Magnificent Seven: LIFE With America’s Mercury Astronauts

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Shepard, Glenn, Slayton, Grissom, Schirra, Cooper, Carpenter. Swap them around, place them in any order you like — they’ll still be recognizable as the names of the dauntless men NASA chose as America’s first astronauts: the Mercury Seven.

No other publication covered the early days of the Space Race with as much unfettered access to the astronauts and their families as LIFE, and in its Sept. 14, 1959, issue the editors featured the “fly boys” selected for Project Mercury in a major cover story that, in effect, introduced the septet to the American public in a uniquely up-close and personal way.

In endearingly un-hip language, the magazine’s editors celebrated the fact that, when it came to the Space Race, LIFE was “with it in a far-out era. . . . We begin this week to report the personal side of a story which we know will live on in history as long as there are men to record it. It is the story of the Astronauts — the supremely dramatic story of man’s first efforts to leave his native Earth.”

In the introduction to the multi-part feature itself, meanwhile, the momentous nature of the task ahead was discussed in tones that ranged from the near-poetic to the downright blunt:

Some fine early morning before another summer has come, one man chosen from the calmly intent seven … will embark on the greatest adventure man has ever dared to take. Dressed in an all-covering suit to protect him from explosive changes in pressure, strapped into a form-fitting couch to cushion him against the crushing forces of acceleration, surrounded in his tiny chamber by all manner of instruments designed to bring him safely home, he will catapult upward at the head of a rocket for more than 100 miles and then plunge down into the Atlantic Ocean. If he survives, he will be come the heroic symbol of a historic triumph; he will be the first American, perhaps the first man, to be rocketed into the dark stillness of space. If he does not survive, one of his six remaining comrades will go next.

The astronauts are all in their 30s. All are military pilots with experience in engineering and in testing new airplanes. One member of the NASA board which chose them called the Astronauts “premium individuals picked for an unconventional task.” In less clinical terms they are the best of a very good lot, a bright, balanced, splendidly conditioned first team, willing — eager, in fact — to undertake an assignment most men would find unthinkable.

Here, on the 55th anniversary of the day — April 9, 1959 — that the seven were introduced to America, LIFE.com offers a gallery of photos taken in the early days of Project Mercury. The pictures were made by long-time LIFE photographer Ralph Morse — a man who spent so much time with the Mercury Seven (and, ultimately, with the Gemini and Apollo crews, as well) that John Glenn himself fondly dubbed him “the eighth astronaut.”

Mercury 7 astronauts, Langley Air Force Base
Project Mercury astronauts at Langley Air Force Base, Virginia: (top, left to right) Alan Shepard, Gus Grissom, Gordon Cooper; (bottom left to right) Wally Schirra, Deke Slayton, John Glenn and Scott Carpenter.Ralph Morse—Time & Life Pictures/Getty Images
John Glenn, 1959
Project Mercury astronaut John Glenn trains in a mock-up of the planned NASA space capsule, 1959.Ralph Morse—Time & Life Pictures/Getty Images
Mercury astronaut Gordon Cooper, 1959
Mercury astronaut Gordon Cooper, 1959. Cooper, who retired from both NASA and the Air Force (as a colonel) in 1970, was the last Mercury astronaut launched into space, and spent more time aloft during his May 1963 mission (34-plus hours) than all five previous flights combined.Ralph Morse—Time & Life Pictures/Getty Images
Donald 'Deke' Slayton, 1959
Astronaut Donald "Deke" Slayton in an "orbital attitude simulator" training device, 1959. In 1975, at 51 years old, Maj. Slayton became the oldest person to fly into space (until his Mercury colleague John Glenn flew aboard the Discovery space shuttle at age 77 in 1998) when he served as the docking module pilot of the 1975 Apollo-Soyuz Test Project.Ralph Morse—Time & Life Pictures/Getty Images
Astronaut Virgil "Gus" Grissom strapped into a centrifuge during a simulated space flight, 1959.
Astronaut Virgil "Gus" Grissom, the second American to fly into space, shown strapped in a centrifuge during a simulated space flight, 1959. Lieutenant Col. Grissom was killed, along with fellow astronauts Roger Chaffee and Ed White, in a launch pad fire while training for the Apollo 1 mission in January 1967.Ralph Morse—Time & Life Pictures/Getty Images
Air Force medical officer Dr. William Douglas giving a physiology lesson to Project Mercury astronaut Walter Schirra, 1959.
Air Force medical officer Dr. William Douglas (right) gives a physiology lesson to Project Mercury astronaut Wally Schirra, 1959. Schirra is the only person to fly in all three of the earliest space programs — Mercury, Gemini and Apollo — and eventually logged more than 295 hours in space.Ralph Morse—Time & Life Pictures/Getty Images
Mercury astronaut Scott Carpenter flies in an F-100F supersonic jet fighter while training in weightlessness.
Mercury astronaut Scott Carpenter flies in an F-100F supersonic jet fighter while training in weightlessness. (The floating golf ball is an indication of the state of weightlessness in the cockpit at the time the picture was made.)Ralph Morse—Time & Life Pictures/Getty Images
Mercury Project astronaut Alan Shepard checking the fit of his individually molded couch, used for training as well as during flight.
Astronaut Alan Shepard — who, in May 1961, became the first American in space — checks the fit of his individually molded capsule "couch" during Project Mercury training, 1959.Ralph Morse—Time & Life Pictures/Getty Images
Project Mercury, 1959
Project Mercury astronauts pose in new pressure suits at Virginia's Langley Air Force Base, 1960.Ralph Morse—Time & Life Pictures/Getty Images

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