsts, among them the successful launch of the first person in space, Yuri Gagarin, on April 12, 1961. Meanwhile NASA played catch-up well into the 1960s.

The U.S.-Soviet superpower contest in space became a kind of proxy R&D war, which the United States eventually won in July 1969 when, with the Apollo program, it landed men on the moon and returned them safely to earth.

* * * * * *

U.S. manned spaceflight began, however, not with the fabled lunar expeditions but rather with the solo missions piloted by Project Mercury astronauts, chosen in April 1959.



The 1959 Selection Process and the Original Astronauts

The Project Mercury astronauts were chosen after a five-phase, three-month selection process that winnowed 508 Phase 1 candidates (all military test pilots) down to 110 candidates eligible for Phase 2, during which 32 finalists were identified as eligible for further testing. During phases 3 and 4 of the selection process, these 32 men were tested and tested again—first at the Lovelace Clinic in Albuquerque, N.M. (phase 3), and then at the Wright Air Development Center in Dayton, Ohio (phase 4). Of these 32 candidates, 18 numerically ranked men were recommended by the evaluation committee to the STG Selection Board “without medical reservations.”

As the Space Task Group (STG) grew more familiar with its highly motivated candidates, the evaluation committee repeatedly adjusted its early goals and plans. The volunteer rate proved so great at phase 2 (35 men reported to the Pentagon in the first group on Feb. 2, 1959, and 24 of them volunteered) that the committee scrapped its original plans for 12 astronauts. “The high rate of interest indicates,” STG member George Low explained, “that few, if any, of the men will drop out during the training process. . . . Consequently, a recommendation has been made to name only six finalists.” This recommendation too fell away as evaluation committee members, at phase 5, declared they could not choose only six.

Meeting for the final phase of the historic selection process of 1959, the STG Selection Board “found the going so difficult,” according to a NASA history, “that they could not reach the magic number six. So Gilruth decided to recommend seven.” The final list of seven men was reviewed and approved on April 2–3, 1959. Charlie Donlan made the telephone calls.

In the Carpenter biography, For Spacious Skies, Kris Stoever reports that the STG Selection Board “chose seven men, but not the top seven. Eschewing to some extent the numerical rankings, they chose the candidates ranked first, second, third, fifth, eighth, tenth, and fifteenth.”

Navy wags (among them a top Mercury candidate who went on to become the chief of naval operations) suggest that the top seven candidates were, to a man, U.S. marine and navy officers. This would explain, they suggest, both the rather conspicuous balance among the services evident in the final selection of the Mercury astronauts (1 marine, 3 navy, 3 air force) and also in the choices lurching from the top three to the rest of the field (candidates ranked 5, 8, 10, and 15) who had been recommended “without medical reservations.” But surviving members of the evaluation committee, including Dr. Robert B. Voas and Dr. George Ruff, will not confirm this speculation.

The Project Mercury Astronauts and Their Missions: 1959–1963

The selected men—and they were all men—were introduced to the public on April 9, 1959, at a press conference at the Dolley Madison House in Washington, D.C. The seven Project Mercury astronauts—sometimes called the original, or Group 1, astronauts—were, in alphabetical order: Lt. M. Scott Carpenter (USN), Capt. Leroy G. (Gordo) Cooper (USAF), Lt. Col. John H. Glenn (USMC), Capt. Virgil I. (Gus) Grissom (USAF), Lt. Cmdr. Walter (Wally) M. Schirra (USN), Lt Cmdr. Alan B. Shepard (USN), and Capt. Donald K. (Deke) Slayton (USAF).

Each astronaut was assigned specialty areas that reflected their particular aviation and engineering backgrounds. Because of his background in celestial navigation and airborne electronics, Carpenter took responsibility for communication and navigation. Cooper assumed liaison duties for the development of the Redstone booster, while Slayton took the same duties, but for the Atlas. Glenn worked on cockpit design and layout for the Mercury capsule, while Grissom focused on the various spacecraft control systems. Life support systems and spacesuit design became Schirra’s responsibility, while Shepard took on tracking and recovery operations. They also focused on individual training, physical conditioning, and spacecraft familiarization in preparation for pioneering manned spaceflight.

