What made the perfect NASA astronaut in 1959

On April 9, 1959, the world met America’s first astronauts: Scott Carpenter, Gordon Cooper, Gus Grissom, John Glenn, Wally Schirra, Alan Shepard, and Deke Slayton. The so-called "Mercury Seven." These men were all cut from the same mold, in excellent physical shape and of incredibly sound mind. They were all vying to be the first man in space, but none of them could predict exactly what NASA was looking for.

The Right Stuff

In a way, the Mercury astronauts were all quite similar. They alone met NASA’s strict 1959 standards of what an astronaut should be. Their selection had been a multi-stage process. After briefly considering acrobats, daredevils, and contortionists as the first passengers for the tiny Mercury space capsule, the agency settled on test pilots. It was a directive straight from President Eisenhower, who wanted men with security clearance. But there were other, more tangible benefits to launching test pilots. They were accustomed to dealing with new kinds of aircraft in a wide variety of environments. That they were alive spoke to their ability to get out of bad situations in the air. They were conditioned to keep cool in the face of death, something they would doubtlessly be facing as the nation took its first tentative steps into space.

On top of this specialized background were basic physical requirements. Astronaut candidates had to be younger than 40, in excellent physical condition, have completed a bachelor’s degree in engineering or its equivalent, have graduated from a test pilot school, and be a qualified jet pilot with at least 1,500 hours of flying time. They also had to be shorter than five feet eleven inches and weigh less than 180 pounds. Any taller and they wouldn't fit in the spacecraft. Any heavier and the rocket wouldn't launch.

The physical requirements narrowed the pool significantly. From the United States Air Force, Navy, and the Marine Corps, only 110 men qualified. The first 69 to volunteer were interviewed. Just 32 went on to the final round of extensive physical and mental fitness testing.

Poking and Prodding

Physical testing at the Lovelace Clinic in Albuquerque, New Mexico, came first. For the doctors, it was a challenge figuring out the right ways to test astronaut candidates since no one knew what exactly they would be facing in space. There were only theories. Some doctors expected eyeballs to change shape without gravity, resulting in blurred vision and disorientation. There were questions about whether the mechanism that allow us to swallow food would work in in space. There was the more serious possibility that astronauts would lose their sense of equilibrium in space. The body, unable to lock on to an "up" or a "down," would have no frame of reference. The result, doctors expected, would be acute nausea.

More than 30 tests that gave doctors complete chemical, encephalographic (brain mapping), and cardiographic (heart) data for each candidate. Otolaryngologists (ear, nose, and throat doctors) knew every nook and cranny of the holes in the candidates heads. Optometrists knew their eyes in excruciating detail. No part of these men was off limits to the medical team.

After passing the physical tests, the candidates went through extensive psychiatric analysis at the Wright-Patterson Air Force Base is Dayton, Ohio. Like with the physical testing, there was a lot of guesswork behind these tests; doctors had to anticipate the mental stresses and emotional reactions associated with spaceflight to figure out just how to screen candidates. How could they weed out the men who would panic when strapped on top of a rocket? But there was a bigger question surrounding the candidates’ mental stability: why were they all so eager to volunteer for such a risky job? Where they interested in personal gain? Were they risk takers? Did they have a hidden death wish? The perfect astronaut had to balance enthusiasm and willingness to get the job done with caution. Mental stability was an absolute necessity.

Each candidate went through about 30 hours of psychiatric tests. They described inkblots. They took the Minnesota Multiphasic Personality Inventory that asks yes or no statements like "I often worry about my health" and "strangers keep trying to hurt me." They answered analogies that drew on their engineering backgrounds: "VACUUM TUBE is to THYRATRON as CONTINUOUS is to (alternating, regular, discrete, diminishing)." The correct answer, for you non-engineers, is discrete. They put on pressure suits and sat in a chamber pressurized to mimic high altitude flight. They were isolated and deprived of all sensory perception. They were put in front of a simulated control panel and asked to respond to light signals, the same way monkeys were. They were spun in centrifuges, shaken, and heated.

The First Man

Each of the Mercury astronauts had approached the battery of tests they‘d been through differently. Deke Slayton felt the whole exercise was pointless. A simulated spacecraft (a soundproof room, for example) was a terrible way to test for mental soundness for spaceflight. That he was alive after seventeen years as a pilot and seeing combat over Japan, Slayton felt, was proof enough that he could keep a cool head under pressure. He equated the physical testing to being a guinea pig in a lab.

John Glenn felt differently. He saw each test as an exercise in mind over matter. He competed against himself, trying to break his own endurance records. If he proved to the doctors that he was the most capable of the lot in the process, all the better. He brought that upbeat outlook to the April 9 press conference. When a reporter asked the astronauts which of the selection tests had been the most trying, Glenn took the mic: "If you figure how many openings there are on the human body and how far you can go into any one of them… Now you answer which one would be the toughest for you!"

It wasn't the first time Glenn took the reigns in that press conference. Every one of his answers was longer and more detailed than those of the other men, and he alone seemed to revel in the attention while the other six shied away from the spotlight. And he did stand out. The media fell in love with Glenn that day: the young Marine, who at 37 was actually the oldest astronaut, with a young family and good American values. Glenn clung to the image he showed the world on his first day as an astronaut, both publicly and privately, for the next year and a half. Treating his astronaut training as an extension of the competitive testing at Lovelace and Wright-Patterson, he fought quietly against himself in a bid to outdo the other astronauts in the fight to win the first flight.

Unfortunately for Glenn, physical fitness, a sound mind, and a great public image weren’t enough to land him the first flight.

On January 19, 1961, the seven Mercury astronauts were asked to write on a slip of paper who, other than themselves, they would like to see fly first. They handed the slips to the director of NASA’s Manned Spacecraft Center, Robert Gilruth, who went into his office to tally the votes. Whether or not Gilruth took the astronauts’ votes into account or used it as a cover for his own decision isn’t clear, but Alan Shepard came out on top. He became the first American to launch into space on May 5, 1961.

For more about the Mercury astronauts and their introductory press conference, check out NASA's dedicated site.

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