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  Six or seven? Project Mercury Selection

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Author Topic:   Six or seven? Project Mercury Selection
KC Stoever

Posts: 1009
From: Denver, CO USA
Registered: Oct 2002

posted 05-10-2004 01:57 PM     Click Here to See the Profile for KC Stoever   Click Here to Email KC Stoever     Edit/Delete Message   Reply w/Quote
On another thread regarding the Project Mercury selection of astronauts, one poster was referred to an authoritative account of the 1959 selection process. He recalled:

"I do not need to refer to [the book]. I have also read Chris Kraft's book, Schirra's autobiography, Cooper's autobiography, etc. . . . Kraft certainly indicates (if memory serves without the book here) that the panel had five clear choices and two tied for the final sixth slot, so they took seven, rather than six astronaut trainees and Carpenter was one of the last two."

This urban legend appears in a number of space memoirs--always without citation or authority. I repeat it here: "the panel had five clear choices and two tied for the final sixth slot, so they took seven. . . ."

This particular and erroneous factoid may have its origins in NASA's initial proposal for "Project Astronaut"--a proposal rejected by Eisenhower the fall of 1958.
See the official history of Project Mercury, THIS NEW OCEAN, chap. 5.

I quote it below:

"Preliminary procedures for pilot selection had been worked out by the aeromedical consultants attached to the Space Task Group at Langley during November [1958]. Their plan called for a meeting with representatives from [civilian] industry and the [military] services to nominate a pool of 150 men from which 36 candidates would be selected for physical and psychological testing. From this group 12 would be chosen to go through a nine-month training and qualification program, after which six finally would be expected to qualify.5l/"

But in December 1958 Eisenhower ordered, instead, a top-secret invitation only to jet-qualified MILITARY pilots. (The first proposal, incidentally, would have placed civilian Neal Armstrong in the pool of eligible candidates.)

So, to sum up, the figure of "six" men being "expected to qualify" grew out of early assumptions about how the NASA Working Group of human factors experts might proceed. They expected to identify (1) 150 candidates; (2) 36 candidates would be chosen for physical and psych testing; (3) 12 would be selected for training; and (4) half of these candidates--six men--"finally would be expected to qualify." Number of Mercury flights was then unspecified.

Kraft may have -heard- about the initial human factors proposal, and then, forty years later in writing his memoirs, elaborated sloppily on misremembered and rejected proposals to insinuate unflattering things about astronauts he disliked.

As it happens, Eisenhower's decision made the selection process slightly different from the one first anticipated: (1) 110 pilots were eligible on paper; (2) 69 were interviewed and psych tested at the Pentagon; (3) 32 were selected for further testing; (4) 18 were recommended "without medical reservation"; and (5) seven were selected.

There was no nonsense, at the end, as Kraft's account suggests, about whether to choose "six or seven" astronauts. It was rather the opposite. The Selection Committee was overwhelmed by the human talent knocking at its door. The committee felt it HAD to have these seven men. There was no dithering and no compromise at the end, only hard decisions about choosing the best men who together would make the best team. This according to surviving members of the Working Group.


Posts: 791
From: Cortlandt Manor, NY
Registered: May 2000

posted 05-10-2004 02:23 PM     Click Here to See the Profile for WAWalsh   Click Here to Email WAWalsh     Edit/Delete Message   Reply w/Quote
Pure supposition on your part without an ounce of support. You have not offered any acceptable documented source which even suggests that the statements that two were tied for the sixth and final slot, so both were taken, is wrong. Absent some indication that you were in a better position than Chris Kraft in 1959, your word that this "factoid" is "urban legend" is grossly insufficient.

The final clause of your post suggests an source for your position, but without any authoirty cited. What surviving members of the working group are you refering to? Where were these statements made, written or recorded.

As to continuing use of the statement, true or not, Neal Thompson's book on Alan Shepard repeats the statement that seven were taken for the anticipated six slots at p. 165.

As to the purported immaturity of other candidates and the validity of broad tests that Dr. Lovelace's team performed, page 163 offers both a rational opinion of some of those tests as well as Shepard's humorous (or perhaps juvenile) response to the use of the "steel eel" on his person.
New Member


posted 05-10-2004 02:37 PM     Click Here to See the Profile for   Click Here to Email     Edit/Delete Message   Reply w/Quote
I think it important to remember in regards to Kraft, that during his book signing tour he repeatedly said (when asked about some of the errors in his book from the audience) his response was "This is my memory after so many years - at least the WAY I remember it". That speaks volumes.

Lets also recall Kraft was at best, a difficult man during his career and carried many grudges. Many he never got over. I know one man who refused to go to his booksigning, from the Apollo era, that went to Kranz's with me.

But given it is sketchy memory on Kraft's part, Schirra's book and others use various forms of "research and memory" to come to these conclusions.

Kris, I think your Dad well deserved the flight - was well qualified for it - did well on it and suffered for one mans temper. Irrespective of the selection process.

Just my humble opinion.




