Chapter 7

The Collier as Commemoration:
The Project Mercury Astronauts
and the Collier Trophy

by Jannelle Warren-Findley

On October 10, 1963, the seven astronauts of the National Aeronautics and Space Administration's (NASA) Project Mercury gathered in the Rose Garden of the White House in Washington, DC, to receive the Collier Trophy for 1962. In the brightness of that autumn morning, President John F. Kennedy relished the opportunity to award what the newspapers referred to as "one of the nation's highest space honors"1 to Lt. Commander M. Scott Carpenter, United States Navy (USN); Capt. Leroy Gordon Cooper, Jr., United States Air Force (USAF); Lt. Col. John H. Glenn, Jr., United States Marine Corps (USMC); Capt. Virgil I. Grissom, USAF; Lt. Commander Walter M. Schirra, Jr., USN; Commander Alan B. Shepard, Jr., USN; and Capt. Donald K. Slayton, USAF. In addition to the astronauts' wives, "picture-pretty" according to one newspaper account,2 150 guests, including Vice President Lyndon B. Johnson, cabinet officers, and representatives from the aerospace industry heard Kennedy urge Americans to a "greater appreciation of the space program and its potential benefits to the United States and mankind."3

Kennedy's remarks put Project Mercury in the context of spacefaring plans in 1963. The excitement of launch and recovery, the tickertape parades and media coverage were behind them. The President said he was particularly glad to be awarding the Collier Trophy to the Mercury astronauts, because "I hope this award, which in effect closes out a particular phase of the program, will be a stimulus to them and to the other astronauts who will carry our flag to the moon and perhaps, some day, beyond."4

The Collier Trophy was awarded to the pilots of Project Mercury "for pioneering manned space flight in the United States."5 The 1962 award differed by definition from earlier Collier honors in several ways. For one, Project Mercury was the first American space mission to receive such kudos; this was the first time that the Collier Trophy could in fact be considered, as the newspapers claimed, one of the nation's highest space honors. It was, moreover, the first of several awards to NASA during the forthcoming decades.6 The award honored solo performance in space of the sort demonstrated by airplane test pilots; after Project Mercury, space forays always utilized teams of astronauts. 7

1. New York Times, October 11, 1963, clipping, NASA Historical Reference Collection, NASA History Office, NASA Headquarters, Washington, DC.

2. Ibid.

3. Chicago Tribune, October 11, 1963, clipping, NASA Historical Reference Collection.

4. New York Times, October 11, 1963, ibid.

5. Bill Robie, For the Greatest Achievement: A History of the Aero Club of America and the National Aeronautic Association (Washington, DC: Smithsonian Institution Press, 1993), Appendix A, p. 233.

6. See Appendix A in Robie, For the Greatest Achievement.

7. By August 1959, the New Projects Panel of the Space Task Group was recommending the development of a three-person spacecraft for transport to and from a space laboratory and circumlunar flights. See Alan J. Levine, The Missile and Space Race, (Westport, CT: Praeger, 1994), pp. 11.1-14.



Photo of The Mercury Seven astronauts standing in front of a Jet.
In 1962 astronauts Lr Cdr M. Scott Carpenter U.S. Navy; Maj. L. Gordon Cooper, U.S. Air Force; Lt. Col. John H. Glenn, Jr., U.S. Marine Corps; Maj. Virgil I. Grissom, U.S. Air Force; Cdr. Walter M. Schirra, Jr., U.S. Navy; Cdr. Alan B. Shepard, Jr., U.S. Navy; and Maj. Donald (Deke) K. Slayton, U.S. Air Force, received the award for pioneering human spaceflight in the United States. (NASA photo no. S61-01250).

In addition, unlike earlier practices, the Collier Trophy for 1962 honored the men rather than the machines. Collier awards in earlier years usually went to designers, engineers and inventors of innovative aviation hardware rather than to those who flew the new machines.8 The 1962 award to the Project Mercury astronauts could have been presented for achievements in "big technology" if not in "big science," as more recent analysts have characterized twentieth century developments in large-scale technological undertakings.9 Project Mercury counts as "big technology" because of the vast numbers of designers, engineers, managers, test pilots, and workers, both military and civilian, from government and industry who fabricated and flew the hardware. Project Mercury was in fact born of and flown by President Eisenhower's worrisome military-industrial complex.10  Its story is a case study of the development, in the face of enormous time, political, and collective psychological pressures, of a specifically military-aerospace complex. Project Mercury was, from this big technology perspective, the opening shot into a new world: and the award ceremony marked "the end of the beginning" of the space age.

8. See Appendix A in Robie, For the Greatest Achievement.

9. See the discussion in James H. Capshew and Karen A. Rader, "Big Science: Price to the Present," Osiris, 2nd Series, 1992, 7:325 for background to the concept of "Big Science." I am arguing that Project Mercury played at best a transitional role in the development of big science.

10. Eisenhower warned in his farewell address of the dangers of economic and political concentration in a military-industrial complex. See reference in T. Keith Glennan, The Birth of NASA, The Diary of  T. Keith Glennan, J.D. Hunley, ed. (Washington, DC: NASA SP-4105, 1993), p. 308.


But, in the face of a compelling story of creative engineering and important technological and administrative developments, the 1962 Collier Trophy was in fact awarded to the test pilots who rode the Mercury capsules. If there is a real anomaly in the award of the Collier Trophy to the Mercury astronauts, it is that from the perspective within NASA, the Project Mercury astronauts appear to have had relatively little to do with the development of the program and of the agency whose patch they wore. The collective space-age versions of "Lucky Lindy" and their wives and children were certainly the most public part of Project Mercury. Within an agency, and a federal government, in which competing visions of strategies for carrying out space undertakings surfaced regularly, politics and public relations dictated that the heroes serve as a focus for the program and be celebrated accordingly.

The Collier Trophy had been awarded annually since 1911 "for the greatest achievement in aviation in America, the value of which has been thoroughly demonstrated by use during the preceding year"11 By 1963, the trophy had been presented nearly fifty times (the war years 1917-1920 had been skipped). The contrast between the early winners and the group of seven astronauts lined up behind President Kennedy in the Rose Garden in October 1963 symbolized profound changes in the ways that the United States thought of aeronautics and awards for achievements in aviation. To understand the way the Mercury program developed is to map (as of the early 1960s) a series of changes in public administration and management; undertakings in science, engineering, and technology; developments in economic organizations; and changes in popular culture that, spurred by World War II and the turmoil and tensions of the Cold War period, transformed many elements of life in the United States.

Much has been written about Project Mercury, from newspaper coverage to Life magazine and other popular magazines during the period, to works like the monumental in-house history of the undertaking, This New Ocean: A History of Project Mercury (1966). 12 To examine Project Mercury as a test case of the emergence of big technology in the space field in the mid-twentieth century, a large number of materials from a variety of disciplines and perspectives were examined. Three particular sets of questions emerged from this literary exploration, and they shape the following essay.

