The astronauts’ formal training for the Mercury Program began in May. On the morning of May 3, the seven Mercury astronauts walked into their shared office. There were seven desks, each with a file holder, a phone and a typewriter. Outside the door was a secretary, whose job was to run interference with the press and to handle the day to day administrative details of running the Astronaut Office, leaving the astronauts free focus on their training and getting the program going. When they arrived at 7:30 in the morning they found Dr. T Keith Glennan, the Administrator of NASA waiting for them.
“Good morning, gentlemen,” he said as they walked through the door. “I know that your training starts today, and I don’t imagine that you’ll have much time for pep talks or friendly chats over the coming months, but I did want to wish you well in your training, and to remind you that you not here solely as test pilots. We are very much counting on your expertise as engineers and scientists, and remember,” he finished, “the whole world is watching your every move.” With that he walked out.
As Glennan walked out, several other men walked in. “Good morning. Some of you may remember me, my name is Dr. Robert Voas. I will be overseeing your psychological well being and assessing your mental fitness.” He gestured to the other men. “My colleagues will be overseeing your physical fitness and getting you up to speed on the Mercury spacecraft and its systems. I know that you’ve already heard this, but I would like to reiterate it again. You are not here solely to fly. You have been selected for this program on the basis of piloting abilities in conjunction with your engineering backgrounds.”
The astronauts spent five days a week training at Langley Air Force Base, in Virginia. Their average day began at six AM with physical exercise, followed by breakfast. After breakfast came physical fitness and mental acuity tests. Afternoons were usually devoted technical lectures, such as spacecraft system briefings, basic physics, astronomy and orbital mechanics. Some of the astronauts were slightly surprised they were left to their own devices as far as their physical conditioning was concerned, but NASA felt that as career test pilots, the astronauts could be relied on to ensure that they were in top physical condition. As the training continued, the astronauts’ personalities began to emerge. John Glenn began every morning with a two mile run. Wally Schirra had been on the US Naval Academy lacrosse team and turned to team sports for his physical conditioning. Scot Carpenter, who skied and was a trained gymnast, worked out on a trampoline. Deke Slayton turned to boxing. Alan Shepard and Gordo Cooper were avid handball players. All seven astronauts liked to water ski.
The astronauts’ personalities began to manifest themselves in other ways too. Wally Schirra had a flair for pranks and gotcha games. In one particularly memorable instance, he left a urine sample in a five gallon jar on the desk of the astronauts’ nurse. Gus Grissom was always ready to liven up a dull meeting with a dirty joke, but when it came to mission prep, he was all business. Deke Slayton was quiet and reserved, but had an uncanny ability to cut to the heart of the matter. When he spoke, the others quickly learned to listen. Alan Shepard was more complex. Like Gus Grissom, Shepard seemed to have an endless supply of innuendo filled jokes and funny stories. He also had a natural ability to make everyone around him relax and perform at their best, but also like Grissom he approached their training with deadly seriousness. John Glenn quickly gained a reputation for eloquent honesty. Gordo Cooper said even less than Deke Slayton, but the others agreed that he was a good guy to have around if things got sticky. Scott Carpenter was both outgoing and introverted at the same time. Like Glenn, he believed the data collected from the testing that the astronauts were undergoing as part of their training outweighed the physical discomfort of the tests themselves.
Cape Canaveral, Florida
May 18, 1959
Three weeks into their training, the astronauts were taken to Cape Canaveral for the first time. They stood on the roof of the block house with the Atlas rocket in the distance. It looked like something out of a science-fiction film. It was tall, sleek and silver. The rocket was bathed in the hard glare of flood lights. It was surrounded by vapour and wrapped in the rippling sheen of a thin coat of ice that formed as a result of the -290 degree liquid oxygen fuel coming in contact with the warm Florida air. Over loud speakers they could hear a voice counting down the last few seconds to launch.
Scarlet flames appeared under the Atlas’s engine bells. It seemed to tremble for a moment, as if fighting to free itself from the pull of gravity, then it hurtled into the sky. The rippling roar of its three engines and their 550,000 pounds of thrust were felt as much as heard and shattered the still Florida night. Approximately a minute after launch, the rocket lit up the night as it exploded with a sound like a thunder crack. The astronauts flinched and ducked instinctively before remembering that debris and flaming rocket fuel would fall into the Atlantic Ocean.
There were ten seconds of deafening silence as the echoes died away and the last of the debris fell silently into the ocean. Then Alan Shepard said, “Well, I’m glad they got that out of the way.” He was clearly trying to lighten the mood, but nobody laughed.