• U.S.

SPACE: Rendezvous with Destiny

6 minute read

From a nation of 175 million, they stepped forward last week: seven men cut of the same stone as Columbus, Magellan, Daniel Boone, Orville and Wilbur Wright. But there was a difference. Rarely were history’s explorers and discoverers so clearly marked in advance as men of destiny. Within approximately two years, one of the seven would be chosen —perhaps by lot—to test for the first time whether a human can be shot beyond the atmosphere to orbit the earth from 125 miles up at 18,000 m.p.h. and return to tell about it.

If he survives the other six will follow his trail, and if he fails the other six will be there to carry on. And beyond, with success, lie higher and headier space flights, perhaps even to the moon.

Three Uniforms. For spacemen, the seven were remarkably down to earth. Despite the TV lights and the press-agentry at a packed Washington press conference, they showed such a basic earnestness and airman’s conditioned self-possession, that 200 hard-to-impress capital reporters lustily applauded them. All were veteran test pilots, skilled in wringing out all manner of aircraft for the design engineers. Three were naval officers (two Annapolis graduates), three from the Air Force (no West Pointers), and one was—as he put it—”a lonely marine.” Obviously the selectors of the seven had remembered the separate services, and in the flood of applicants for the first trip into space, it was no problem to get good men of three uniforms.

The seven had in common medium height (5 ft. 11 in. or less, to squeeze into the space capsule) and medium age (32 to 37—old enough to have the required experience in the air and engineering, young and fit enough to explore the unknown). Six sported crew cuts, four were their fathers’ namesakes. Each was small-town-born, married, a father (one to four children), an active sportsman, a Protestant; each expressed an intimate love for the skies and an abiding faith in the heavens. Yet they were individualists all (see box).

Torture & Triumph. The seven Astronauts of Project Mercury were winnowed out by the most searching tests man could devise and machine could execute. Last winter, just after new Space Administrator T. Keith Glennan ordered the space shoot, the Air Force, Navy and Marines selected the nation’s no likeliest military test pilots (requirement: at least 1,500 flight hours). Clattering IBM punch-card selectors pared the list to 69 men of optimum size, health, intelligence. Offered a chance to volunteer, 56 did.

Two months ago, 32 finalists began to file into Lovelace Clinic in Albuquerque, from there went on to the Aero Medical Laboratory at Wright-Patterson Air Force Base in Dayton for more tests. For two weeks they were jolted, spun, vibrated, crushed, chilled and roasted in physical and psychological tests simulating the stresses of space flight. Each man was set to hiking on a treadmill that was elevated one degree per minute, and to pedaling increasing amounts of weight on a bikelike device. Each was whirled for 3½ minutes in a centrifuge speeding at various angles that simulated pressures up to twelve times the pull of gravity, placed for one hour in a pressure chamber at a simulated altitude of 65,000 ft., then in a heat chamber (temperature: 130°F.) for two hours. Each was bombarded with a cacophony of piercing noises and incredible high-frequency sounds, also shut into a dark, soundproof room for three hours to measure his adaptability to isolation. Before, during, and after these tests came perhaps the most thorough physical examinations ever devised—plus a total of three doses of castor oil, five enemas. Which was the worst part of the tests? Answered one Astronaut, Marine Lieut. Colonel John Glenn: “If you figure out how many openings there are in the human body, and how far you can go into any one of them, you can answer which would be the toughest for you.”

Identity & Independence. More than a superb physical specimen, the U.S. was looking for the mature man, well adjusted to life on earth and with a keen appreciation of his own importance and identity. The mission needed the strongly motivated team player—because Mercury will be a team project—who also is sufficiently self-assured and experienced in peril to act effectively on a solo mission, when he can rely only upon himself and his ship. Such versatile men best survived the shipwrecks of World War II and the prison camps of Korea.

What the U.S. got in its Mercury Astronauts, said Dr. W. Randolph Lovelace II, the selection director, was “highly intelligent, highly motivated men.” Their IQs range from 135 to 147—the genius level.

Chance & Confidence. For the next two years, the seven will alternate between cosmic-secret isolation and fishbowl visibility.*Operating from Langley Research Center at Hampton, Va., the Astronauts will work along with the engineers—as experimental test pilots always do. Each man will help design one component of the space capsule: communications system, propulsion, instrumentation, etc. To toughen up for the physical trials and psychological terrors of space, they will spend hours in low-pressure chambers, wind tunnels, human cocktail shakers; they will be jolted on supersonic rocket sleds, flown in balloons and supersonic aircraft and eventually test-rocketed by Army Redstone missiles at 4,000 m.p.h. more than 100 miles from Cape Canaveral down the Atlantic firing range.

Meanwhile, the space vehicle, the Air Force’s Atlas ICBM, will get a series of tests, with animals riding the capsules in some flights. After Astronauts and vehicle have checked out so that chances of successful probe and return are 96% to 98% —the same as the maiden flight of any experimental aircraft—the day of flight will be set. On that day the first man will be designated.

*Syndicates and magazines are already pursuing rights to the first spaceman’s bylined “I Was There” yarn. The Astronauts have agreed that, whoever makes the pioneering trip, all will share equally in the literary jackpot.

More Must-Reads from TIME

Contact us at letters@time.com