The first questions relate to the time in which Project Mercury took place. How did the political, economic, cultural, and diplomatic competition of the Cold War affect American technological developments, particularly in the realm of military defense? In contrast, how did that play out in the fledgling civilian space agency and Project Mercury itself? The second set of questions concerns the transitions from the predecessor agencies and traditional practices in design, testing, production methods, and management techniques: how were very different ways of organizing and interpreting data of various sorts melded into an agency and a Program that relied for its success on a common approach and focus? The third set of questions focus on the Project Mercury astronauts. The lack of analyses of these early adventurers from broad cultural, gendered, or social perspectives leave the reader with the impression of a group of mostly one-dimensional pilots with a collective death wish. Yet they played a series of roles in American life and culture, and the award of the Collier Trophy to them certainly reflects some element of that public presence. What were those roles and how did the public persona of each astronaut play out during Project Mercury?

11. Robie, For the Greatest Achievement, pp. ix-x.

12. Loyd S. Swenson, Jr., James M. Grimwood, and Charles C. Alexander, This New Ocean: A History of Protect Mercury (Washington, DC: NASA SP-4201, 1966).


The Context for Project Mercury: The Cold War

Project Mercury lasted four and a half years from initial announcement to the twenty-two-orbit flight of Gordon Cooper in Faith 7. The overall cost was estimated to be $384,131,000, "of which thirty-seven percent went for the spacecraft, thirty-three percent for the tracking network, and twenty-four percent for launch vehicle procurement. Flight operations and 'R and D' costs made up the remainder."13 Those funds paid "a dozen prime contractors, some seventy-five major subcontractors, and about 7,200 third-tier sub-subcontractors and vendors, all of whom together employed at most about two million persons who at one time or another had a direct hand in the project."14 With NASA employees, military and civilian employees of the Department of Defense, and employees of other civilian institutions, including educational institutions, the number of people employed on the program probably peaked at just over two million.15

America's first human space flight program was announced by the new National Aeronautics and Space Administration administrator, T. Keith Glennan, on Wright Brothers Day, December 17, 1958. It was fifty-five years after the events at Kitty Hawk.16 A unit transferred to NASA from its predecessor agency, the National Advisory Committee for Aeronautics (NACA), headed by Robert R. Gilruth and physically located at Langley Memorial Aeronautical Laboratory in Virginia, had done preliminary planning for a human space flight project. The project involved suborbital flights using a Redstone rocket; longer suborbital flights using a Jupiter missile, which were later eliminated from the program; and orbital human flights using an Atlas booster.17 The program, reduced to a slide show in the period of planning from September 1958 to January 1959, could be described in shorthand:

  1. Orbital flight and recovery
  2. Man's capabilities in environment
Basic Principles
  1. Simplest and most reliable approach
  2. Minimum of new developments
  3. Progressive build-up of tests
  1. Drag vehicle
  2. ICBM booster
  3.  Retrorocket
  4. Parachute descent
  5. Escape system18

The plan was refined as time passed, and changed or developed as necessary. But the basic strategy of building incrementally and using techniques and technologies already

13. Swenson, Grimwood, and Alexander, This New Ocean, p. 508.

14. Ibid.

15. Ibid.

16. Swenson, et al., This New Ocean, p. 132.

17. Roger D. Launius, NASA: A History of the U. S. Civil Space Program (Malabar, FL: Krieger Publishing Company, 1994), p. 39.

18. Swenson, Grimwood, and Aexander, This New Ocean, p. 134.


available whenever possible continued for the life of Project Mercury. That approach clearly differentiated Project Mercury from the Manhattan Project-type approach of the later Apollo program.

The space program in the United States developed as it did because of the Cold War. World War II brought significant change to the NACA, to its mission, and to the spheres of aeronautics, science, and technology. New developments like atomic energy, radar, large rockets, jet engines, radio telemetry and the computer all had the potential to reshape American life in the latter half of the twentieth century.19

But the aftermath of the second world war did not bring peace and measured development of these new technologies. Rather, the rise of the Soviet Union and its spheres of influence and the fall of what Winston Churchill called "the Iron Curtain" across central Europe led to the international political and technological competition known as the Cold War. The American military played an active role and influenced directly or indirectly many Cold War developments. Indeed, as one study observes:

The essential feature of the mid-century military-political landscape was the Cold War —a type of strife radically unlike any other in history. Weapons for the first time were designed not to be used, they were sought for their preemptive value. Each combatant had to continually improve its arsenal, so as to deter the other from using its arms. Fewer and fewer units of each successive weapon were made, but each was much more technically sophisticated than the last. A process of institutionalized innovation was set in motion. The new form of warfare, atmospheric rather than ground or sea, radically altered both the conduct of war-making and the production complex that fashioned the weapons and support equipment. 20

Even where the military was only indirectly involved —and the NASA program, and Mercury as the first human space flight program, were self-consciously non-military undertakings— this new form of warfare shaped the whole notion of a "space race." And the "process of institutionalized innovation" shaped the space program. The development of that process began with the announcement of Project Mercury.

World War II is recognized as the catalyst for organized, national rocket development because the war effort demanded new weapons and Russia, the United States, and Germany began to develop missiles as weapons.21 The captured German rocketeers continued their work with captured V-2s and parts which they had brought out of the Reich, first at White Sands Proving Ground in New Mexico, and after 1950, at the U.S. Army's Redstone Arsenal in Alabama.22

During the same period of development that would lead to Project Mercury, the Naval Research Laboratory began to work with sounding rockets, launching Viking I, built by the Glenn L. Martin Company, from White Sands on May 3,1949. The Army's Project Bumper joined a Jet Propulsion Laboratory —produced WAC Corporal missile to a V-2. The one

19. Legacy Resource Management Program, Coming in From the Cold the Department of Defense Cold War Project, draft manuscript history of the Cold War, 1992, in possession of the author.

20. Ann Markusen, et al, The Rise of the Gunbelt: The Military Remapping of Industrial America (New York, NY. Oxford University Press, 1991), p. 30.

21. The history of the German rocket program prior to and during World War II is fully described in Michael J. Neufeld, The Rocket and The Reich: Peenemünde and the Coming of the Ballistic Missile Age (New York, NY The Free Press, 1995); Levine, Missile and Space Race, studies American developments during and after World War II.

22. Launius, NASA, pp. 33-34.



Cutaway Drawing of the Mercury Capsule showing internal components.
The Mercury Capsule, America's first true spacecraft, shown in a cutaway drawing made in January 1960. (NASA photo no. M-278, ASTRO 17).

fully successful launch took place on February 24, 1949. 23 During the 1950s, the Germans working for the U.S. Army and building on the V-2, developed the Redstone missle, first launched on August 20, 1953, from Cape Canaveral, Florida. Redstone carried enormous importance, for Project Mercury, because it was utilized to launch the first Mercury astronauts.24 It was in fact the ICBM booster listed on the briefing slide in the original planning presentation mentioned above.

