April 9, 2009
— They were seven men, all pilots, each recruited from the military (three from the Navy, three Air Force and one from the Marines). They were all shorter than five feet, 11 inches, and were required to weigh less than 180 pounds. Each was in top physical shape, having passed an extensive battery of medical tests. They were college educated and their IQs were said to be all "above normal". They were men of faith and family men.
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. Carpenter and Glenn are the only two of the first 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.
Scott Carpenter replies to a question from the press on April 9, 1959 at the briefing announcing him as an astronaut (LIFE)
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."
"When they first started the Mercury program, you had one person flying one vehicle and it was brand new and it was the first time flying anything in space. So it was the kind of a job that you'd want an experienced military test pilot for, I think," explained Ross. "Of course now, in the program we have now, we still have experienced military test pilots who will apply and get selected, but we've also got a variety of other different kind of folks."
Today, Ross described, candidates range in profession from engineers and scientists to medical doctors and teachers, but that's not to say today's astronauts are not exposed to the same dangers.
"The job is still risky. We still tell people when we bring them down to interview, 'There's a risk involved in what you're getting into, be sure you understand this and it is something you want to do,' but obviously the more we do this, you try to make it safer each time," he shared.
"So there is some element there — when you consider the risk — of the right stuff, but I think the overall picture is different now," Ross said.
Among the differences is the "hero" element.
"The folks we hire now come into be a member of a big team of people to do things. Now, what they do is really unique, unusual and special, and certainly they're role models and I guess in some people's mind they are still heroes," Ross opined. "I certainly think what they do is special."
Hero or not, right stuff of not, Carpenter agrees, and had words of encouragement for the next men and women to be named astronauts.
"In just a few words, hang in there. It is the greatest thing an aviator can aspire to," said Carpenter.