Sunday, April 05, 2009

NASA's First Astronauts Selected 50 Years Ago

We set sail on this new sea because there is new knowledge to be gained, and new rights to be won, and they must be won and used for the progress of all people. - John F. Kennedy 1962.

Following the conclusion of World War II, America and Soviet Union relations begin to strain as the two countries built up their defense during a new war - The Cold War - of the 1950's. After the second war to end all wars, both America and the Soviets took the best German scientists, who by 1944 had developed the famed V2 rocket. A rocket which was unlike any before and could travel higher and further.

These post-war scientists and engineers found themselves developing the technology which had gone into the V2 into newer "missles" as both countries quietly began the space race.

In October 1958, one year after the National Aeronautics and Space Administration was created, Project Mercury was announced. President Dwight Eisenhower announced a world wide search for twelve (then later six) American test pilots to fly the Mercury spacecrafts into space and earth orbit. American military pilots were deployed around the world.

Project Mercury had three goals in 1959:
  • Place a manned spacecraft in orbital flight around the earth.
  • Investigate man's performance capabilities and his ability to function in the environment of space.
  • Recover the man and the spacecraft safely.
And so, after interviewing about 500 American military test pilots from around the world, the United States welcomed her first six astronauts: L. Gordon Cooper, Jr., Walter M. Schirra, Alan B. Shepard, Jr., Virgil I. Grissom, John H. Glenn, Jr., Donald K. Slayton and M. Scott Carpenter.

On April 9, 1959 - fifty years ago - these seven Project Mercury astronauts were announced at a huge press gala in Washington, D.C. ... and did the press begin a five year love affair with them.

From 1961 to 1963, six of the seven would fly Mercury space craft, beginning first with Alan Shepard on May 5th. His 16 minute "cannonball launch" gave Americans a much needed boost following the Soviets arrival in space three weeks earlier. My 1996 interview with Mr. Shepard for SpaceLaunch News magazine at Cape Canaveral was my meeting with the Christopher Columbus of the new Ocean of space.

In July of '61, Gus Grissom repeated Shepard's 16 minute non-orbital space flight; and NASA was so pleased it announced that the third Mercury launch would be aboard the Atlas rocket - a rocket which many felt was not as reliable due to several launch mishaps during testing.

In February 1962, John Glenn became the first American to orbit the earth when after multiple delays his Atlas rocket lept off the pad and into the history books. This Marine orbited earth three times during his nearly five hour flight. Glenn became a big national hero, so much so that President Kennedy did not want Glenn to fly again in fear that America may loose a national treasure. Glenn eventually did return to earth orbit in 1998 aboard shuttle Discovery during the STS-95 mission.

Carpenter, Schirra and Cooper flew next aboard the Atlas rockets and concluded with a full day in space during Cooper's mission.

Grissom, Schirra and Cooper all flew the next phase of NASA's goal of going to the moon by the end of 1969 - Project Gemini. Shepard - who had an inner ear issue - was later cleared to fly 10 years after his Mercury flight as he went not just into earth orbit, but lunar orbit and three separate walks on the moon's surface during Apollo 14 in January 1971.

"Deke" Slayton, who had developed a heart issue in the early '60's, lost his flight status and became head of the astronaut office. He eventually flew on the final Apollo flight in July 1975 - a mission which brought the Americans and Soviets together for a handshake in space.

[Please take three hours this week and dust off your copy of the 1983 movie, The Right Stuff. A truly remarkable, entertaining and historic account from Chuck Yeager breaking the sound barrier through Cooper's ride to orbit. Grab the popcorn and do share this movie with your older children. - Charles]

Today, only Glenn and Carpenter are still around. Pioneers? Yes! But they will tell you in their military test pilot way - we were just doing our job.

They are forever now our Golden Boys!

1 comment:

Jonathan Woodworth said...

Great story Charles,
I enjoy your work very much.
Jon Woodworth
Cousin of Mary Myers.

copyright 1998 - 2010 Charles Atkeison, All rights reserved.