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Tuesday, December 18, 2012

Honoring the Mercury Seven

Everyone remembers Neil Armstrong.  Everyone remembers what he said on the moon: “One small step for man, one giant leap for mankind.”  But how many remember Alan Shepherd, Gus Grissom, or the rest of the Mercury Seven who made Apollo 11 possible?

According to Tom Wolfe in The Right Stuff, America’s first astronauts were larger than life men, test pilots like Tom Cruise’s character Pete “Maverick” Mitchell in the movie Top Gun.  Yet once they joined Project Mercury, they were grounded, and when they rebelled, and insisted that they be allowed to fly, the older, less capable planes they occasionally piloted couldn’t deliver the same thrills as the latest fighter jets.  Thus, they sated their “Need for speed” on the highway, in the fastest sports cars they could get their hands on.

All of them had fine careers to look forward to in their respective branches of the military.  Yet they gave those up, and for what?  To sit in a capsule and be shot into space?  Their fellow test pilots couldn’t understand their reasoning.  The engineers behind Project Mercury hadn’t believed pilots were necessary.  They had envisioned engineers sitting in those capsules, monitoring computerized systems, and providing medical information from all the sensors attached to their bodies.  Of the twenty-six Mercury flights, only six carried astronauts.  The rest were either computer controlled, or guided by the chimpanzees Ham and Enos, who had been conditioned to press all the right controls at the right times, and did so.  Imagine the ribbing the astronauts received from their former comrades.  “Yeah, congratulations on that mission of yours.  Did you enjoy it as much as the monkeys?”

None of these men ever resumed the aviation careers they had previously enjoyed.  For Alan Shepherd and Gus Grissom, their fifteen minutes of fame were literally fifteen minutes locked inside a capsule, as their Redstone rockets lacked the power to launch them into orbit.  John Glenn and Scott Carpenter reached orbit on the newer Atlas rockets, and got five-hour flights, while Wally Schirra followed them with nine hours in space.  Of all the Mercury flights, only Gordon Cooper got the most in return for all the potential flight-time he could have gotten had he stayed in the Air Force, as he logged thirty-four hours before his capsule returned to Earth. 

Poor Deke Slayton didn’t even get to fly in a Mercury mission.  Instead, NASA grounded him for medical reasons.

On the day we visited Space View Park in Titusville, Florida, what struck me was all that these seven men gave up to become America’s first seven astronauts.  Certainly, the Mercury missions made no sense to their peers.  After NASA’s initial presentations, virtually all the candidates agreed that the missions represented a divergence from the military careers each had built up to that point.  As Gus Grissom shares in We Seven, after NASA selected him, he asked himself, “Now what in hell do you want to get up on that thing for?”  A few sentences later, he answers himself.  “If my country decided that I was one of the better qualified people for this new mission, then I was proud and happy to help out.”

As my wife and I stood before the Project Mercury memorial, only one other person joined us: an older gentleman, with a cellphone pressed to his ear, leaned against one of the bronze plaques and discussed shipment schedules for his business.  After pausing before each of the other plaques, we left to visit the Gemini and Apollo memorials.  Later, as we headed back to the car, I decided to return, once last time, to the gleaming, silver Mercury 7 symbol.  Two young people now stood before it, and a third stood behind a camera set upon a tripod.  I listened as the young man and woman spoke, introduced the statue, and spoke about the men who had risked their lives, and their careers, to pilot those cramped, experimental capsules. 

Alan Shepherd.  Gus Grissom.  John Glenn.  Scott Carpenter.  Wally Schirra.  Gordon Cooper.  Deke Slayton.  You helped guide NASA's early efforts.  You proved man could survive the launch and reentry processes, and that he could survive beyond Earth's atmosphere.  You inspired a president and a nation, which made Apollo 11 possible.  Without your insistence on making space capsules completely controllable by the pilot, Apollo 13 might have turned out differently. Because of you, America eventually invested in a space shuttle program, and convinced the world to build an International Space Station.  If man ever sets foot on Mars, part of the credit will be yours.  

I will never forget the sacrifices you made for all of us.

Dragon Dave  

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