After the Korean War, the development of an intercontinental ballistic missile, or ICBM, took priority among the military services. The Army's Redstone was the nation's first operational ballistic missile, although its military importance proved to be nil. "Along with the H-bomb," notes Alan J. Levine, "the ICBM was the critical weapons development of the Cold War era. And ... the principal launch vehicles of the space program in the 1960s and later (and even today) were products or byproducts of the ICBM effort." 25 Development was speeded up during the Eisenhower administration partly due to the recommendations of the Strategic Missiles Evaluation Group, or the Teapot or von Neumann Committee. The committee warned that the Russians might be ahead in the development of such missiles and urged a crash program to give the United States operational weapons

23. Launius, NASA, pp. 12-14; Levine, Missile and Space Race, pp. 2-8, 11-16.

24. Launius, NASA, p. 15; Levine, Missile and the Space Race, pp. 27-28.

25. Levine, Missile and Space Race, p. 28.


in six to eight years.26 In January 1951, Convair had received a research contract to work on what became the Atlas ICBM. By 1954, the Atlas was on the developmental fast-track, with 2,000 companies and 40,000 workers involved in its design and production.27

The military's push for ICBMs helped pave the way for civilian exploration of space, as did the development of reconnaissance satellites in the mid-1950s. In contrast to military space weapons efforts, what would be the Eisenhower administration's civilian space program began in 1952 with the establishment, by the International Council of Scientific Unions, of the International Geophysical Year (IGY) from July 1, 1957, to December 31, 1958. The use of rockets with instrument packages to help study the scientific issues of the IGY was recommended in 1952; by 1954, the organization called for the orbiting of artificial satellites to help map the Earth's surface.28 The National Security Council voted on May 26, 1955, to approve a plan to orbit a scientific satellite as part of the IGY activities. President Eisenhower announced in July that small, pilotless satellites would be launched for those purposes. The Naval Research Laboratory and the Army's Redstone Arsenal went into immediate competition to develop the capacity to launch the satellite. The Navy's Project Vanguard was chosen in September 1955 and launched the first Vanguard mission on December 8, 1956. But Vanguard was slow to develop and starved for funds.29

As Roger Launius points out, the United States in the mid-1950s thus had two separate space efforts underway. The high-priority military program, to build ICBMs and to work on reconnaissance satellites, was kept under wraps as much as possible. The IGY program, on the other hand, was public and focused on the need to encourage the free access to space of all spacefaring nations. The Vanguard program was struggling toward orbit with limited financial support. The Eisenhower administration, vitally concerned with achieving the goal of free access to space, was willing to push the Vanguard program in order to accomplish the launch of Earth's first artificial satellite even at the expense of the military plans.30

Sputnik 1, however, changed everything on October 4, 1957. The Earth's first artificial moon weighed 183 pounds and orbited the Earth every hour and a half in an elliptical orbit. The Eisenhower administration's reaction to this historic event was restrained; although the Russians were congratulated for their historic and scientific achievement, officials downplayed the strategic meaning of the launch and successful orbit.31

The American people, on the other hand, were shocked, horrified and frightened by the news. In contrast to the administration's facade of calmness and lack of concern, wrote Walter McDougall. "The public outcry after Sputnik was ear-splitting. No event since Pearl Harbor set off such repercussions in public life."32 The Russians confirmed their ability to launch large objects and to carry biological passengers, in that case a dog, when they orbited Sputnik 2 on November 3.

26. Levine, Missile and Space Race, pp. 30-31.

27. Ibid.

28. Launius, NASA, pp. 21-22.

29. Ibid., pp. 21-25.

30. Launius, Ibid., pp. 23-24.

31. Ibid., p. 24.

32. Walter A. McDougall.... the Heavens and the Earth: A Political History of the Space Age (New York, NY. Basic Books, 1985), p. 142.


Project Mercury and the Transition to Big Programs

The reactions to Sputnik 1 and 2 fell into a number of categories. Some critics called for an immediate improvement in American scientific education despite the fact that the Sputniks were predominantly engineering feats.33 Senator Lyndon B. Johnson opened hearings in a subcommittee of the Senate Armed Services Committee in November, and the investigation found too little being spent on space-related activities, and considerable diffusion of effort among the military services. As Johnson's aide, George Reedy pointed out, in a graphic description of how the perception of world power had changed, "The simple fact is that we can no longer consider the Russians to be behind us in technology. It took them four years to catch up to our atomic bomb and nine months to catch up to our hydrogen bomb. Now we are trying to catch up to their satellite."34

In a now more urgent response to Russia's gauntlet, the administration scheduled a test launch of a Project Vanguard booster on December 6, 1957. That test, televised nationally, was disastrous and embarrassing when the rocket rose briefly and fell back to the pad, disintegrating in flames. "Flopnik," the press called it; "Kaputnik." The second Vanguard launch, in February, was no more successful; the rocket got off the launch pad but came apart at an altitude of four miles.

Despite the earlier decision to allow the Navy to put the initial U.S. satellite into orbit, the Administration turned to the Army program and the Germans in Huntsville to prepare a backup launch. The jet Propulsion Laboratory repackaged instruments from Vanguard, including a cosmic-ray experiment designed by James Van Allen of the University of Iowa. On January 31, 1958, the Jupiter-C launched Explorer 1 and soon after made arguably the first important scientific discovery of the Space Age by locating the Van Allen radiation belts. In addition, the bringing of the Army's team of German rocket experts to the center of America's space efforts represented an important developmental shift for human space flight programs like Project Mercury.35

President Eisenhower continued to exhibit calm in the face of the Soviet triumphs and American failures, and he continued to try to hold Federal spending down. Space policy, in both the military and civilian spheres, changed during 1957-58, however, and it seems clear in retrospect that the development of both programs were shaped by the Sputniks. Military developments included the firming up of plans for nine squadrons of Atlas missiles; the approval of plans for the Air Force's Minuteman, a missile which could be kept in a hardened missile silo and fired when necessary; the acceleration of the reconnaissance satellite program, pointedly perhaps, named Sentry. The go-ahead was given for work on the Army's Pershing and the Nike-Zeus. The Strategic Air Command was further strengthened and work on Distant Early Warning (DEW) line construction sped up. Development of the Navy's submarine-launched Polaris was advanced three years, so that the missile would be ready for operations in 1960. In management developments, the Advanced Research Projects Agency (ARPA) was established in the Pentagon in February 1958. ARPA's role was to act as a clearinghouse and evaluation center for ideas and efforts from all the services. In time, the agency was assumed to be slated to take over military space undertakings, presumably including American piloted space efforts.36

Changes in response to Sputnik which were more obvious to the general public occurred, as did the establishment of ARPA, in the organizational area. Senator Lyndon B. Johnson (D-Texas) convened hearings on the United States' space program, or lack

33. McDougall, Heavens and the Earth, p. 143.

34. George Reedy, quoted in Launius, NASA, p. 26.

35. Levine, Missile and Space Race, pp. 68-69.

36. Ibid., pp. 69-70.


thereof, in November 1957. Johnson's goal was to push the administration to support the technological developments necessary to the new Space Age and to acknowledge the need for international power and recognition that a space program would entail. Johnson's congressional hearings found the current American space program seriously wanting, and long-term planning virtually useless. As a result, on February 6, 1958, the Senate voted to establish the Special Committee on Space and Aeronautics. Its task specifically would be to craft legislation to create a new national space agency. The House of Representatives soon followed suit. 37

While the Legislative branch deliberated, the administration also took steps to address the space crisis. In November 1957, Eisenhower established the President's Science Advisory Committee (PSAC) and named James R. Killian his Science Advisor. In February 1958, Eisenhower asked the PSAC to create a plan for a new civilian space agency. The next month, Killian and his committee proposed that all nonmilitary space activities be merged into an expanded National Advisory Committee on Aeronautics (NACA), the Federal agency which had been responsible for basic research into aeronautical problems since 1915. On the basis of that advice, the administration drafted legislation establishing the National Aeronautics and Space Administration.38 President Eisenhower signed it on 29 July, and NASA began to function on October 1, 1958. 39

Howard McCurdy argues that the cultures which various precursor agencies brought to NASA helped to shape the organizational culture within which Project Mercury developed.40 As the agency took shape during the early phase, when Project Mercury was the prime human space flight mission, it seems clear that the melding of diverse groups of engineers, scientists, and managers into one organization changed the way that all did business.