As of this writing, in 2010, two Project Mercury astronauts are still alive: Scott Carpenter and John Glenn.

The Mercury-Redstone (MR) Suborbital Flights: Shepard’s Freedom 7 MR-3 and Grissom’s Liberty Bell 7 MR-4

On May 5, 1961, Cmdr. Alan B. Shepard (USN) became the first American in space, piloting Freedom 7 (MR-3) in a successful 15-minute ballistic flight that thrilled the nation, It also commanded the attention of recently elected John F. Kennedy, then presiding over the aftermath of a failed military incursion in communist Cuba (the Bay of Pigs). Shepard’s alternate was marine pilot John Glenn.

The second American in space was air force pilot Gus Grissom, who on July 21, 1961, repeated Shepard’s suborbital feat in a somewhat modified spacecraft that he christened Liberty Bell 7. It had an explosive side hatch for easy egress after splashdown. Glenn was Grissom’s alternate for MR-4, in the event Grissom were grounded by accident or illness. The other astronauts assumed various duties, usually serving as capcoms (capsule communicators) for the Mercury communications network girdling the globe. For Shepard’s flight, Carpenter and Schirra were assigned to chase aircraft for fellow naval aviator Shepard - a test-flight tradition that someone at NASA thought might be applied to manned spaceflight. But Scott and Wally never even saw the launch. In a space-age departure from test flight tradition, Shepard, of course, went straight up, where Carpenter and Schirra were unable to follow, even in their F-102s.

For Grissom’s flight, which duplicated Shepard’s mission, Carpenter served as Life magazine’s inside reporter, eating breakfast with the air force pilot, otherwise assisting with final preparations, and later describing the events to Life journalists (Time-LIFE publisher Henry Luce had purchased the rights to the personal stories of the astronauts and their wives). A word about the dangers of spaceflight: Although spaceflight itself is not especially risky, getting into space (the launch) and returning (reentry heating, splashdown, and egress) are rife with danger. NASA sought to limit the dangers of the former with a launch escape system. With the latter, NASA relied on the blunt-body reentry design of the capsule, an ablative heatshield, and intensive training in water egress and recovery operations. The astronauts also spent countless hours in the simulator, training for the likely failure of the automatic controls. Speaking of dangers, Grissom survived launch and reentry for his historic Mercury mission, only to nearly die after splashdown. His modified hatch accidentally blew out as he awaited the approach of recovery craft, taking notes. The ocean swamped the cabin and forced the astronaut out into the Atlantic, with only his spacesuit to keep him afloat.

At first treading water easily, Grissom found his buoyancy disappear in mere minutes. Water pressure outside the suit, coupled with his furious exertions, forced air to leak out at two points in his spacesuit, the neck dam and the suit inlet valve, which the astronaut had inadvertently left open in his haste to exit the spacecraft. There were no pararescue personnel in the water.

Unaware of Grissom’s straits, the primary recovery helicopter pilot focused on Liberty Bell 7, first hooking it to a cable in order to lift it from the waves. To no avail, for the spacecraft was sinking, pulling the chopper and its crew down with it. With the engines first overheating from the effort and then threatening to fail altogether, the pilot cut the capsule loose; it sank in waters 2,800 fathoms deep. George Cox, the copilot of the secondary recovery helicopter, arrived just then, threw a horse-collar to the astronaut, then nearly drowning, and winched him aboard the chopper to safety.

Grissom went on to pilot the first Gemini mission in 1965 but died in a launch pad exercise for Apollo 1 on January 27, 1967.

The Mercury-Atlas (MA) Orbital Missions: MA-6, MA-7, MA-8, and MA-9

The objectives of Project Mercury were laid out in 1958:

    • To orbit a manned spacecraft around earth;
  • • To investigate man's ability to function in space;
  • • To recover both man and spacecraft safely.

