Chapter Eight

1959

       Of the 69 men who had attended the Project Mercury briefing, 30 had chosen to leave the program at that point. The 39 men who remained underwent yet more testing. This time the atmosphere was different. They saw the gruelling mental and physical tests as a challenge to be overcome. As John Glenn had put it, they had all signed up to fly, and NASA was dangling the ultimate prize in front of them, to be the first human being to fly in space. All they had to do was survive the tests.

The Dolly Madison House

Washington DC,

April 10, 1959

     The auditorium at the Dolly Madison House was completely filled, and then some. The more than 200 reporters filled every seat and spilled over into the aisles and into the hall outside where they were able to following along on loud speakers. The stage was brightly lit and television cameras from all the major networks were lined up at the back of the room. Lt. Col. John “Shorty” Powers peered through a spy hole in the curtain that formed the back drop of the stage where the seven men who had been chosen for Project Mercury would be presented to the public. The seven men in question stood milling around behind him, chatting quietly with each other. On the other side of the curtain, the reporters were finding their seats, while at the back of the room camera crews were checking over their equipment one last time. Powers glanced quickly at his watch. “It’s almost time,” he said. Seven heads snapped around to look at him. “I’ll go out there and make a few introductory comments, and then I’ll introduce you one at a time.”

            Powers walked out on to the brightly lit stage. “Ladies and gentlemen,” he began, “on behalf of NASA, I would like to welcome you to the Dolly Madison House. Over the course of the past two years, there has been much media coverage concerning the Space Race. There has also been much speculation and many rumours concerning the American manned space flight program. I am here today to put some of those rumours to rest. It is my great pleasure to introduce to you seven very special men, test pilots and combat veterans, every one. All certified geniuses and physical specimens.” Shorty paused, allowing that to sink in. “Ladies and gentlemen, the seven men I am about to introduce to you are true heroes. In the decades to come, their names will be spoken of in the same breath as the Wright Brothers, Amelia Earhart, Charles Lindberg and Chuck Yeager. Ladies and gentlemen it is my pleasure to introduce to you, America’s Mercury astronauts!” They walked out on stage as Shorty called their names.

            Alan Shepard.

            Virgil I Grissom.

            John Glenn.

            Malcolm Scott Carpenter.

            Leroy Gordon Cooper.

            Donald K Slayton.

            Walter M Schirra.

           As the seven names were called, everyone in the room rose as one body and gave the astronauts a standing ovation. As Shepard, Grissom, Glenn, Carpenter, Cooper, Slayton and Schirra walked out on stage and took their seats, there were a few in the audience that day who couldn’t help but notice that the seven men seemed to give off the aura of a deer caught in on-rushing headlights. Safely reining in an out of control jet traveling at mach 3 or weaving in and out anti-aircraft fire to put bombs on a target was something they could all do with nerves of steel, but evidently they had been blindsided by a room full of reporters. Like everyone else, they had followed the development of the infant Space Age with avid interest, but never in their wildest dreams had they expected to land right in the middle of it.

            Immediately, a forest of hands went up. “Eli Wallace, San Francisco Chronicle. What do you think the historical significance of this program is going to be?”

            There was a moment of silence as the seven astronauts pondered the question. Finally, Deke Slayton spoke. “I think that that question is difficult to answer with certainty,” he began. “The idea of space travel is old, but the reality of it is still very new. I believe that the world is standing on the threshold of something new, and we are the ones who’ve been asked to step through the door.”

            “Mark Bergman, Miami Herald. What made you want to volunteer for Project Mercury?”

            This time it was who John Glenn spoke. “We believe that we are very fortunate to have been blessed with the talents and skill sets to have been picked for a project like this one. All of us would be remiss if we didn’t make the fullest use of our talents in volunteering for something as important to the world as Project Mercury as the potential to be.”

            “Do you believe that you will return alive from space?”

            “Yes,” responded Grissom. “We’re test pilots. We accept risk, but not unnecessary risk.”