When the shift from the pre-World War II military arsenal system to the Air Force's contracting system is also factored into the developmental period of the space program, the changes not only within NASA's constituent groups but outside are wide-ranging. The military arsenal system was established early in U.S. history. Both the Army and the Navy developed, designed, and fabricated the weapons used by their troops in government facilities. The Redstone Arsenal in Alabama, the site where the German rocket team was installed in 1950, was one among many such facilities, a fair number of which were established in the late 1930s or early 1940s for weapons production during World War II. The Navy Yard in Washington, DC, was one of the nation's oldest arsenals for Navy work.

That system served until the Air Force undertook in 1953 to develop, on an emergency basis, an ICBM capability for the United States. Using the Manhattan Project as a model of all-out development (a significant and perhaps flawed model which turns up repeatedly in the early days of space activity), the Air Force "adopted a system of parallel contracting, whereby hundreds of privately owned companies simultaneously designed and fabricated program components. The Air Force even relied upon contractors to help coordinate other contractors."41

The assumption was that a "national" effort of this sort demanded different or differently adapted strategies for organizing, planning, building, launching, and evaluating activities. T. Keith Glennan, NASA's first administrator, decided to build a program similar

37. Launius, NASA, p. 29.

38. Ibid., p. 30; See "National Aeronautics and Space Act of 1958," Public Law 85-568, 72 Stat., 426, in John M. Logsdon, gen. ed. Exploring the Unknown: Selected Documents in the History of the U.S. Civil Space Program, Volume I: Organizing for Exploration (Washington, DC: NASA SP-4407, 1995), pp. 334-45.

39. McDougall, Heavens and the Earth, pp. 172-76; Launius, NASA, pp. 31-32.

40. Howard E. McCurdy, Inside NASA: High Technology and Organizational Change in the U.S. Space Program (Baltimore, MD: Johns Hopkins University Press, 1993).

41. Ibid., pp. 15, 36-50.


to the Air Force's contracting program. This decision came partly from his support of the restrained Federal spending advocated by the Eisenhower administration. But Glennan, the president of Case Institute of Technology (later Case Western Reserve University) in Cleveland, came to the job of chief of the new organization understanding that more Federal spending and larger government staffs would be expected by old NACA hands. As
he wrote:

Having the conviction that our government operations were growing too large, I determined to avoid excessive additions to the federal payroll. Since our organizational structure was to be erected on the NACA staff, and their operation had been conducted almost wholly 'in-house, 'I knew I would face demands on the part of our technical staff to add to in-house capacity ... but I was convinced that the major portion of our funds must be spent with industry, education and other institutions.42

When James E. Webb succeeded Glennan, as administrator of NASA for John Kennedy's administration in January 1961, his intent was much the same, though his focus was not the size of government bureaucracy. Rather, Webb had a grand vision of using NASA and its work to build science and technological education in the United States. He wanted, as his biographer pointed out, "to use NASA as a vehicle to move the whole nation to a 'new frontier' of enhanced technology-based educational and economic development." Space policy was to be integrated with economic and industrial policy. Webb's vision came too late for the Project Mercury program, however.43

In the beginning of the Project Mercury period, in fact, the system was barely developed and transitions of organizational culture unfinished; much of what was done relied on the earlier work and established organizational cultures of the various units transferred into NASA. The most important initial group transferred into NASA was the organization of the National Advisory Committee on Aeronautics. At least one historian of the period asserts that Hugh Dryden, then NACA director, actively campaigned for the role. The scholar adds,

NACA was not an inevitable choice. A small applied-research agency oriented mainly to work on aircraft, it had no experience in developing hardware or managing big programs.... But it was already at least on the fringes of space with the X-15 research craft, and its Pilotless Aircraft Division and the Lewis Flight Laboratory were doing significant research on space (the latter campaigned actively for space activities).44

This new program was shaped against a complicated backdrop of technological developments, cultural change, and political imperatives that had come about in an exceedingly short period of time.

The Pilotless Aircraft Research Division (PARD) at the Langley Research Center was renamed NASA's Space Task Group, and in 1962 relocated as the Manned Spacecraft Center in Houston. These engineers were charged with the responsibility of Project Mercury. Langley itself became a NASA field center and early activities, including the early training of the seven Mercury astronauts, took place in Virginia. Administrator Glennan, described the beginnings of the undertaking later by pointing out that "the philosophy of the project was to use known technologies, extending the state of the art as little as necessary,

42. Glennan, Birth of NASA, p. 5.

43. W. Henry Lambright, Powering Apollo: James E. Webb of NASA (Baltimore, MD: Johns Hopkins University Press, 1995), pp. 99-101.

44. Levine, Missile and Space Race, p. 103.


and relying on the unproven Atlas. As one looks back, it is clear that we did not know much about what we were doing. Yet the Mercury program was one of the best organized and managed of any I have been associated with."45

As the nucleus of NASA, the NACA employees brought with them elements of their former institutional culture. As Howard McCurdy describes it,

[NACA] employees believed thoroughly in the importance of research and testing. They insisted on seeking technical solutions to spaceflight problems, with a minimum of outside interference. Associated as they were with the test pilots of the astronaut corps, they adopted the ethic of taking risks to push performance frontiers. In only one respect did [the Space Task Group] depart significantly from the Langley research culture: it relied significantly upon contractors for spacecraft fabrication and technical assistance.46

The NACA had never been part of the military's arsenal system, although work that it had done for the military services before World War II may ultimately have ended up in military fabrication shops. The NACA operated to some extent like an arsenal, however; it worked with its own machine shops and "hands-on" engineering work was a trademark of employment there. Thus this change had important implications for the ways that work was done in the new organization.

"Hands-on" work was a tradition which NACA employees tried to transfer into their jobs as NASA engineers. Years of research had prepared the Langley engineers to design space capsules that could safely carry their human cargo out of and back into Earth's atmosphere. Dr. Maxime A. Eager of the Langley team designed the Mercury spacecraft, and a contract to build it was awarded in late 1959. But the contract did not end the work of the Langley engineers with the spacecraft. McCurdy points out that they performed air-drop studies and tested escape rockets. They made blunt-body wind tunnel studies. They examined landing techniques. "Tests like these," McCurdy concluded, "kept NASA employees directly involved in the mechanics of space flight." 47 Much of this testing could have been carried out and required of the contractor, but NASA engineers were determined to retain control of as much of the engineering process as possible.