Posts: 830
From: Fort Mill, SC, USA
Registered: Aug 2000

posted 05-10-2004 02:52 PM     Click Here to See the Profile for bruce   Click Here to Email bruce     Edit/Delete Message   Reply w/Quote

To Al's remarks, ditto, ditto and double ditto.



Posts: 791
From: Cortlandt Manor, NY
Registered: May 2000

posted 05-10-2004 03:40 PM     Click Here to See the Profile for WAWalsh   Click Here to Email WAWalsh     Edit/Delete Message   Reply w/Quote
Mmmm, peeling a little bit of the egg off of my face as I pull foot out of mouth.

With Al's less than subtle assistance, there is no question that you have spoken to more than a few people with meanignful information. What they said, why they said it and the extent of their memory or knowledge remains unknown. Your post, however, did nothing to correct the issue. While it provides a very plausible basis for showing a potential source for the number of 6, it does not indicate a reason to believe anyone ever shifted from that target number. After President Eisenhower's order, the target pool was known, but did that change the anticipated number of pilots to be taken? Your statement that "[t]he committee felt it HAD to have these seven men. There was no dithering and no compromise at the end, only hard decisions about choosing the best men who together would make the best team," actually supports the statement that they were looking for the top six and simply found that they could not eliminate one and so took seven. As was discussed before, who ranked where is unknown.

As to accuracy of statements and memories, I have yet to read an autobiography, biography or history of the early space program that does not have a few statements that contradict or are at odds with another book. As I noted before, "Flight" raised a number of issues about the Aurora 7 mission and "For Spacious Skies" pretty much addressed each of those points. Was there an element of bias in Kraft's book; undoubtably. Was there an element of bias in your response; it certainly seems so ("elaborated sloppily on misremembered and rejected proposals to insinuate unflattering things about astronauts he disliked"). Each book, and any other book, will merely provide snapshots into events from one perspective; it would be follhardy to believe that any one book captures the entire truth.

As to Al's close, none of this discussion has ever been intended to question the right of any of the Mercury Seven to their original selection or, for six, to their right to a mission. The work that went into the initial development of the program was astounding and the nerve to fly those early missions goes to point that few can understand (certainly the issues of safety raised with the shuttle are nothing in comparison to the Redstone and Atlas flights).

KC Stoever

Posts: 1009
From: Denver, CO USA
Registered: Oct 2002

posted 05-10-2004 04:54 PM     Click Here to See the Profile for KC Stoever   Click Here to Email KC Stoever     Edit/Delete Message   Reply w/Quote
Thanks for clearing that up, WaWalsh. And to others for their posts. I am trained as a historian; my professional background is in scholarly publishing. Nonfiction can't be nonfiction, it can't be reliable, unless it is true.

What one man -says- he remembers is qualitatively different from events as they actually happened. This is the difference between memoir and biography. Memory must be weighed against the documentary evidence. Memoirs are less tied to facts. Biographies are heavily researched.

I based my earlier post about the 1959 selection process on facts that have been proved. In works of nonfiction, proof is provided with citations.

This is why I referred in my original post to FOR SPACIOUS SKIES: The Uncommon Journey of a Mercury Astronaut. Walsh says I provided no citations in my post. But it would be difficult to post all 57 endnotes pertaining to the 1959 selection processin support of a cS post--they took up 7 pages of 9-point text in the book.

In any event, in the book, there for all to see is a true narrative (and a lot of exposition) regarding 1959, told from one (successful) candidate's perspective.

FOR SPACIOUS SKIES provides citations for nearly every assertion of fact--for example, the aforementioned 57 endnotes for the selection chapter alone.

In those notes, you will find references to nearly contemporaneous accounts of the events--original NASA memoranda, THIS NEW OCEAN, interviews with candidates, interviews with Working Group members (Ruff and Voas, Allen Gamble's widow), email follow-ups, WE SEVEN, and published scholarly accounts, among them the little-known but masterful CHOOSING THE RIGHT STUFF, by former NASA psychiatrist Dr. Patricia A. Santy.

Voas, Santy, Mrs. Gamble, and Ruff all read and corrected at least two drafts.

Forty years of innuendo, insinuation, urban legend, lore, myth, and slime are difficult to address with the publication of one true book. And I understand how hard it is for some to give up cherished, albeit untrue, anecdotes about our heroes.

Don't know who to believe when one guy says black and another says white? Check the sources. Nice solid primary sources are best, followed by reputable secondary sources. It's pretty simple.

KC Stoever

Posts: 1009
From: Denver, CO USA
Registered: Oct 2002

posted 05-10-2004 05:05 PM     Click Here to See the Profile for KC Stoever   Click Here to Email KC Stoever     Edit/Delete Message   Reply w/Quote
Oh, and, regarding Neal Thompson's bio of Shepard and the six versus seven business. Al was a -participant- in the selection process. He would have known only what was done to him, Phases I through V.

Only the Working Group members, and those who sat on the Selection Committee, were privy to the process.

But urban legend lives on, I guess.

And urban legend will persist as long as writers don't source (and double source) their assertions.