Toward these ends, on February 20, 1962, Lt. Col. John Glenn (USMC) became the first American to orbit the earth. In the blockhouse, Carpenter listened to the countdown and then the thunderous Atlas engines, adding, “Godspeed, John Glenn” as his friend vaulted into space. Glenn made three circuits of the planet aboard his spacecraft Friendship 7 (MA-6) in just under five hours. Although not without incident, the mission was a walloping success and a welcome boost of confidence for a nation, and a space agency, still playing catch-up with the Soviets. (Click here for the NASA history of MA-6.) Glenn’s alternate for MA-6 was Lt. Cmdr. Scott Carpenter (USN). Deke Slayton and Wally Schirra were the prime-alternate team for the follow-on flight, MA-7, then scheduled for an April 1962 launch.

NASA administrator James Webb had in the meantime reopened “the Slayton case.”

Deke Slayton, the Slayton Case, and MA-7

Deke Slayton had been named in the fall of 1961 to pilot MA-7, the follow-on mission to John Glenn’s Friendship 7. But in the months leading up to what was to have been Slayton’s flight, persistent worries about his health resurfaced, much to Slayton’s consternation. Prior to the high-G centrifuge runs in August 1959 at the Aviation Medical Acceleration Laboratory (AMAL)—just six months after the physically grueling selection process—medics detected cardiac arrhythmia in Slayton. Dr. William Douglas, the Project Mercury physician, sent the astronaut to the Philadelphia Navy Hospital for a workup, where he was diagnosed with idiopathic atrial fibrillation. A muscle at the top of his heart sometimes beat in an irregular fashion, cause unknown. Follow-up medical examinations took place at the Air Force’s School of Aviation Medicine at Brooks A.F.B., which confirmed the diagnosis.

Although rare in highly fit 35-year-olds like Slayton, the condition was not initially viewed as an impediment to his career as an astronaut or pilot. The matter was dropped. But as flight assignments were made and announced in 1961 and 1962, a member of the internal medicine staff at Brooks A.F.B. wrote a letter to NASA administrator James Webb. His recommendation: “Slayton should not be assigned a flight.”

Very early in 1962, as Slayton’s mission approached, Webb remembered the medical dissent and directed “a complete reevaluation of the case.” At this point, a contest of wills appears to have emerged at NASA. On the one hand were Slayton loyalists at Langley—including Dr. William Douglas, the entire Project Mercury medical team, and the other six astronauts. On the other hand was NASA administrator Webb, at the Washington, D.C., headquarters, who “referred the [Slayton] case to a group of three nationally eminent cardiologists.” Their judgment? “If NASA had an available astronaut who did not ‘fibrillate,’ then he should be used rather than Slayton. . . . The Slayton decision was irrevocable.”

The decision devastated Slayton and was denounced, in private, by nearly everyone at Langley. It was amid this general turmoil that Space Task Group director Robert R. Gilruth announced on March 15, 1962, that Carpenter, who had been Glenn’s alternate for MA-6, would be the prime pilot for MA-7 because he was the readiest to fly MA-7. Wally Schirra, who had been Slayton’s alternate, was made Carpenter’s backup pilot and assigned the follow-on flight, MA-8.

Scott Carpenter and the Flight of Aurora 7 (MA-7)

At 7:43 a.m. on May 24, 1962, Carpenter became only the second human to ride an Atlas rocket into space and only the second American to orbit the earth, piloting Aurora 7 three times around the planet. The mission was to corroborate MA-6, but mission planners also wanted to explore and experiment—without jeopardizing, of course, either the pilot or the mission.

In the six weeks leading to the launch, the MA-7 flight plan was repeatedly refined and modified to include experiments with fluids in zero-G and tests of various kinds. A tethered multicolored Mylar balloon was both an experiment in drag (that Cooper would repeat during MA-9) and a test of human visual acuity in space The latter would help engineers with techniques and navigation studies then being developed for Gemini and Apollo rendezvous and docking operations. The plan also called for a heavy maneuver program, more extensive observations and measurements, and more photographs of the earth from space, requested by the Weather Bureau and MIT, which provided special film and filters.

