posted 08-10-2015 03:17 PM
I hope this general post, about the state of the literature on the astronaut-selection process, including events at Lovelace in February and March of 1959, is seen to be helpful.
Private researchers continue to reach out to surviving candidates (and family members), hoping to glean kernels of information about Mercury, Gemini and Apollo selection processes, which are both extensively documented on the one hand and covered by medical confidentiality on the other. The continuing exercises remind me a bit of the few remaining JFK conspiracy theorists hoping to jog one fresh anecdote to support preconceived conclusions or to forward or suggest discounted narratives not supported by the facts.
Fifty-some years after the original selection of 7 candidates from 69 "superbly qualified" military test pilots, the pool of surviving candidates has shrunk to a mere puddle. Time has taken a toll on their ability to recall events, and the interviews themselves are taxing and ethically questionable.
Worse, recent books have forwarded dubious narratives about, for example, John Glenn, suggesting that the famously charismatic Glenn was allowed to "re-test" to improve his overall score and thus gain astronaut status. I myself can hardly recognize my father, Scott Carpenter, from these latter-day accounts.
Back to Glenn: NASA's "This New Ocean" provides the dates Glenn was absent from testing at Wright-Patterson to present the first public display of the Mercury spacecraft. The official NASA account also describes Glenn's duties as a consultant to McDonnell on the design of the capsule prior to January 1959 summons to the 69 potential candidates for the Phase 2 testing, which was held at the Pentagon. My dad himself recalled in "For Spacious Skies" that Glenn had to drop out of a round of testing and had to complete his testing (not "retake" a test to improve a score) with a different group.
Counternarratives about Glenn being allowed to "retest" are, I believe, kept alive by acolytes blowing on the embers of a dying fire. Worse, they are rooted in bitter rivalries between USAF (Dr. Stan White) and the civilian authorities. They are fueled by paranoia about medical professionals in general and psychiatrists and psychologists in particular
May I humbly suggest a different way forward?
Some background: in writing "For Spacious Skies," I myself was able to speak with and, in some cases, to meet important figures from the 1959 selection process — Dr. Bob Voas, Dr. George Ruff, and Robert Solliday, the sole Marine besides John Glenn in 1959.
They all commended Tom Wolfe's account in "The Right Stuff" as superb. The contemporaneous accounts in "We Seven" are also invaluable, containing the first-person accounts of the trials at Lovelace and Wright-Patterson for Project Mercury. Later-declassified primary sources, like the WADC report, hold test scores of the 31 letter-coded men, A through EE, assigned to preserve medical confidentiality. It's possible, though, to tease out some identities by cross-referencing "We Seven" with the WADC scores. I believe Carpenter is candidate K and Glenn is candidate EE and have said so on a number of occasions.
I have not, however, seen significant new scholarship. Nor have I seen any new scholarship that endeavors to come to terms with the early and spectacular institutional dysfunction evident at NASA, a dysfunction well documented by Dr. Lawrence E. Lamb, M.D., "Inside the Space Race: A Space Surgeon's Diary" (2006).
Lamb describes a USAF aeromedical stonewall at NASA (called "The Slayton Case" in NASA's "This New Ocean") — a stonewall so solidly built and so expertly defended from September 1959 through 1963 that it took JFK's personal intervention and the towering rages of Curtis LeMay and LBJ to dismantle it. Result: Slayton grounded, Carpenter named MA-7 prime pilot.
As LBJ's cardiologist and the go-to guy at Brooks AFB, Larry Lamb has a harrowing tale of a medical coverup (his term) spanning 3+ years. His account has not yet seemed to have made inroads into the literature on, and conversations about, the selection and decision-making around candidate and (later) crew selection, processes that came to be helmed by Slayton himself.
By the same token, Dr. Patricia Santy's book, "Choosing the Right Stuff," has also failed to find purchase in the scholarship. She quotes Chris Kraft erupting in anger at her public presentation during an outside review committee hearing where she was seeking to validate the astronaut selection process: "Young lady, you are a dangerous person and are out to destroy NASA..." (p. xvi).
What happened to the early records? Santy writes: "I discovered that all the work of my predecessors had disappeared into a black hole."
These are rich and under-researched subjects about people and events, important both for future crew selection for flights to Mars and also for resolving lingering and institutionally nasty personality disputes over process and results.
So I echo Dr. Santy: Where are the early records? Who jettisoned them into "a black hole"? And 'cui bono'? Who benefited? And why are we not researching, writing, and talking about these and other astronaut-selection subjects? — Kris Stoever