Today in Transportation History – 1959: America Introduces Its First Astronauts

At a press conference at the Dolley Madison House in Washington, D.C., the National Aeronautics and Space Administration (NASA) officially introduced the first group of American astronauts. These astronauts would take part in the human spaceflight program called Project Mercury. “Seven young military pilots were presented today as the nation’s future pioneers in space,” reported that day’s edition of the New York Times. “To one of these volunteers, some two years from now will go the risky honor and distinction of being picked to ride the nation’s first manned satellite into space.”

These trailblazing astronauts, who collectively became known as the Mercury Seven, were Scott Carpenter (1925-2013), Gordon Cooper (1927-2004) John Glenn (1921-2016), Gus Grissom (1926-1967), Wally Schirra (1923-2007), Alan Shepard (1923-1998), and Deke Slayton (1924-1993). They had been selected for Project Mercury after a stringent screening process. This process involved a round of intensive interviews, a battery of written tests, and a series of thorough physical and psychological examinations.

More than 200 reporters attended the press conference introducing the Mercy Seven. “All [of the astronauts] said they had long dreamed of flying off into space, even before they ever heard of Project Mercury,” reported the New York Times. “Frequently they likened their position to that of the Wright brothers at Kitty Hawk, N.C., a half-century ago.”

The Mercury Seven in front of an F-106 Delta Dart

These astronauts went on to make notable contributions to space travel and help pave the way for future exploration efforts undertaken by NASA. In 1961, for example, Shepard piloted Mercury Spacecraft 7 and became the first American in space. As commander of the Apollo 14 mission nearly a decade later, he became the fifth person to walk on the Moon. In 1962, Glenn made history as the first American to orbit Earth. He established another record in 1998 when he served as a civilian payload specialist on the STS-5 mission of the Space Shuttle Discovery. This flight made Glenn the oldest person to travel in space. At the time of his death in 2016 at the age of 95, he was the last surviving member of the Mercury Seven.

For more information on the Mercury Seven, please check out https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Mercury_Seven and https://history.nasa.gov/40thmerc7/intro.htm.

A video of the press conference introducing the Mercury Seven is available at https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=FXj5lc_QUOM.

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