            “Raise your hand if you’d go into space right now.” All seven men raised their hands. Several raised both hands. Everyone laughed.

            “Could you tell us a little bit about yourself?”

*    *    *

            Alan Shepard was born in Derry, New Hampshire to Lt. Col Alan Shepard Senior and Renza Emerson. As a child, Shepard attended elementary school close to home. In 1940, he graduated from the prestigious Admiral Farragut Academy, in St. Petersburg Florida. Alan Shepard was descended from Richard Warren, who came to North America aboard the Mayflower in 1610. In 1944, Shepard graduated from the United States Naval Academy and served in the Pacific aboard the destroyer USS Cogswell. Following the end of the war, Shepard was sent to Corpus Christi, Texas and Pensecola, Florida for basic flight training. He graduated from basic flight and received his naval aviator’s wings in 1947. He was assigned to Fighter Squadron 42, serving several tours of duty aboard aircraft carriers in the Mediterranean.

            In 1950, Shepard was accepted to the US Navy Test Pilot School at the Patuxent River Naval Air Station, in Maryland. After graduating, Shepard participated in series of high altitude light de-fraction tests. He also helped to develop the Navy’s in-flight refuelling system and conducted landing and take-off tests of the Navy’s first angled flight deck, in addition to partaking in the carrier suitability trials of the F2 Banshee. After his tour of duty at Pax River ended, Shepard was assigned to Moffett Field, in California, where he served with Squadron 193, flying night missions off of the aircraft carrier USS Oriskany. After serving two tours of duty aboard the Oriskany, Shepard returned to Pax River, where he participated in testing a number of prototype aircraft, including the F3 Demon, the F8 Crusader, the F4 Skyray and the F5 Skylancer. Shepard’s last five months at Pax River were spent as a flight instructor. After graduating from the Naval War College, in Rhode Island, in 1957, Shepard was assigned the Commander in Chief of the Atlantic Fleet as Aircraft Readiness Officer. By the time he was accepted in the Mercury Program, Shepard had logged more than 8,000 hours in the cockpit, including 3,700 hours in jets of various types.

*    *    *

            “Call me Gus,” insisted Grissom. “Hardly anybody calls me Virgil and nobody ever calls me Ivan.”

*    *    *

            Gus Grissom was born on April 3, 1926, in Mitchell, Indiana. The second child of Dennis and Cecile King Grissom, Gus’s older sister died just before Gus was born. Gus followed by three younger siblings, Wilma, Norman and Lowell. His mother was a homemaker and his father was signalman for the Baltimore and Ohio Railroad. Gus was a life long member of the Church of Christ and as a boy he was member of Boy Scout Troop 46. While attending elementary school and high school, he met and befriended Betty Lavonne Moore. At the same time, he worked as a delivery boy for the Indianapolis Star and worked in a local meat market.

            While growing up, Grissom was fascinated by airplanes and began spending time at the Bedford, Indiana airport, where he befriended a local attorney with a pilot’s license who occasionally took him for short rides and taught him the basic principles of flight. Gus Grissom was 15 when the United States was dragged into World War II, following a surprise Japanese air strike on the US Navy’s Pacific Fleet at Pearl Harbour. In 1942, Grissom enlisted as an air cadet in the US Army Air Corp, writing the entrance exam in 1943. He graduated from high school in 1944 and was formally inducted into the Army at Fort Benjamin Harrison in August of that year. He received orders to report to Sheppard Field, in Wichita Falls, Texas for basic training. Following the end of basic training, he was sent to Brooks Field, in San Antonio.

            As the war began to wind down, Grissom put in a request for a discharge. While on leave, in July, 1945, he married Betty. His request for discharge was granted and he was mustered out of the Army in September. Following his discharge, Grissom found a job at a local bus factory and rented an apartment in Mitchell, however, he found it difficult to provide a sufficient income and decided to go to college. In September, 1946, Grissom enrolled at Purdue University. He found part time work as a cook in a local restaurant, while Betty returned home to live with her parents. By taking summer classes, Grissom was able to finish his degree early, and he graduated from Purdue in 1950 with a degree in mechanical engineering.