It was hoped, in addition, that Carpenter would resolve the mystery of John Glenn’s “fireflies,” the term Glenn used to describe the swarm of luminous particles that surrounded his ship at times. Such was the dearth of knowledge at the time that, after MA-6, serious academic “fireflies” conferences were convened. Were they living organisms perhaps posing a threat to astronauts and their capsules during spaceflight? No one knew. It was Carpenter’s job to find out.

The flight of Aurora 7, while busy and at times quite hot for the pilot, was largely without incident. Carpenter worked through his experiments methodically, combating both balky suit temperature settings and cabin temperatures that peaked at 108 degrees F. Although he could not jettison the Mylar balloon, he was able to take some drag measurements and to report that, of the five colored lunes, the day-glo orange and the aluminum paints were the most visible in space, with the former by far the most brilliant.

Low fuel readings by the end of the second circuit necessitated a long period of drifting flight during the third and final orbital pass of Aurora 7. The authors of This New Ocean noted that this “vehicle control relaxation maneuver” would be an extremely valuable experiment, if successful, for mission planners then devising rest and sleep periods for the longer-duration Mercury missions.

Manned spaceflight in 1962 had not yet, however, become a routine business, and so the flight of Aurora 7 produced some dramatic moments. At retrofire the Automatic Stabilization and Control System (ASCS) failed. (For a good technical discussion of the various control systems used for the Mercury spacecraft, see “Critical Components of the Capsule,” This New Ocean, esp. pp. 194–198.

Some explanation here: on autopilot on several occasions (evident in the transcripts), Carpenter noted and reported erroneous attitude readings. Later the anomalous readings were found to have been caused by a malfunctioning pitch horizon scanner (PHS). As an intermittent malfunction, however, the misbehaving PHS naturally resisted troubleshooting efforts. No one, not in Mercury Control, nor the pilot himself, tied the occasionally errant readings to the mysterious rates of fuel consumption during the first two circuits. With fuel conservation measures in place during the third and final circuit, according to This New Ocean, it was considered unwise to conduct “an adequate checkout of the ASCS before retrofire.”

As Aurora 7 approached retrofire, Chris Kraft, directing the flight from the Cape, wrote that he “considered this mission the most successful to date; everything had gone perfectly except for some overexpenditure of hydrogen peroxide fuel.” But because Carpenter had spent most of his third circuit in drifting flight, Kraft observed that the pilot had:

successfully maintained more than 40 percent of his fuel in both the automatic and the manual tanks. According to the mission rules, this ought to be quite enough, reckoned Kraft, to thrust the capsule in the retrofire attitude, hold it, and then to reenter the atmosphere using either the automatic or the manual control system.

As he began to work through his pre-retrosequence checklist, Carpenter reached for equipment to stow and accidentally rapped the walls of his cabin. The force of the blow produced a swarm of fireflies, which Carpenter had observed throughout the flight. But this time, the astronaut experienced a “Eureka!” moment. The Glenn “fireflies” mystery was resolved. The fireflies were, Carpenter explained in his voice report, capsule-emanating “frostflies”—particles of ice and frost that posed no danger to the vessel or crew.

Returning quickly to his pre-retrosequence tasks (equipment stowage, establishing retroattitude, etc.) and working with the Hawaii capcom, Carpenter reverted to autopilot, reporting: “Wait a minute. I have a problem in—”

Thirty-three seconds passed until, finally, the pilot of Aurora 7 confirmed, yes: “I have an ASCS problem here.”

The ASCS would not hold the 34-degree pitch and zero-degree yaw attitude required at retrofire. The pitch horizon scanner, hewing to a false read of the horizon, had jerked the spacecraft off proper retroattitude in both pitch and yaw. Quickly resuming control of his craft, Carpenter manually established proper pitch attitude, with easy reference to the horizon. But he was unable, in the time available, to bring the spacecraft to the required 0 degrees in yaw.

