On April 9, 1959, NASA formally introduced to the nation and
the world its seven Mercury astronauts. The
event took place in the ballroom of the Dolley Madison House on Lafayette
Square in Washington, D.C., which then served as the first headquarters of the
new space agency.
The astronauts were seated at a long table on a makeshift
stage, and NASA Administrator T. Keith Glennan introduced them in alphabetical
order: “Malcolm S. Carpenter, Leroy G. Cooper, John H. Glenn, Virgil I.
Grissom, Walter M. Schirra, Alan B. Shepard and Donald K. Slayton … the
nation’s Mercury astronauts!”
After a brief photo session, for the next 90 minutes the new
astronauts responded to numerous questions from the reporters gathered in the
ballroom. For most of the men, this was a new experience, as they had little
prior exposure to the media in their previous jobs as test pilots. By the time
the event concluded, it was clear to them that their lives had changed forever,
and public attention would be as much a part of their jobs as training for and
flying in space.
The seven men seated at the table in that ballroom were the
survivors of a lengthy and arduous selection process to become the nation’s
first astronauts. The agency that presented them to the world was itself only
six months old, and no one knew the right criteria for selecting people who
would travel into the unknown realm of outer space. When choosing who would
make the best astronauts, several high-risk professions were considered before
NASA. However, with President Dwight D. Eisenhower’s concurrence, it was decided
that the best candidates would be found among the nation’s active military test
From that group of elite men, 110 were selected based on
their performance and medical history for a top-secret briefing on what would
be asked of them as astronauts, as well as preliminary medical, physical and
psychiatric evaluations. Thirty-two men survived that step and went on to more
rigorous and comprehensive screenings.
The candidates first underwent a weeklong series of intensive
medical examinations at the Lovelace Clinic in New Mexico. This was followed by
another week of arduous physical and psychological fitness testing at the
Wright Aeromedical Laboratory in Ohio. The purpose of those two weeks of
extreme screening was to find the absolute fittest men for the job of being the
nation’s first astronauts. Those seven men sat at the table in the Dolley
Left: Mercury 7
astronauts on the cover of LIFE magazine (clockwise from lower left): Cooper,
Glenn, Schirra, Shepard, Slayton, Grissom and Carpenter. Right: The wives of
the Mercury 7 astronauts on the cover of LIFE magazine (clockwise from lower
left): Trudy Cooper, Annie Glenn, Jo Schirra, Louise Shepard, Margie Slayton,
Betty Grissom and Rene Carpenter. Images courtesy of https://www.originallifemagazines.com/.
As much as the Mercury 7 astronauts were suddenly thrust
from their relative anonymity as test pilots to celebrated heroes even before
they flew in space, so too were their wives jolted into the celebrity
spotlight. NASA arranged for exclusive deals with LIFE magazine to cover the
astronauts as they progressed from newly minted heroes to actually flying in
space, and the deal extended to coverage of their wives, who stayed home.
The Mercury 7 astronauts went on to have stellar careers in
the space program. All but Slayton, who was grounded by a heart murmur, flew
pioneering Mercury missions of increasing duration between 1961 and 1963. Slayton
was eventually reinstated and flew on the Apollo-Soyuz Test Project, a joint
American-Soviet space flight, in 1975, becoming the last of the original group
to fly in space. Carpenter made his single trip into space during the
three-orbit Mercury 7 flight. Cooper flew the longest Mercury mission in 1963
and, two years later, went on to fly on the then record-breaking eight-day
Gemini 5 flight. Glenn became the first American to orbit the Earth in 1962,
and returned to space in 1998 as the oldest person ever to fly during Space
Shuttle Discovery’s STS-95 mission. Grissom
flew the second suborbital Mercury mission in 1961, the first Gemini mission in
1965, and was designated to command the first Apollo mission when he died in a
fire during a launch-pad training exercise. Schirra was the only person to fly
Mercury, Gemini and Apollo missions, accomplishing the first rendezvous and commanding
the first crewed Apollo flight. After becoming the first American in space in
1961, Shepard was grounded by an inner-ear condition, but was later reinstated.
He became the only one of the Mercury 7 to walk on the Moon during Apollo 14.
Astronaut biographies can be found here:
Read the Johnson
Space Center History Office oral
histories with Carpenter, Cooper, Glenn, Schirra and Shepard.
NASA Johnson Space Center
The Mercury 7 astronauts (from left to right) Donald K. Slayton, Alan B. Shepard, Walter M. Schirra, Virgil I. Grissom, John H. Glenn, Leroy G. Cooper and Malcolm S. Carpenter all raise their hands in reply to a question about whether they felt confident they would return from space. Glenn raised both hands. Image Credit: NASA
From left, Mercury astronauts Schirra, Shepard, Grissom, Slayton, Glenn, Carpenter and Cooper hold models of an Atlas rocket and a Mercury capsule. Image Credit: NASA