            That same year the Korean War broke out, and Grissom re-enlisted, this time in the newly created US Air Force. He was sent to Randolph Air Force Base, in Texas for basic flight training. After the end of basic flight, Grissom was assigned to Williams Air Force Base, in Mesa, Arizona. In 1951, Grissom was awarded his pilot’s wings and commissioned as a Second Lieutenant. While Grissom was earning his wings, Betty had remained behind in Indiana, pregnant with their son, Scott. Not long after Scott’s birth, Betty and her new-born baby joined Grissom in Arizona. However, they didn’t stay there for very long. In December, 1951, Grissom was assigned to Presque Isle Air Force Base, in Maine, where he served with the 75th Fighter Interceptor Squadron.

            In February, 1952, Grissom’s squadron was sent to fight in the Korean War. During his tour in Korea, Grissom was reassigned to the 334th Fighter Squadron, where he flew F-86 Sabre jets as a replacement pilot. While stationed at Kimpo Air Base in Korean, Grissom flew more than a hundred missions. He was never in a position to attack the enemy directly and never shot down an enemy aircraft, but he personally drove off enemy air patrols on a number of occasions. In March, 1952, Grissom was promoted to the rank of First Lieutenant, on the basis of his “superlative airmanship.”

            Grissom requested another tour of duty in Korea, but this request was denied. Instead he was offered his pick of assignments stateside and was sent to Bryan Air Force Base, in Texas, where he served as a flight instructor. While stationed at Bryan Air Force Bases, the Grissoms’ second child was born. On a routine training exercise with a cadet, a flap on the trailing edge of the wing broke and the jet spun out of control. Grissom climbed from the back seat into the front seat and safely brought the jet back under control. In 1955, Grissom was sent to the Air Force Institute of Technology, in Dayton, Ohio, where he completed a bachelor degree in aero mechanics. In October, 1956, he was accepted into the US Air Force Test Pilot School at Edwards Air Force Base, California. In May, 1957, Grissom returned to Ohio, where he was assigned to the fighter branch at Wright-Patterson Air Force Base.

            In 1958, Grissom received secret orders to report to the Dolly Madison House, in Washington DC, where he was to be briefed about Project Mercury. Grissom was ordered to dress in civilian clothes and given strict instructions not discuss his orders with anybody. Grissom was intrigued by the space program, but knew that the competition would be intense. After undergoing several rounds of increasingly gruelling physical and mental testing, Grissom was informed that he had been selected as one of the seven participants of Project Mercury.

*    *    *

            John Glenn grew up in New Concord, Ohio. He studied science at Muskingum College and earned his pilot’s license as a credit toward his physics course. When the United States was dragged into World War II, on December 7, 1941, Glenn dropped out of college to enlist in the US Army Air Corp. Glenn was not called up and in 1942, he enlisted in the US Navy as an aviation cadet. He received basic flight training at Olathe Naval Air Station, in Kansas. While undergoing advanced training at Corpus Christi Naval Air Station, in Texas, Glenn was reassigned to the Marines.

            Upon the completion of his training, Glenn was assigned to squadron VMJ-353 as a transport pilot. He was eventually successful in requesting a transfer, to squadron VMF-155, where he flew F4 Corsairs. During the war, Glenn flew 59 combat missions in the South Pacific, where he saw action in the skies over the Marshall Islands, attacking Japanese anti-aircraft batteries and took part in the aerial bombing of Maloelap Atoll. In 1945, Glenn returned from the Pacific to the Pax River Naval Air Station in Maryland. In 1948, he became a flight instructor at Corpus Christie Naval Air Station, in Texas, before attending the Marine Corp’s amphibious warfare school and moving on to a staff assignment.