Postflight analysis showed that at retrofire the capsule was yawed to the right about 25 degrees. Meanwhile, the retrorockets had failed to fire automatically. The three seconds it took to fire them manually, combined with underthrusting retrorockets (and the error in yaw), produced a 250-mile overshoot of the planned landing zone—with no recovery forces nearby. Before loss of communication, Gus Grissom, capcom at the Cape, informed Carpenter that he could expect forces to pick him up an hour after splashdown. “Understand,” Carpenter replied, “One hour.”

He landed 135 miles northeast of Puerto Rico at 12:41 p.m. EST, 4 hours and 58 minutes after his 7:43 a.m. launch from Cape Canaveral, Florida. Because the actual landing took place outside NASA’s line-of-sight radio range, Aurora 7 was unable to communicate with the Cape. In the 55 minutes it took to locate the astronaut, network newscasters openly speculated that Carpenter had been lost, fueling the public’s mounting concern for the astronaut’s safety.

Yet NASA radar had tracked the capsule during reentry, pinpointed his landing site, and received intermittent voice reception, while a P2V airplane pilot in the area had picked up the Aurora 7 beacon “from a distance of only 50 miles,” Mercury Control neglected, however, to share this glad information with both the press and the astronaut’s wife and four children, who were watching the television news coverage in a beach house near the Cape.

After egressing through the nose of his spacecraft, Carpenter, resting in a life raft, was joined about an hour after splashdown by air force pararescue divers. Two hours later he was winched aboard a recovery helicopter and flown to the USS Intrepid. There he took congratulatory calls from Vice-President Lyndon B. Johnson and President John F. Kennedy and underwent a cursory medical examination. He was found to be in excellent condition, if mildly dehydrated. He had lost more than seven pounds during his five-hour flight—mostly through perspiration.

Carpenter was flown to Grand Turk Island for two days of debriefings, additional medical tests, and an afternoon of scuba diving. He returned to Patrick A.F.B on May 26 for a reunion with his wife, Rene, and their four children, Scott, Jay, Kris, and Candy.

The overshoot, the hour-long silence, and public concern for Carpenter’s well-being combined to make the flight of Aurora 7 one of the more dramatic U.S. spaceflights.

A Postscript

News coverage for MA-7 ended about a week after the flight—in early June 1962. Yet the vexing PHS malfunction was diagnosed weeks later. It was first described in NASA’s bluebook report, The Results of the United States Second Manned Orbital Mission, which concluded among other things that the pilot overcame a “mission critical malfunction” of the pitch horizon scanner and “achieved all mission objectives,” and proving once more how essential humans are in manned spaceflight

But the NASA findings were lost on most journalists covering Project Mercury, and therefore among the reading public. The overshoot therefore became a lingering mystery somehow connected (incorrectly) with vague recollections about a last-minute fireflies discovery, a crowded flight plan, etc.

As nature abhors a vacuum, so mysteries give rise to fancy. Over time, fanciful accounts of the flight of Aurora 7 moved in to fill the story-telling vacuum. The hypertechnical explanations were forgotten (or ill understood), giving way to less-than-accurate versions, which with repetition over the years morphed into imaginative accounts that assumed the status of legend. As legend, these counterfactual versions of the flight of Aurora 7 began to appear in print, taking on even greater apparent authority.


Official NASA Documents on Project Mercury

Project Mercury - A Chronology [pdf file]
258 pages
Project Mercury Familiarization Manual [pdf file]
431 pages
Mercury Manned Orbital Capsule - Detail Specifications [pdf file]
166 pages


For the facts about the flight of Aurora 7, the following histories, technical reports, biographies, and other nonfiction books are recommended:

Francis French and Colin Burgess, Into That Silent Sea (University of Nebraska Press, 2007).