The Army's German missile team at the Redstone arsenal, transferred to NASA in 1960 after much effort by NASA officials,48 had developed the launcher. The seeds of considerable conflict within NASA were sown by attempting to link together the NACA engineers and the German rocket team. As Howard McCurdy pointed out, "although the two groups shared many cultural norms, such as their belief in research and testing, they derived those norms in different ways." Former NACA employees hailed from a proud tradition of American aircraft design and testing. The Germans reflected a similar deep pride in German approaches and techniques. Both groups Worked hard to retain control of their work, although the Germans proved to have little faith in American aerospace companies.49 The issue of control of the process and of the product shaped many conflicts between the forces within the youthful space agency, and between them and the outside world.

The technical culture which both predecessor agencies brought into NASA worked well as long as the projects undertaken in common were limited in scope. When Project Mercury began, however, the multinational engineers of the new NASA faced a new universe of problems. "We now had to build something," Howard McCurdy quoted one of

45. Glennan, Birth of NASA, p. 13; Launius, NASA, pp. 38-39.

46. McCurdy, Inside NASA, p. 18.

47. Ibid., p. 44.

48. Glennan, Birth of NASA, pp. 9-12.

49. McCurdy, Inside NASA, pp. 18-19.


them as saying. "We now had to fly something that we built. We now had to interface with the contractors to get that done. We had to build an organization. We had to make things happen that we had not ever been associated with before."50

Project Mercury paled in comparison to placing Americans on the Moon and returning them safely to Earth, but for the period 1958-1961 at least, the complexity offered by Project Mercury would stretch NASA's staff to its limits. NASA workers had to figure out what needed to be done, and instead of walking across the street to the machine shop with a sketch in hand, they now wrote detailed specifications for its manufacture. Contractors bid on work using the specifications, and queries from outsiders had to be considered and answered. The entire contracting section of NASA had to be developed from scratch because its predecessor research agency had never needed such an organization. NASA staff had to work with the contractors, overseeing work as well as testing it when it came off the assembly line.

A final challenge to the old ways of research and development came from the need, once Project Mercury got under-way, to work directly with a network of aerospace contractors and other government agencies to make the whole space flight process work. For Project Mercury, the capsule (designed in-house) came from McDonnell Aircraft Corporation and the Redstone rocket from the Army's German missile team in Huntsville who had them fabricated by Chrysler Corporation. Later, Atlas launchers were used, courtesy of the Air Force but made by Convair Corporation. Project Mercury flights were launched from the Air Force's facilities at Cape Canaveral, Florida. The Navy picked up the astronauts. Thus, as Project Mercury developed, the sharing of responsibilities with competing organizations took considerable effort to organize. But the long-term effort led to the development of a technocratic organization capable of carrying off the Moon landing a decade later .51

The research and development phase of Project Mercury lasted roughly from October of 1958 to April 1961. In that time, the space capsule, designed by Max Faget and built primarily by the McDonnell Corporation, was readied. The spacecraft, an example of which is on display at the Smithsonian's National Air and Space Museum in Washington, DC, was designed to carry a lone astronaut for an orbital journey of about a day's duration. Integration of boosters and capsules began in 1960. Construction of a complex worldwide communications system, tracking systems, and a vastly expanded launch complex at Cape Canaveral, Florida, accompanied the fabrication of the launch vehicle.

Project Mercury and the Human Dimension
of Space Flight

In addition to developing in a context of Cold War urgency and facing the enormous task of integrating varied and formative work cultures from civilian and military engineering organizations, Project Mercury propelled NASA into human space flight operations. The first seven American astronauts were introduced to the press on April 9, 1959 . 52 The Mercury astronauts, recipients of the 1962 Collier Trophy, presumably stood, in the mind of the American public, for the agency, the engineers, and the contractors. Thus, the part they took in the Mercury program and in American culture of the late 1950s and 1960s deserves a close look.

The role that the astronauts played in the early history of NASA, of American space flight, and in American culture depended to some extent on the meaning assigned to the

50. Quoted in ibid., p. 91.

51. Ibid., p. 134.

52. Swenson, Grimwood, and Alexander, This New Ocean, pp. 109-338; Launius, NASA, pp. 38-41.


enterprise. If space exploration is seen entirely as a mechanical exercise (which was the perception of many engineers and scientists involved with Project Mercury as well as the Eisenhower administration) then the astronaut's role is relatively minor: he goes along for the ride and to make minor adjustments to the equipment. Testing human reactions is simply part of the technological testing process.

But a second understanding of the meaning of Project Mercury was also possible. Beyond the sheer technological basics, a more romantic notion, of individual challenge and courage in exploration of the universe or defense of the homeland can be seen as the reason for making machines that will carry explorers. In the second case, the focus is decidedly different. NASA, with its staff of machine-makers from the old NACA and Peenermünde and administrators in a conservative Republican administration may have begun the project with the first, straightforwardly technical vision. NASA and the Kennedy administration, for political reasons in Congress and among the American people, helped to shift the focus to the second. A memo written by James E. Webb, the second NASA administrator, to President John E. Kennedy, described the uneasy alliance:

The extent to which we are leaders in space science and technology will in large measure determine the extent to which we, as a nation, pioneering on a new frontier, will be in a position to develop the emerging world forces and make it the basis for new concepts and applications in education, communications and transportation, looking toward viable political, social, and economic systems for nations willing to work with us in the years ahead. 53

All of the rhetoric of the early years of space flight emphasized the technological nature of the competition in space between the Soviet Union and the United States. "The launching of Sputnik 1 had a 'Pearl Harbor' effect on American public opinion wrote NASA's chief historian. "The event created an illusion of a technological gap."54As the Soviet Union achieved more space spectaculars, the fear grew in the United States that Russia's perceived technological prowess had made the United States a second-class nation. Worries arose that the nations of the non-aligned world would choose to follow the Soviets because of their technological superiority. Thus the American space program strove to reestablish the preeminence of American science and technology in a world changed by Soviet scientific and engineering challenges since World War II and the early days of the atomic age.55

In that sense, as Mark E. Byrnes pointed out, the compelling images for the early days of space related to nationalism and the need for the United States to reassert itself as the most important world power. As he said,

In its most general form, nationalism has emphasized that America must be active in space in order to protect its national interest, however defined. NASA has named the space program's broadest and most important objective as "the establishment and maintenance of a strong national capability to operate in space and to use space fully in the national interest. " Such a capability would give the nation "freedom of choice to carry out whatever missions the national interest may require —be they for national prestige, military requirements, scientific knowledge, or other purposes. " Proficiency in space would also "prevent any other power from denying us the utilization of space in our interests. 56

53. Webb to Kennedy, quoted in William D. Atwill, Fire and Power: The American Space Program as Postmodern Narrative (Athens: University of Georgia Press, 1994), pp. 7-8.

54. Launius, NASA, p. 25.

55. Mark E. Byrnes, Politics and Space: Image Making by NASA (Westport, CT: Praeger, 1994), pp. 25-38.

56. Ibid., p. 7.


In this context, big science and big technology will unite to support and strengthen American power on the international scene.