            When the Korean War broke out in 1950, Glenn was back in the cockpit, flying F9 Panthers over Korea with squadron VMF-311. While serving in Korea, Glenn flew 63 combat missions and gained the nickname Magnet Ass for his apparent ability to attract inordinately high amounts of enemy flak. On at least two occasions, Glenn returned from combat with over 250 pieces of shrapnel lodged in his airplane. Glenn flew a second tour of duty in Korea as part of an interservice exchange program with the US Air Force. While flying with the Air Force, he flew 27 missions in F-86 Sabre jets. He shot down three MIGs over the Yalu River in the final days of the war before the implementation of the cease fire.

            When Glenn returned from Korea he was once again assigned to the Pax River Naval Air Station, where he attended the US Navy Test Pilot School. After graduating from Test Pilot School, Glenn served as a weapons testing officer, taking aircraft to high altitudes and testing their weapon systems. In July, 1957, Glenn took part in Project Bullet and became the first person to fly across the United States as supersonic speeds, when he flew from Los Alamitos Naval Air Station in California to Floyd Bennett Field in slightly more than three hours, in an F8 Crusader. In the wake of this mission, Glenn was awarded the Distinguished Flying Cross.

            In 1959, Glenn was assigned to Project Mercury, even though he did not have the required college degree. While training for his Mercury flight, he continued to hold the rank of Colonel in the Marine Corp.

*    *    *

        Malcolm Scott Carpenter was born in Boulder, Colorado, on May 1, 1925, and raised in New York City, where his father had been awarded a post doctoral research position at Columbia University. In 1927, Carpenter returned to Boulder with his mother after she was diagnosed with tuberculosis. He lived with his is maternal grandparents until he graduated from high school in 1943.

     Following his graduation from high school, Carpenter was accepted in the US Navy’s V-12 Navy College Training Program as an aviation cadet, however, the war ended before Carpenter could complete his training and he was mustered out. In November, 1945, he returned to Boulder and enrolled at the University of Colorado, where he studied aeronautical engineering. At the end of his senior year, Carpenter missed his final exam in heat transfer; which left him one credit short of receiving his degree.

       On the eve of the outbreak of the Korean War, Carpenter was recruited by the US Navy’s Direct Procurement Program and sent to the Pensacola Naval Air Station, in Florida, in 1949, where he underwent pre-flight and basic flight training. Carpenter was awarded his Naval Aviator’s wings at Corpus Cristi Naval Air Station, in Texas, in April, 1951. During his first tour of duty, Carpenter served with Patrol Squadron Six, flying P2 Neptunes on anti-submarine patrols and reconnaissance missions during the Korean War. During his second deployment, Carpenter was based in Adak, Alaska and flew intelligence gathering missions over the Chinese and Russian coasts.

        In 1954, Carpenter was assigned to the US Navy Test Pilot School at Pax River, in Maryland, where he served as a test pilot in the Electronics Test Division. At the time of his acceptance into the space program he was serving as the Air Intelligence Officer aboard the USS Hornet.

*    *    *

“My friends call me Gordo,” said Cooper.

*    *    *

            Leroy Gordon Cooper was born in Shawnee, Oklahoma. He was raised in Murray, Kentucky. He was very active in the Boy Scouts and rose to the rank of Life Scout. In 1945, Cooper turned down a football scholarship to enlist in the Marine Corp, but did not see action in World War II. In 1948, he graduated from the University of Hawaii and received a commission in the Army. While studying in Hawaii, Cooper met his first wife, Trudy. They were married in 1947.

            In 1949, Cooper transferred his commission to the Air Force. He was placed on active duty and sent to Perrin Air Force Base, in Texas and Williams Air Force Base, in Arizona for basic flight training.

            His first assignment after receiving his pilot’s wings came in 1950, when he was sent to Landstuhl Air Base, in West Germany, where he flew F-84 Thunderjets and F-86 Saberjets. While serving in Germany, Cooper attended the European Extension of the University of Maryland. Upon returning to the United States, Cooper was posted to the Air Force Institute of Technology, where he graduated with a degree in aeronautical engineering. His next assignment was with the Experimental Test Flight School at Edwards Air Force Base, in California. Following his graduation, he was assigned to the Flight Test Engineering Division, where he eventually became the project manager for the F-102 Delta Dagger and the F-106 Delta Dart. By the time of his acceptance into the space program, Cooper had logged more that 7,000 hours in civilian and military aircraft of all descriptions.