Loyd S. Swenson, Jr., James M. Grimwood, Charles C. Alexander, This New Ocean: A History of Project Mercury (Washington, D.C.: NASA, 1998), pp. 443–460.

The Results of the Second United States Manned Orbital Space Flight. A NASA Bluebook Report.

Tom Wolfe, The Right Stuff, illustrated ed. (New York: Black Dog and Leventhal Publishers, 2005).

Scott Carpenter and Kris Stoever, For Spacious Skies: The Uncommon Journey of a Mercury Astronaut (New York: Harcourt, 2003).

For a good discussion, by John Glenn, of navigating a spacecraft in yaw, see The Results of the First United States Manned Orbital Space Flight., p. 122.

“‘A Textbook Flight’”: Walter M. Schirra, Jr., and the Flight of Sigma 7

Before dawn on October, 3, 1962, Cmdr. Walter M. Schirra (USN) slipped into his spacecraft, named Sigma 7, and at 7:15 a.m. was launched in to space, becoming the third American to orbit the earth—six circuits of the planet. MA-8, mission planners agreed, would constitute a needed intermediate step between the three-orbit flights of his predecessors Glenn and Carpenter and the daylong 22-orbit goal then being considered as the capstone mission for Project Mercury.

During the flight of Sigma 7,Schirra would further investigate navigation in yaw (using yaw-recognition displays as aids), with particular emphasis on the role of the periscope, which Carpenter had recommended be discarded after MA-7. Schirra would also report on the modified control system, which at Carpenter’s suggestion had been redesigned to include a fuel-saving “control-mode selector switch . . . that would seal off the high thrusters until they were needed for fast-reaction maneuvers.”

In addition, because interservice misunderstandings and “communication breakdowns” were reported to have marred recovery operations for MA-7, communications were reworked for MA-8. In fact, Maj. Gen. Leighton I. Davis (USAF), the DOD’s military representative, reported to Secretary of Defense Robert S. McNamara that “the delay at Mercury Control in the decision to pick up Carpenter” had been caused in part by the “lack of direct communication with the astronaut” and that the “extended period of suspense that climaxed Carpenter’s mission should never happen again in Project Mercury.”

Responding to the criticism, the recovery room in the Mercury Control Center made amends: it duly outfitted Schirra’s spacecraft with communications equipment that would permit him to maintain voice contact with recovery forces—even from a life raft.

Like Carpenter, Schirra too encountered problems with an overheating suit, but adjusted the control knob early during his first pass to find a good setting and a tolerable temperature—and to keep it there for most of his six-orbit flight. His work with yaw navigation and the periscope caused him to conclude, as Carpenter had during MA-7, that the periscope was useless: “I couldn’t see schmatze through it!” The periscope was finally discarded.

After a nine hour, thirteen-minute flight, Sigma 7 landed in the waters of the Pacific, in full view of the crew of the USS Kearsarge and its news crews. “‘It was a textbook flight,’ Schirra declared to the physicians examining him aboard the carrier, ‘The flight went just the way I wanted it to’.”

Project Mercury Comes to a Close: Faith 7, L. Gordon Cooper, and the Manned One-Day Mission (MODM)

In a final and welcome design iteration of the Mercury spacesuit, Cooper would enjoy something unique among the Mercury astronauts: a nearly comfortable spacesuit. The Mercury spacecraft, too, had been modified for the planned Manned One-Day Mission (MODM) of 22 orbits, which the air force pilot would command. Launched from Cape Canaveral on May 15, 1963, just after 8 a.m., Cooper grew accustomed to the comfort of zero G, adjusted his suit temperature controls a few times, and began to work through a raft of experiments—eleven in all (as in MA-7, the tethered balloon failed to eject during MA-9. The “second failure of this experiment was more severely disappointing than the first.”)

The pilot of Faith 7 took a number of high-quality photographs with a modified Hasselblad camera and performed a hydraulics experiment—all while zipping about the planet once every 88 minutes and 45 seconds. Cooper napped when he could.

