They were seven men, all military pilots, in peak physical shape with above average IQs. They were college educated and men of faith and family. And they were America's first "astronaut volunteers."
Announced to the press at 2:00 p.m. on April 9, 1959 in Washington, DC, M. Scott Carpenter, L. Gordon Cooper, John H. Glenn, Virgil "Gus" Grissom, Walter M. Schirra, Alan B. Shepard and Donald "Deke" Slayton immediately rocketed into history as heroes, two years before any of them would leave the ground for space.
"The nation needed support for the program and that was one way to get support, to make the people who were doing it heroic," recalled Scott Carpenter, 50 years later, in an interview with collectSPACE.com. Carpenter and Glenn are the only two of the seven who are alive today.
"There were so many unknowns and conquering those unknowns was scary to people. It made us heroes and I think that's okay," he added.
Carpenter would become the second American to orbit the Earth, flying fourth among his six fellow astronauts, following the suborbital flights of Shepard and Grissom and Glenn's three orbits. Schirra and Cooper would follow Carpenter into space. Slayton would be grounded until 1972, due to an erratic heart rate, but would serve in the interim as head of the astronaut corps.
And though the Soviet Union would launch two men into orbit before the United States could follow, the race with the Russians only served to emphasize the heroic roles filled by the seven original Mercury astronauts. They were men, as author Tom Wolfe would later coin for a book by the same title, who had "the right stuff".
The next 314
NASA's original seven astronauts were joined by "The New Nine" in 1962, including future moonwalkers Neil Armstrong, Charles Conrad and John Young. Fourteen more were recruited a year later, including Alan Bean and Buzz Aldrin.
Over the past 50 years, NASA has hired 19 groups, or classes, of "astronaut volunteers.? In total, 314 people have followed the original seven into NASA's ranks, but their path to becoming an astronaut was different.
"I think it's changed," said Carpenter. "Of course, I don't have firsthand knowledge of the follow-on groups, but I think the testing and the training of the first group was ideal and it formed the basis of a program for selection and training that served the country very well."
Duane Ross, NASA's manager for astronaut command selection and training at Johnson Space Center in Houston, agreed that the selection process has changed.
"I say that with some reservation because I wasn't here back then," said Ross, who, since 1978, has been a part of every space shuttle-era astronaut selection.
"There are some similarities, in that we have some basic requirements you have to meet. Academic requirements are the same as they were back then, that is a degree in either engineering, math or science," explained Ross.
"We certainly still have physical requirements, even though those have obviously changed a little bit as we get smarter all the time. There were height requirements back then, we still have height requirements," he added. "And there was a board, I think, that was convened to do that process and we still have a selection board."
The other stuff
"I think the kind of things that we are looking for are quite a bit different than they were back then for the original seven," said Ross.
NASA is preparing to hire its 20th class of astronauts in May. The candidates, who have already gone through two rounds of interviews, have demonstrated that they have the "stuff" for the job, but it's not "the right stuff".
"In my opinion, and this is just my opinion, I would say no," replied Ross when asked if the new astronauts had the same qualities as the Mercury astronauts. "It is a little bit different and it's different for a couple of reasons."
Continue reading New Astronauts Don't Need 'The Right Stuff' at collectSPACE.com.
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