If, on the other hand, the viewpoint through which the U.S. space program is studied starts with the notion that a new set of pioneers will ride NASA's technological wonders to the stars, a different kind of narrative comes into play. Added to the imperative of nationalism are various ways of seeing the potential of the space program. The first is the space frontier as metaphor, the view expressed by scholars like William Goetzmann and Stephen Pyne. 57 In Pyne's clearest formulation of the role of the space frontier in world cultural development,58 he argued that the International Geophysical Year (IGY) in 1957 "announced a new epoch of exploration, a Third Great Age of Discovery. Like its predecessors, the Third Age would claim special realms of geography, interact with distinctive syndromes of thought, pose immense new problems of assimilation for politics, economics and scholarship, and demand a new moral drama to give it legitimacy."59

NASA itself early began to use the imagery of exploration and of the wonders and possibilities of a new western frontier for the United States. A number of authors, including Patricia Nelson Limerick,60 examined the frontier imagery used by NASA. Limerick pointed out the perils of using historical analogies badly.61 Where Stephen Pyne finds solace and indeed appeal in the interior-exterior journey produced from the melding of modernism and exploration, Limerick finds cautionary tales. Running away from home, she notes, is an "inefficient way of leaving one's individual and collective problems behind." Settlements dependent on one form of transportation —settlers and railroads, or space station astronauts and shuttles— are likely to find themselves economically depressed and victimized by a sole source that has the ability to control their economic and personal agendas. Equal distribution of the fruits of colonization and settlement are rare; Limerick noted that,

far more often, the frontier comparisons shows, one person's benefit means another person's loss. AngloAmericans acquired property, while Indians and Hispanics lost it, nineteenth century mineowners got the Profits, while local miners got limited wages, considerable physical danger, frequent layoffs and little insurance or other protection. just as clearly, the interests of various resource-users competed.62

As Stephen Pyne argues that the new age of discovery will bring different challenges, Limerick makes the case that learning from the past may involve understanding a different set of stories.

Others have examined the methods and mythologies by which the space program was marketed by NASA and by its supporters. Michael L. Smith, in "Selling the Moon: The U.S. Manned Space Program and the Triumph of Commodity Scientism" 63 examined the

57. See, for example, William H. Goetzmann, New Lands, New Men: America and the Second Great Age of Discovery (New York: W.W. Norton and Co., 1986) and Stephen J. Pyne, The Ice: A Journey to Antarctica (Iowa City, IA: University of Iowa Press, 1986).

58. Stephen J. Pyne, "Space: a Third Great Age of Discovery," Space Policy 4 (August 1988): 187-99.

59. Ibid., p. 187.

60. Patricia Nelson Limerick, "Frontier Life," revised version of speech to Second Annual Colorado Space Policy Workshop, Boulder, Colorado, September 8, 1989, p. 2. In addition, see works like Beverly J. Stoeltje, "Making the Frontier Myth: Folklore Process in a Modern Nation," Western Folklore 46 (October 1987): 235.

61. Patricia Nelson Limerick, Chair, "Session 3: What is the Cultural Value of Space Exploration?" in What is the Value of Space Exploration? A Symposium sponsored by the Mission from Planet Earth Study Office, Office of Space Science, NASA Headquarters and the University of Maryland at College Park, July 18-19, 1994, p. 13.

62. Limerick, "Frontier Life," p. 15.

63. Michael L. Smith, "Selling the Moon: The U.S. Manned Space Program and the Triumph of Commodity Scientism," in Richard Wightman Fox and T J. Jackson Lears, eds., The Culture of Consumption: Critical Essays in American History, 1880-1980 (New York, NY. Pantheon Books, 1983), pp. 177-209.


rhetoric of program supporters and the packaging of the astronauts. Starting at more or less the same point as Pyne and Limerick —with the explorer-scientist who mapped the West and filled museums with artifacts and images— Smith argued that by the 1950s national advertising agencies in the United States had created three particularly significant patterns of technological display: dramatic unveiling of products; the transferring of the special attributes of the product to the customer ("transitivity") usually by using actors in ads; and establishing through those actors a character type with which to identify. In Smith's view, a major 1950s image was "the helmsman, whose mastery over his environment through the products of technology provides a model for consumer aspiration." The helmsman and his machine —like Lindberg and "The Spirit of Saint Louis"— made a pair, the attributes of each enhancing the abilities of the other. As Smith noted,

Each of the helmsmans display qualities conveyed value to the product, which in turn appeared to reinforce precisely those qualities in its owner foremost among them was his masculinity. In a male-dominated society in which mechanization has been perceived alternately as a source of power and a threat to independence, advertisers forged an alliance between technological and gender display.... Technological sophistication and socially admired masculine traits were conveyed each through stylized variations of the other.64

When Sputnik was launched in 1957, the ground was prepared to combine the advertising images of helmsmanship and technology in a Cold War race for space.

The first group of astronauts, the helmsmen of Smith's advertising world, was introduced to the press and the American people on April 9, 1959. While the debate about their role or lack thereof in Project Mercury continued among the engineers working to design a capsule and man-rate the rocket, the astronauts became the space program for most of their fellow citizens. As the official history of Project Mercury notes,

These personable pilots were introduced in civilian diess; many people, in their audience forgot that they were volunteer test subjects and military officers. Their public comments did not class them with an elite intelligentsia. Rather they were a contingent of mature Americans, average in build and visage, family men all, college-educated as engineers, possessing excellent health, and professionally committed to flying advanced aircraft. "65

Others saw them somewhat differently. They had "the right stuff," observed writer Tom Wolfe, including the political sense in the case of one successful candidate, to recruit his estranged wife from their separation to the cause of his successful career as an astronaut.66 Alan J. Levine argued that the Project Mercury astronauts were in fact presented in a way designed to make space travel as mechanical and ordinary, as risk-free as possible. "NASA's publicity machine and the Time-Life empire, which gained the rights to the astronauts' stories," Levine commented, "contrived to show them, and to some extent, the Mercury project as a whole, in a misleading way."67 NASA, in this view, wanted to minimize risk; Henry Luce, of Time-Life, on the other hand, worked to show them as "typical middle-class white Protestants."68 Michael Smith's process of presentation fits the introduction of the astronauts to the press.

64. Ibid., p. 184.

65. Swenson, Grimwood, and Alexander, This New Ocean, p. 160.

66. The astronaut who was separated during the selection process was Gordon Cooper, according to Tom Wolfe, The Right Stuff (New York, NY: Farrar, Strauss & Giroux, 1979), pp. 146-47.

67. Levine, Missile and Space Race, p. 110.

68. Ibid.


Time-Life played a particular role in the presentation of the Project Mercury astronauts because the astronauts signed an exclusive contract with the company on August 5, 1959, for their "personal stories." The deal apparently originated inside NASA. As the Project Mercury history comments,

partly because of . . . natural public interest and partly because the civilian space agency had a statutory mandate to conduct educational publicity, NASA Headquarters, after investigation and decision, encouraged the astronauts to stay together and to accept the fringe benefits of a single private enterprise publishing offer arranged in outline even before their selection. This precluded eventual competitive bidding for individual story rights.69

The astronauts were to receive $500,000, to be divided equally, without regard to who was to be the first American —and, it was hoped, the first human— in space. The stories, to be written by Life staff, were to be presented under first-person bylines, and the astronauts and their wives had final approval over the contents. Life's intention was to make the astronauts and their families look good. The astronaut's wives were full partners in the deal and in the stories that were told. The arrangement was immediately and continuously controversial; as This New Ocean observes, "Few other peripheral policy decisions regarding Project Mercury were to become so controversial in the long run."70 The contract, unthinkable in later generations, guaranteed a continuous flow of information about the new space pioneers and their families throughout the 1960s. Life could not send its photographers into space aboard Friendship 7 or Faith 7 so that its ability to tell the story as Life saw it depended on the exclusive sharing of the stories and experiences of others.