*    *    *

“My friends call me Deke,” said Slayton. “Hardly anybody calls me Donald.”

*    *    *

     Deke Slayton was raised on a farm just outside Sparta, Wisconsin. A childhood accident with an automatic thresher left him with a severed finger on his left hand. As child he went to school in near-by Leon, Wisconsin and eventually graduated from Sparta High School. In 1942, he enlisted the US Army Air Corp as a cadet and learned to fly B-25 Liberators. He flew 56 bombing missions over Europe during World War II, in addition to flying seven combat missions over Japan in A-26 Invaders.

    Following the end of the war, Slayton graduated from the University of Minnesota with a degree in aeronautical engineering.

     He then became a test pilot for the US Air Force, flying a number of experimental Air Force jets, including the F-101 Voodoo, the F-102 Delta Dagger, the F-105 Thunderchief and the F-106 Delta Dart. Slayton played a key role the development of the Thunderchief, in determining its stall-spin characteristics. The F-105 would go on to serve the Air Force’s primary fighter bomber during the Vietnam War.

*    *    *

     Wally Schirra was born into a family of pilots, in Hackensack, New Jersey. His father, Walther M Schirra Senior, had enlisted with the Royal Canadian Air Force, during World War I. After the war, he had toured the United States with Schirra’s mother, Florence Leach Schirra, who performed wing walking stunts as part of their barnstorming act. Wally learned to fly his father’s airplane before he learned to drive a car. He was also an active member of his local Boy Scout Troop, reaching the rank of First Class Scout.

     Schirra graduated from Dwight Morrow High School in 1940. After graduating from high school, Schirra enrolled in the Newark College of Engineering, where he became a member of the Sigma Pi Fraternity. He eventually went to the United States Naval Academy, graduating with a degree in aeronautical engineering, in 1945.

     In 1946, he married Josephine Fraser, the step-daughter of Admiral James Holloway. Their two children, Walter III and Suzanne, were born in 1950 and 1957, respectively.

     After Schirra’s commissioning into the United States Navy, his first assignment was aboard the battlecruiser USS Alaska. After the end of the war, he applied to begin basic flight training, and was eventually sent the Pensacola Naval Air Station, in Florida. After receiving his Naval Aviator’s wings, he was assigned to an aircraft carrier fighter squadron. Schirra also became the second Naval Aviator to log a thousand flying hours in jet aircraft.

     In 1950, the Korean War broke out, and Schirra flew with the US Air Force as part of an interservice exchange program. While in Korea, Schirra served first as a flight leader with the 136th Fighter Bomber Wing, then as the operations officer with the 154th Fighter Bomber Squadron. In 1951 and 1952, Schirra flew nearly a hundred combat missions in Korea, mostly in F-84 Thunderjets. He downed one MIG and damaged two others. For his service in Korea, Schirra was awarded the Distinguished Flying Cross and the Air Medal.

     When he returned from Korea, Schirra was assigned to the Naval Ordnance Test Station, at China Lake, California. While stationed at China Lake, Schirra tested prototype weapon systems, including the AIM-9 Sidewinder missile and flew experimental fighter jets, such as the F7 Cutlass. In one particularly memorable incident, a Sidewinder missile doubled back on Schirra. He was able to avoid being shot down thanks to skilful flying.

      He was asked to join the space program on April 2, 1959.

*    *    *

     When the press conference finished an hour later, the seven astronauts looked at each other in a mixture of bewilderment and amazement. They had the look of highly capable men who were not used to experiencing bewilderment or confusion.

         “Can you believe that?” asked Cooper.

         “They think we’re heroes,” said Shepard.

         “They act like we’ve single-handedly ended a war,” said Schirra.

          “But we haven’t even done anything yet,” said Slayton in wonderment.

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