SAN JOSE, April 10, 2016 — Seven of the most famous people in the United States during the 1960s and 1970s were introduced to the American people on April 9, 1959. These seven clean-cut, healthy, and exceptionally smart, young men would go down in history, and eventually up into space, as the first American astronauts.
These young men were announced by the newly formed National Aeronautics and Space Administration as the chosen few who had passed the rigorous tests to become the first American astronauts, literally meaning “star sailors.” These original astronauts became known as the “Mercury Seven.’ They were: Scott Carpenter, Gordon Cooper, John Glenn, Gus Grissom, Wally Schirra, Alan Shepard, and Deke Slayton.
When Americans who were alive to witness this period of history think back to these times, the president most linked to the astronauts is John F. Kennedy. However, contrary to popular belief, it was President Dwight D. Eisenhower, not Kennedy, who initiated the American foray into space exploration.
President Eisenhower’s vision was that the National Aeronautics and Space Administration (NASA) should be a civilian agency and not a part of the U.S. military. That seemed unusual to some extent due to the former general’s long military career. But Dwight Eisenhower felt that the future of the aerospace explorations and research would be much better suited as separate from the military, and focused upon peaceful applications of the scientific exploration in space.
NASA became a government agency as established through the National Aeronautics and Space Act that passed on July 29, 1958, and took the place of NASA’s predecessor called the National Advisory Committee for Aeronautics, which dated back to 1946. However after ten years, under President Eisenhower, on July 31, 1956, the U.S. announced the intention to launch into space an artificial satellite. Amazingly, two days afterward, the government of the former Union of Soviet Socialists Republic announced its intention to do the same. However, when the Soviet Sputnik 1 was launched into space on October 4, 1957, it shocked the United States, and stunned the world.
Americans were startled by the Soviet Union’s rapid advancement in space exploration, and the U.S. was always hastening to catch up to their space research and their genuine achievements. Although NASA began official operations on October 1, 1958, almost a year before, the Soviet Union outdid the U.S. by launching the “Sputnik.” It was a 183 lb. metal sphere that became the first artificial satellite to successfully orbit the earth. One month later, the Soviets launched “Sputnik 2.” This feat proved to be quite significant because in this launch, the Soviets had put a dog in a small metal cabin and launched it into space.
The space dog’s name was “Laika,” and had been picked up off the streets in Moscow, and went on to become one of the most famous dogs in history. Sadly, Laika’s ride was fatal. The Soviet propaganda at the time stated that the dog had survived several days in orbit, but the truth was learned in 2002 that Laika died of panic and overheating not long after liftoff. Despite the controversy over the predictable fate of Laika, the Soviet scientists were not much concerned about whether the dog lived or not, and had no plans of recovering Laika’s tiny capsule after the flight was completed.
In the Sputnik 2 effort, Soviet scientists were primarily concerned with being able to receive the information from the sensors monitoring Laika that was relayed from space to their control facility. The Soviet Union Satellite Project needed to know whether a living creature could survive the forces exerted upon it during the launch (stress at the time of acceleration and weightlessness). Soviet scientists’ chief focus was upon how a living creature was affected by the launch into space. That would influence their later decisions on sending human beings into space.
While shooting a dog into space was one major level of accomplishment, the hope was always that a human would be able to withstand the physical and mental demands of being projected into space. Certainly, U.S. scientists and the original seven American astronauts hoped that one of the original seven would be the first human to fly into space.
The first American astronaut to fly up beyond the atmosphere was Alan Shephard, Jr. Yet, he was the second human to enter space. A Russian cosmonaut named Yuri Gagarin had the distinction of becoming the first human in space, as well as the first man to fully orbit the earth. The Soviets again had demonstrated that they were a few steps ahead of the U.S. in the “space race.”
The Americans came so close, but the Mercury Seven could only watch when on April 12, 1961, 27 year-old Soviet Army Lt. Yuri Gagarin was launched into space. His space craft, “Vostok 1” made one orbit around the earth, which took 1 hour and 48 minutes.
Alan Shephard, Jr. made it into space on May 5, 1961, as he became the first of the Mercury Project’s seven astronauts to fly beyond the atmosphere. He went up for a little over 15 minutes and came back down, and returned safely to splash down in the ocean. With that launch, the space program seemed substantial enough to capture and hold the attention of the American public.
Shephard’s successful flight was also substantial enough for President Kennedy to challenge the members of a joint session of Congress to the goal “…of landing a man on the moon and returning him safely to the Earth…” With Kennedy’s speech to Congress, he not only asked the elected representatives of Congress for the money (it would cost billions), the president put the choice of whether America should enter the space race into the hands of the citizens. The rest became a very vibrant part of history as the Mercury Project became the foundation for the Gemini Project as well as for the more famous Apollo Project, which eventually fulfilled the vision of sending a man to the moon and bringing him safely home again.
The Mercury Seven were the pioneers of this incredible endeavor. Alan Shephard was followed by Virgil “Gus” Grissom in June of 1961. Grissom would also go up and come back down without any orbit. And then, with the U.S. still struggling to catch up to the Soviet space program, which had successfully launched a second cosmonaut in August of 1961 who had orbited the earth over 17 times, NASA was successful in enabling astronaut John Glenn to orbit the earth three times on February 20, 1962. Glenn’s achievement was delayed repeatedly by technical issues or weather, but he finally got the green light for his mission in his “Friendship 7” spacecraft.
Three more of the seven followed Glenn’s foundation of orbiting the planet: Scott Carpenter, Wally Schirra, and Gordon Cooper.
It was Gordon Cooper’s 22 orbit mission in May of 1963 that established the American record for the number of orbits, as well as the longest span of time in space (almost a full day), but it also brought the Mercury Project to a successful conclusion. However, through the work of these courageous astronauts, NASA learned a great amount about the stresses upon human beings as they flew through space. Yet, it also showed how much more they needed to do before sending a person to the moon. Upon the stable foundation established by the Mercury Seven astronauts, NASA made plans for Project Gemini, which was the intermediate stage of preparation for President Kennedy’s challenge. The final phase involving the trip to the moon was Project Apollo.
This initial phase of manned spaceflight seems so dwarfed now by the missions to the moon by the Apollo astronauts. However, without the foundation of courage and dedication to go where no one had ventured before, the later exploratory efforts would have likely taken much longer, and would have left the U.S. in a weak position of leadership for the nations of the Free World. Beyond this, this effort to move forward into the unknown was a cooperative effort of so many talented individuals throughout the U.S. and throughout the world. Such peaceful and constructive achievements is a powerful and successful example of how people working in harmony can accomplish seemingly impossible goals – noble goals.