The Life contract and the unexpected worldwide interest in the astronauts played into the cultural crisis set off by Russian space spectaculars. The Eisenhower administration took little public notice of Sputnik's orbits overhead but Members of Congress and the public reacted. Sputnik represented unexpected prowess on the part of the U.S.S.R. and a measure of military might; but it also revealed, in the view of many, Americans as soft, flabby, adrift in a sea of material goods. In the period during which the Space Act was passed, NASA was organized, and the 1960 election was held, the nation embarked on a search for national goals —a Presidential commission, a Special Studies Project funded by Rockefeller money, and Life magazine itself all devoted attention to national renewal and discovered some version of a loss of a sense of purpose or of mission. The timing fit perfectly and, in Michael Smith's view, "from the outset, then, the architects of the space program viewed it as a new source of national iconography."71 The iconography of science and exploration masked the political (at home) and diplomatic (abroad) importance of national prestige as the national need impelling plans for a space program forward.72

Helmsmen were needed for the great adventure, and the fighter pilot astronaut emerged as the figure most worthy of carrying America's banner to the stars. People were necessary to the program in order to achieve "projection of the national imagination into space," to stand in for others who could share the dream vicariously. "Machines alone will not suffice if men are able to follow," observed a journalist writing in The Nation. "The difference is [of] that between admiring a woman's photograph and marrying her."73

69. Swenson, Grimwood, Alexander, This New Ocean, pp. 237-38.

70. Ibid., p. 238.

71. Smith, "Selling the Moon," pp. 192-93.

72. Ibid.

73. Quoted in ibid., p. 199.


Photo of Friendship Seven launch at the first moments of Main Engine Start.
The launch of John Glenns "Friendship 7" spacecraft on February 20, 1962, atop the Atlas launch vehicle. The first American orbital flight, Glenn made three orbits of Earth. (NASA photo no. 62-MA6-112).

In the early days of space launchings, as they were then called, the Mercury astronauts appeared to be superfluous; their "functional role in the flight was not unlike that of a rather elaborate hood ornament."74 Yet Alan Shepard, Gus Grissom, and John Glenn personified the rural farm youth or small-town white male daredevil image necessary to popular myth. Later astronauts in programs that followed Project Mercury, sharing their capsules with one or two companions took on a different look; U.S. News and World Report observed that "A new breed of cosmic explorer has emerged. Gone is the earlier image of the rocket-riding daredevil, the superman of the 'wild blue yonder.' The astronaut now is seen as a dedicated

74. Ibid., p. 201.


scientist concerned more with discovery than with setting orbiting records."75 The fighter-pilot was now transformed into an explorer-scientist ready to convert the void into an American landscape (ironically, only one scientist, geologist Harrison Schmitt, set foot on the moon or worked in the early programs of the space age). But for Project Mercury, the helmsman as quintessential American hero was the job description, and NASA and the media worked to make the candidates fit the profile.76

There was, in fact, no formal job description for the first astronauts because nobody working with research and development expected there to be a job for the men. As a consequence, the roles they played in Project Mercury developed as the program developed. One of the key points which mark the transition from aviation to space flight resides in the role of the human being on board. Joachim P. Kuettner, one of the German rocket technicians brought to the United States after World War II, described the difference. "While it is admittedly an oversimplification," he wrote,

the difference between the two technologies may be stated in the following general terms. From an aviation standpoint, man is not only the subject of transportation, and as such in need of protection as a passenger; but he is also a most important integral part of the machine over which he truly has control....

In contrast, rocket technology has been for twenty years a missile technology governed by the requirements of target accuracy and maximum range. As such, it had to develop automatic controls. Unlike a human payload, a warhead has no use except on the target. Once a missile fails, it may as well destroy itself during flight.

The development of manned spaceflight is not just a matter of replacing a warhead by a manned cabin. Suddenly a switch is thrown between two parallel tracks, those of missile technology and those of aviation technology, and an attempt is made to move the precious human payload from one track to the other As in all last-minute switchings, one has to be careful to assure that no derailment takes place.77

Although the naming of astronauts assured that the space race would involve human space flight, the role of that human being vis-a-vis the role of automatic controls of all aspects of spacecraft and launcher operations became a subject of some controversy. Many, including the astronauts' fellow test pilots in the X-series tests at Edwards Air Force Base in California, considered the Mercury astronaut to be "Spam-in-a-can," a passive passenger in the space flight. Many of the engineers working on Project Mercury preferred that option, believing that automatic controls could protect human cargo more effectively than the human cargo could control the mission.

The astronauts, in contrast, had strong views about what they thought they ought to be doing. Astronaut Deke Slayton spoke to the issue before the Society of Experimental Pilots, when he observed that "Objections to the pilot range from the engineer, who semiseriously notes that all problems of Mercury would be tremendously simplified if we didn't have to worry about the bloody astronaut, to the military man who wonders whether a college-trained chimpanzee or the village idiot might not do as well in space as an experienced test pilot. . . ." Slayton argued that the human role was vital: the astronaut should be "not only a pilot, but a highly trained experimental test pilot is desirable ... as in any

75. Quoted in ibid., p. 203.

76. See Peter Biskind, Seeing is Believing: How Hollywood Taught Us to Stop Worrying and Love the Fifties (New York, NY: Pantheon Books, 1983), pp. 101-59.

77. Quoted in Swenson, Grimwood, and Alexander, This New Ocean, pp. 171-72.


scientific endeavor the individual who can collect maximum valid data in minimum time under adverse circumstances is highly desirable."78

After Project Mercury had ended, Christopher C. Kraft, Jr., chief flight director for the Space Task Group, described the shift in thinking that gave Project Mercury astronauts a larger role in spacecraft control, and later astronauts a larger role still. "The real knowledge of Mercury," Kraft remembered, "lies in the change of the basic philosophy of the program. At the beginning, the capabilities of Man were not known, so the systems had to be designed to function automatically. But with the addition of Man to the loop, this philosophy changed 180 degrees since primary success of the mission depended on man backing up automatic equipment that could fail."79 This shift in perspective was fundamentally an engineering decision, and did not at all mean that the astronauts were being given a green light to drag race in space. Yet, as the official history of Project Mercury notes, it had implications for the way the space race and spacefaring activities undertaken by the United States were understood by the general public. "The field managers of Mercury had ruefully discovered," reports the history, "that people, or at least reporters, were more interested in people than machines, so they allowed 'Shorty' Powers to skew publicity toward machine-rating the men rather than man-rating the machines."80

