At the end of the 50’s the United States was engaged in a proverbial dick-measuring contest with the USSR except instead of penis length and girth, they were measuring who could do the stupidest shit faster. Nuclear weapons had already been created but that wasn’t cool enough, so we decided the first person to throw a person farther away from earth would be declared the winner. I say throw because this was less of a flight we’re talking about and more of a really big toss. The first NASA Mercury flight didn’t even orbit the earth. NASA planned to hold open competitions for astronaut spots, figuring that people such as trapeze artists would be good candidates, because they were used to flips and shit. Eisenhower—figuring they’d look stupid as hell if they sent up a god damn clown—declared that all astronauts would have to be test pilots. They needed 1500 hours of flight time and the qualifications to fly jets as well as a bachelor’s degree and age, weight and height restrictions. The scientists at NASA laughed themselves silly at these qualifications. All they thought they needed were people stupid enough to strap themselves to their rockets, none of which were staying up very well at the time.
NASA got 500 applications and selected 69 pilots to undergo testing. Treated more like animals in a lab than human beings, the pilots were subjected to physical and mental exams, being forced to spend hours on treadmills, endure countless hours of vibrations, G-forces, noises, isolation and heat. They also suffered through countless enemas, although sources say the scientists were just fucking with them at that point. NASA eventually selected 7 astronauts, each of whom had been declared a “superb physical specimen” (cause, ya know, that’s how we refer to fellow human beings) who possessed a genius-level IQ and the ability to work well solo and as part of a team. Yup, we were wasting these incredible men on these rockets.
The seven astronauts selected, The Mercury Seven as they would come to be known, were Alan Shepard, Gus Grissom, John Glenn, Scott Carpenter, Wally Schirra, Gordon Cooper, and Deke Slayton. They were introduced to the world on April 9, 1959. The Mercury Seven wore plain clothes rather than their military uniforms, giving them the appearance of being regular, family men, willing to risk all in the battle against the Commies. They became national heroes overnight. During the course of their training and preparation they took full advantage of their dudefest status and drank a ton, drove fast cars, and got into several sexual escapades.
The Mercury Seven suffered some ridicule from other test pilots who felt the astronauts were no better than monkeys being strapped to the top of the rockets and that they were no more impressive than any other test pilots. Chuck Yeager, the first man to break the sound barrier, dismissed the Mercury program because the first riders on the rockets would be monkeys and not pilots. In addition, the pilots did no real piloting in the first missions, controlling only a few aspects of the mission. Still, today we know that Alan Shepard became the first American and second person to reach space on May 5, 1961. While we didn’t beat the pinkos to space, the seven dudes of the Mercury program put up with so much shit that they set the bar high for what people were expected to endure during a job interview. The Mercury Seven established the precedent for NASA’s enduring excellence throughout the 20th century.
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