Posts: 398
From: Union, New Jersey
Registered: Jan 2001

posted 05-10-2004 05:20 PM     Click Here to See the Profile for Hawkman   Click Here to Email Hawkman     Edit/Delete Message   Reply w/Quote
Originally posted by KC Stoever:
But urban legend lives on, I guess.

No kidding. There are still people who insist that they see a munchkin hang himself in the 'Wizard Of Oz'. When you explain that it's a bird brought in to give an outside feel on the set, they almost seem disappointed to hear the truth. :-)


Posts: 154
From: Preston, England
Registered: Mar 2004

posted 05-10-2004 05:30 PM     Click Here to See the Profile for Ashy   Click Here to Email Ashy     Edit/Delete Message   Reply w/Quote
You're mean its a bird!!

New Member


posted 05-26-2004 05:31 AM     Click Here to See the Profile for collshubby   Click Here to Email collshubby     Edit/Delete Message   Reply w/Quote
I am currently reading "The Race" by James Schefter, and just finished reading some information about this.

According to the book:

"After Albuquerque, the Space Task Group had thirty-one average supermen to evaluate and weed down to six. The reports from Dryden made it clear that eighteen of them were better-than-average supermen..."

"Four men now held the future of America's man-in-space program in their hands. Charles J. Donlan, Warren North, and Stanley White sat around a table at Langley, Virginia, and debated the merits of the eighteen..."

"By Thursday, April 2, 1959, only seven candidates remained. They were the best of the best, and Donlan, North, and White couldn't decide whom to cut. They called (Bob) Gilruth and explained. He looked at the folders, thumbed them through, and shrugged. 'Then we'll take all seven.' he said."

Just tellin' you what it said. Not saying it's gospel, of course. Food for thought.

Brian Peter

Fra Mauro

Posts: 1017
From: Maspeth, NY
Registered: Jul 2002

posted 05-26-2004 07:28 AM     Click Here to See the Profile for Fra Mauro   Click Here to Email Fra Mauro     Edit/Delete Message   Reply w/Quote
I met you and your dad at a book signing in NYC last year and had a great time. I'm a historian also--I teach a course on the Space Program as a senior elective in high school.


Posts: 3293
From: Houston, TX
Registered: May 2001

posted 05-26-2004 10:32 AM     Click Here to See the Profile for Scott   Click Here to Email Scott     Edit/Delete Message   Reply w/Quote
Thank you for posting. I had the privilege of meeting your father once and he is one of most approachable and friendly people.

I definitely got the sense that Kraft was saying that stuff about your father in his book in an attempt to sell copies. Pretty sad.

New Member


posted 05-27-2004 07:08 AM     Click Here to See the Profile for OPOS   Click Here to Email OPOS     Edit/Delete Message   Reply w/Quote
I cannot comment directly on the selection issue, simply because I have not seen primary source info that is clear on that particular subject. I have had personal communications with a number of persons directly related to mission control, both controllers and astronauts. Much of what I heard echo Al's comments directly, if not forcefully. I get the feeling there are more people out there that wish to refute Kraft's comments about people, and in all likelihood, those comments may not be as diplomatic as Kris and Scott managed in their book. Bravo to those willing to set the record straight. There may be a time soon where we see that truly, what goes around, eventually comes around.

Tom Edmonds


Posts: 3093
From: San Diego
Registered: Feb 2002

posted 05-27-2004 10:28 PM     Click Here to See the Profile for FFrench     Edit/Delete Message   Reply w/Quote
Unfortunately, relying on James Schefter's "The Race" for any authoritative facts is, in my opinion, somewhat like relying on the Fox TV network for an account of the moon landings...

... and as Schefter was a major contributor to Chris Kraft's book, it is essentially the same source, not really confirmation.



Posts: 1050
From: Canada
Registered: Jul 2001

posted 06-02-2004 11:08 AM     Click Here to See the Profile for music_space   Click Here to Email music_space     Edit/Delete Message   Reply w/Quote
Even though I am technically inclined, I am first and formost an artist, and, I guess, a spiritual being. While, as an amateur historian of space exploration, I enjoy reading these discussions about authority and revision in space history, I praise the Mercury selection process to have included in the ranks of early space pionners a man whom I can identify with readily. Astronaut Carpenter holds the distinction, IMHO, to be the first "poet" sent into space, sooner or later to be followed by the Aldrins and the Beans and the Mitchells and the McAuliffes and so many others who did fine jobs and also shared with us their enlarged spiritual views of life.

Captain Apollo

Posts: 169
From: UK
Registered: Jun 2004

posted 06-03-2004 06:18 PM     Click Here to See the Profile for Captain Apollo   Click Here to Email Captain Apollo     Edit/Delete Message   Reply w/Quote
For a newbie - who is your dad?


Posts: 1567
From: Sydney, Australia
Registered: Sep 2003

posted 06-03-2004 06:52 PM     Click Here to See the Profile for ColinBurgess   Click Here to Email ColinBurgess     Edit/Delete Message   Reply w/Quote
Scott Carpenter

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