Fifty-six years ago this week, NASA held a press conference in Washington, D.C. to introduce the seven men selected to be Project Mercury Astronauts. They would become known as the Mercury Seven or Original Seven.
Project Mercury was America’s first manned spaceflight program. The overall objective of Project Mercury was to place a manned spacecraft in Earth orbit and bring both man and machine safely home. Project Mercury ran from 1959 to 1963.
The men who would ultimately become Mercury Astronauts were among a group of 508 military test pilots originally considered by NASA for the new role of astronaut. The group of 508 candidates was then successively pared to 110, then 69 and finally to 32. These 32 volunteers were then subjected to exhaustive medical and psychological testing.
A total of 18 men were still under consideration for the astronaut role at the conclusion of the demanding test period. Now came the hard part for NASA. Each of the 18 finalists was truly outstanding and would be a worthy finalist. But there were only 7 spots on the team.
On Thursday, 09 April 1959, NASA publicly introduced the Mercury Seven in a special press conference held for this purpose at the Dolley Madison House in Washington, D.C. The men introduced to the Nation that day will forever hold the distinction of being the first official group of American astronauts. In the order in which they flew, the Mercury Seven were:
Alan Bartlett Shepard Jr., United States Navy. Shepard flew the first Mercury sub-orbital mission (MR-3) on Friday, 05 May 1961. He was also the only Mercury astronaut to walk on the Moon. Shepherd did so as Commander of Apollo 14 (AS-509) in February 1971. Alan Shepard died from leukemia on 21 July 1998 at the age of 74.
Vigil Ivan Grissom, United States Air Force. Grissom flew the second Mercury sub-orbital mission (MR-4) on Friday, 21 July 1961. He was also Commander of the first Gemini mission (GT-3) in March 1965. Gus Grissom might very well have been the first man to walk on the Moon. But he died in the Apollo 1 Fire, along with Astronauts Edward H. White II and Roger Chaffee, on Friday, 27 January 1967. Gus Grissom was 40 at the time of his death.
John Herschel Glenn Jr., United States Marines. Glenn was the first American to orbit the Earth (MA-6) on Thursday, 22 February 1962. He was also the only Mercury Astronaut to fly a Space Shuttle mission. He did so as a member of the STS-95 crew in October of 1998. Glenn was 77 at the time and still holds the distinction of being the oldest person to fly in space. John Glenn will be 94 in July 2015.
Malcolm Scott Carpenter, United States Navy. Carpenter became the second American to orbit the Earth (MA-7) on Thursday, 24 May 1962. This was his only mission in space. Carpenter subsequently turned his attention to under-sea exploration and was an aquanaut on the United States Navy SEALAB II project. Scott Carpenter died in October 2013 shortly after suffering a stroke. He was 88 at the time of his passing.
Walter Marty Schirra Jr., United States Navy. Schirra became the third American to orbit the Earth (MA-8) on Wednesday, 03 October 1962. He later served as Commander of Gemini 6A (GT-6) in December 1965 and Apollo 7 (AS-205) in October 1968. Schirra was the only Mercury Astronaut to fly Mercury, Gemini and Apollo space missions. Wally Schirra died from a heart attack in May 2007 at the age of 84.
Leroy Gordon Cooper Jr., United States Air Force. Cooper became the fourth American to orbit the Earth (MA-9) on Wednesday, 15 May 1963. In doing so, he flew the last and longest Mercury mission (22 orbits, 34 hours). Cooper was also Commander of Gemini 5 (GT-5), the first long-duration Gemini mission, in August 1965. Gordo Cooper died from heart failure in October 2004 at the age of 77.
Donald Kent Slayton, United States Air Force. Slayton was the only Mercury Astronaut to not fly a Mercury mission when he was grounded for heart arrythemia in 1962. He subsequently served many years on Gemini and Apollo as head of astronaut selection. He finally got his chance for spaceflight in July 1975 as a crew member of the Apollo-Soyuz mission (ASTP). Deke Slayton died from brain cancer in June of 1993 at the age of 69.
History records that the Mercury Seven was the only group of NASA astronauts that had a member that flew each of America’s manned spacecraft (i.e, Mercury, Gemini, Apollo and Shuttle). Though just men and imperfect mortals, we honor and remember them for their genuinely heroic deeds and unique contributions made to the advancement of American manned spaceflight.