NASA’s Famous Mercury Men
The United States’ first manin-space programme turned its astronauts into stars
ON A fresh spring day in April 1958 seven unknown men were introduced to the American public at a media conference – and became overnight stars. Theey were known as the Mercury Seven and they had just been chosen as the astronauts who would take America into the age of human space travel. The media loved them and they quickly became celebrities.
No wonder – Project Mercury was America’s first man-in-space programme and lasted from 1961 to 1963.
The project’s aim was to orbit a manned spacecraft around Earth, to investigate how humans function in space and to get both astronaut and spacecraft back to Earth safely.
Of the seven, World War 2 veteran Alan Shepard eventually became the first American in space. Like all the Mercury astronauts he had to follow a specific diet for three days before the launch to minimise his need for the toilet while in space. Attached to his body during the flight were chest electrodes to record his heart rhythm, a cuff to take his blood pressure and a rectal thermometer to record his temperature. He had water to drink and food pellets to eat.
But the ground crew took so long before liftoff he had to urinate in his spacesuit. The crew switched off power to his suit to prevent the urine short-circuiting the sensors. No wonder the Mercury astronauts reported hygiene as one of the main problems they had to deal with!
At last Shepard took off on his historic 15-minute suborbital (above 100 km) flight. The date was 5 May 1961 – 23 days after Russia’s Yuri Gagarin became the first person in space.
After the trip Shepard was grounded for years because of an inner ear disorder called Ménière’s disease that causes dizziness and nausea. This probably saved his life as he was hoping to be commander of the first Apollo flight in 1967, in which all three astronauts died in an accident during a test run (see page 56). Mercury Seven member Gus Grissom was not so lucky and died in the Apollo 1 disaster.
Eventually Shepard’s ear disorder was cured by an operation and in 1971 he became the only Mercury astronaut to ever walk on the moon – where he even managed to hit two golf balls!
Shepard may have been the first American in space, but the greatest Mercury celebrity turned out to be John Glenn, a military pilot.
He undertook the third Mercury mission but first US orbital flight on 20 February 1962 and circled Earth three times in less than five hours. But once again the Americans’ thunder had been stolen by the Soviets – just six months earlier cosmonaut Gherman Titov spent a full day in orbit.
Glenn later swopped astronautics for politics and served several terms as a US senator. In 1998, at the age of 77, he made another space trip – this time aboard the Space Shuttle. He persuaded NASA to allow him on board so tests could be conducted on the effects of weightlessness on older people.