Trouble-free nearly until the end (Cooper could be heard singing during orbits 18 and 19), the flight of Faith 7 was not without drama. Toward the end of his nineteenth pass, suddenly, Cooper reported first one systems anomaly and then another, sending Mercury Control into a “flurry of worried activity.” On his twenty-first pass, Cooper lost all ASCS and watched with some dismay as carbon dioxide levels rose in both the cabin and his suit. He conceded with typical astronaut understatement to Carpenter, serving as Hawaii capcom, that “things are beginning to stack up a little.” Not to worry. There was always fly-by-wire and manual control.

Years of training for just these systems failures paid off. Like Carpenter aboard Aurora 7, Cooper manually controlled his reentry. With one circumnavigation of the planet to plan for manual reentry, the air force pilot easily managed retroattitude: 34 degrees nose down, zero degrees in yaw. After 34 hours and 20 minutes in flight, Faith 7 splashed down, near recovery forces led, once more, by the USS Kearsarge. An “ebullient” Cooper reported with triumph: “We can certainly elongate this mission.”

NASA project managers Robert R. Gilruth and others agreed—Apollo and the great Saturn rockets were even then “aborning.”

Of the original astronaut corps of seven men, however, only Alan Shepard, the first American in space, would one day place his feet on the moon. Grissom died in 1967. Glenn resigned from NASA after the assassination of President John F. Kennedy. Carpenter was sidelined permanently by a motorbike injury (see Sealab, for information about the 1964 accident). Schirra would go on to command both Gemini and Apollo flights but was never assigned a lunar mission. Cooper flew once more, for a Gemini mission with Group 2 astronaut Pete Conrad, and served as backup commander for the Apollo 10 lunar-orbiting mission before he too retired from the astronaut corps.

Deke Slayton, deprived of flight status for more than a decade, finally climbed atop a Saturn 1b rocket on July 15, 1975, for a joint U.S-Soviet docking mission. A fitting bookend for the Mercury-era astronaut, selected so long before, at the height of the cold war.

At liftoff that summer day in 1975, there was not a dry eye in Mission Control.

For Researchers:

For good introductions to NASA and Project Mercury, we recommend the following histories and accounts:

Carpenter, M. Scott, et al., ed. by John Dille, We Seven (New York: Simon and Schuster, 1962), available through Amazon.com booksellers, this book was a bestseller when it was first published and remains one of the best first-person accounts of Project Mercury. A must for any spaceflight history library. And, yes, the astronauts themselves actually wrote their chapters.

French, Francis and Colin Burgess, Into That Silent Sea: Trailblazers of the Space Era, 1961-1965 (University of Nebraska Press, 2007). Containing a large amount of collaboration from many of the original astronauts and cosmonauts, this book includes a concise and accurate chapter about my Aurora 7 flight with a good deal of my personal input.

Gilruth, Robert Rowe, oral history. Dr. Gilruth headed up the NACA’s Pilotless Aircraft Research Division in Langley, Va., and was named director of the Space Task Group in 1958 as NACA morphed into NASA. At Langley, the Project Mercury astronauts reported to him alone. President John F. Kennedy consulted Gilruth before deciding to embark on the Apollo program.

Gilruth’s invaluable six-part oral history was conducted by historians at the National Air and Space Museum (NASM).

Glennan, T. Keith. The Birth of NASA: The Diary of T. Keith Glennan. Ed. by J. D. Hunley. NASA SP-4105, 1993.

Grimwood, James M. Project Mercury: A Chronology. NASA SP-4001, 1963.

Swenson, Loyd S., Jr., James M. Grimwood, and Charles C. Alexander. This New Ocean: A History of Project Mercury. NASA SP-4201, 1966, reprinted 1999.

Wolfe, Tom. The Right Stuff. (New York: Farrar, Straus, and Giroux, 1979). Inimitable, thrilling, gonzo account of the great duel in the sky pitting the Yeager-led Edwards test pilots against the rocket-equipped Project Mercury astronauts.

