NASA’s Fa­mous Mer­cury Men

The United States’ first manin-space pro­gramme turned its as­tro­nauts into stars

YOU Gateway to Space - - Contents -

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.

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