Most NASA publications may be purchased by contacting NASA HQ history office; see NASA publications.


In Brief: Henry Luce and LIFE Magazine

Before the internet and before even television, Henry Luce’s LIFE magazine served as the nation’s family album—documenting the grotesque, the wonderful, and the thrilling during times of both war and peace. By the close of the 1930s, it had supplanted Popular Mechanics—the bible for teen-aged boys taking shop classes—by enlarging, glorifying, and explaining, with stunning full-page pictures, what was happening in science—particularly American advances in science. During World War II, it documented the London blitz and the power of a new weapon: bomb-carrying rockets. In the 1950s, LIFE took postwar Americans, most of them still living in small towns, on voyeuristic journeys into the living rooms of the rich—showcasing, for example, the Ford family of Grosse Pointe in a January 1953 pictorial, and introducing important Eisenhower administration cabinet members to an increasingly prosperous and confident United States.

Most of all, LIFE gave its vast reading audience spectacular close-ups of human beings under extreme conditions: Men dropped from balloons in the stratosphere, men on rocket sleds, women (LIFE called them “ladies”) in borrowed spacesuits, men too, and the mice and chimpanzees who preceded them all in to spaceflight. With its direct, page-turning appeal, LIFE struck a chord with the American people.

In 1959, with the selection of the seven Project Mercury astronauts (and with network television poised to take LIFE’s place in American homes), Henry Luce speedily arranged for the exclusive rights to the personal stories of the astronauts and their wives. At his command were some of the best editors, writers, and photographers working at the time—managing editor Ed Thompson; photo and layout editor Marian MacPhail; writer-editors Loudon Wainwright, Don Schanche, and John Dille; and of course Ralph Morse, photographer.

The LIFE Contract and the Project Mercury Astronauts

In April of 1959, the seven military pilots chosen for Project Mercury—represented pro bono by Washington attorney Leo DeOrsey, president of the Washington Redskins—signed, along with their wives, a contract with LIFE magazine for their personal stories. It had been a speedy but prickly negotiation. Henry Luce, the owner and publisher of Fortune, Time, and LIFE magazines, was a man of great appetites and limitless energy. A Republican powerhouse and collector of people—including Chiang Kai-shek and his wife, Madame Chiang, Hemingway, Picasso, and President Dwight D. Eisenhower himself, whose memoirs he had published—Luce always got what he wanted. And he recognized the journey into space as the story of the century: above war, politics, and even literature. For one million dollars, the personal stories of the pilots became his to publish.1

Commercial contracts with professional military officers were, however, unique. And controversial. NASA resisted the arrangement. The military hierarchy tut-tutted. President Eisenhower—already annoyed by the unwelcome attention his grandchildren were getting in the press—favored housing the pilots’ families beyond anyone’s reach on a military base, much as the Russian cosmonauts were sequestered in their Star Village. Some advisors argued that the families should be protected from all the news outlets clamoring for time and attention. The pilots themselves were conflicted. Why should they be compensated for risking their lives, when risk had been part of their flying from the beginning? But interest in their pre-NASA work, risky as it was, was practically nil among the reading public. As newly fledged astronauts, they had become entirely different commodities. It was ultimately agreed that they could be compensated, under certain conditions. I remember the negotiations were largely fueled with the emotion of impending loss. It was feared that many pilots would die in the course of Project Mercury.

NASA surrendered after insisting, and receiving assurances, that LIFE would have no access to the pilots immediately after their flights, not until NASA personnel had thoroughly debriefed them. In return NASA offered LIFE photographers and writers access to its training sites and hardware. Finally, regarding the families, NASA had no explicit objections to LIFE coverage of the personal stories on the day of the flight. In the end, this day-of-the-flight coverage was worked out informally, family by family, in return for LIFE’s compensation.

1As I recall, the net compensation came to about $70,000 per pilot’s family. [Today this sum is equivalent to about $485,000. —Editor’s note.] Leo DeOrsey arranged to have the funds paid out over five years.

—Rene Carpenter


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