Like deep-sea divers, spacefarers had to take their environment with them. In the case of the Mercury capsule, the environment was two-tiered: the suit, which was a mini-environment within itself, and the capsule, sealed against all the stresses and extremes of launch, orbit and reentry. The B. F. Goodrich Company was awarded the contract to design the spacesuit on July 22, 1959. Suit design went through numerous changes and modifications during 1959 and 1960, until the model finally met the approval of astronauts and program managers in May 1960. The model for the suit —coveralls, helmet and gloves— came from outfits already fabricated for those piloting high-flying aircraft. But even with formal approval of specifications for the model space suit, the design continued to evolve. It was, in fact, one of the elements of Project Mercury that changed most often during the life of the undertaking.81

As designers prepared to envelop the pilots in their protective garb, other engineers developed plans for what role the astronauts would actually play in flight. At this point in project organization, the astronaut began to resemble less the passive "hood ornament" of earlier concepts, and more a physiologically conditioned integral element of the space flight system. This was by no means a move to a concept of "piloted flight"; but the amount of control that the pilots could assume of the craft, particularly in an emergency, expanded somewhat. A list of activities showed that the Mercury astronaut would be expected to "communicate with ground stations, make scientific observations, monitor onboard equipment, control capsule attitude, navigate and fire retrorockets, initiate emergency procedures, activate the escape system if necessary, and deploy the landing parachute if required."82

Other undertakings, which had origins in the test pilot programs of the military services, included test pilot and astronaut inspections of the equipment which would carry them into Earth orbit, and intensive training for and simulation of in-flight experiences. Training was particularly complex because of previously unfamiliar conditions of space flight, such as weightlessness. Although initial concepts of astronaut training included an extensive academic course, most of the activities ended up as hands on —or human being

78. Slayton, quoted in ibid., p. 177. The US was not alone in this debate. When Yuri Gagarin made his historic one-orbit in Vostok 1, the controls were locked, in case he went crazy. He had the directions for unlocking them in a sealed envelope. See Levine, Missile and Space Race, p. 119.

79. Quoted in Swenson, Grimwood, and Alexander, This New Ocean, p. 177.

80. Ibid., p. 221.

81. Ibid., pp. 225-31.

82. Ibid., p. 234.


in— work in mechanical aids. Simulation of weightlessness, disorientation, exposure to loud noises, acceleration patterns conditioned the astronauts to a range of experiences.83 That the training was successful seemed to be verified when each astronaut went aloft and confirmed that every planned-for sensation felt familiar. As Tom Wolfe observed of Al Shepard's sub-orbital flight, "he was introducing the era of precreated experience. His launching was an utterly novel event in American history, and yet he could feel none of its novelty ... he could only compare it to the hundreds of rides he had taken on the centrifuge at Johnsville. . . . "84

As the astronauts trained in the summer and fall of 1960, however, Project Mercury's existence became increasingly doubtful because the boosters necessary to insert a capsule into orbit keep failing. And NASA's rocket failures were very public, particularly in a time of high political interest, as the 1960 campaign for the Presidency of the United States between John F. Kennedy and Richard M. Nixon intensified. The first Mercury-Atlas flight on July 29, 1960, took off as scheduled but, above a thick bank of clouds over the Cape Canaveral launch pad, it apparently disintegrated. The effect of this failure only intensified the next month, when the Russians launched a satellite with a biological cargo: "muttniks" Streika and Belka; rats; mice; flies; plants; fungi; and seeds. After 18 orbits, the Russians recovered the dogs and their travelling partners. The next month, Soviet Premier Nikita Khrushchev attended meetings at the United Nations and told the press that the Russians were ready to orbit a human.85

The next spring, they did. The Soviet Union orbited Major Yuri Alekseyevich Gagarin in Vostok 1 on April 12, 1961. Gagarin, thus, became the first human in space by making one full revolution of the Earth.86Life magazine sent reporters to cover the victorious welcome of Gagarin back to Moscow. The capsule in which Gagarin rode weighed 10,417 pounds, almost three times bigger than the Mercury capsule being readied for American astronauts. Flight apogee was 203 miles and perigee, 112 miles. Gagarin was weightless for 89 minutes of his 108 minutes of flight.

The pictures from Moscow taken by Life magazine reporters differed profoundly from the photos taken around American space launchings. There were no views of rockets on launchers or hardware tracking the flight, none of observers searching the sky. Rather, these photos were clearly after the fact; Gagarin and most of his fellow Soviet officials were dressed in military uniforms or Politburo winter wear and Gagarin was pictured walking down a vast red carpet to receive the congratulations of his country's ruling group. Nothing in the photographs of the celebration indicated that a flight into outer space had occurred, that human space flight was now a reality, or that human history had been profoundly altered.87

Project Mercury had nonetheless been eclipsed by the Russian achievement. Still, as Astronaut John Glenn commented, "I am, naturally, disappointed that we did not make the first flight to open this new era. The important goals of Project Mercury, however, remain the same —ours is peaceful exploration of space. These first flights, whether Russian or American, will go a long way in determining the direction of future endeavors. There is certainly work for all to solve the tremendous problems involved."88

83. Ibid., pp. 238-48.

84. Wolfe, The Right Stuff, p. 256.

85. Swenson, Grimwood, and Alexander, This New Ocean, pp. 272-81.

86. Peter Bond, Heroes in Space: from Gagarin to Challenger (London: Basil Blackwell, 1987), pp. 12-17.

87. Life, April 21, 1961, cover and interior photos.

88. Quoted in Swenson, Grimwood, and Alexander, This New Ocean p. 335.


Project Mercury Operations and the Astronauts

April 1961 brought the end of the pilotless test phase of the Project Mercury program, and fortunately, also the last major flight failure in Mercury.89 Delays plagued the program and the decision to fire one last automated test in March 1961, rather than begin the piloted tests, gave the Russians the opportunity to launch Gagarin first.

The test of human space flight brought to fruition all the various processes and perspectives that had characterized the astronauts and their programs since their initial naming on April 9, 1958. Whether they were to prove to be "Spam-in-a-can" as detractors saw the space pilot role, or active pilots of new kinds of craft would become clear in practice. Whether the agency view of their relative unimportance to the program or the press' and public's view of their centrality would become the historical account of Project Mercury would now be tested as thoroughly as the hardware that they rode into space. Whether they would prove to be paper heroes or celebrated as the nation's finest would depend partly on how their test flights turned out.90

As a consequence, the first American piloted flight carried a good deal of symbolic weight, even though it was not the first human flight into space. The first American to be lobbed sub-orbitally was Navy Commander Alan Shepard. Chosen from two other finalists —Gus Grissom and John Glenn— Shepard's historic flight was postponed three times before its final launch on May 5. At 9:34 a.m., the Mercury-Redstone combination left the launch pad while about forty-five million Americans watched on television and many more tuned in on the radio and held their collective breath.91

Shepard's flight in the capsule named Freedom 7 took fifteen minutes and twenty-two seconds. Its altitude was 116.5 miles, its maximum speed was 5,180 mph, and it travelled 302 miles from Cape Canaveral. Freedom 7 was the last version of the capsule designed before the astronauts began to shape the process of capsule design. It had only portholes instead of a window, and Shepard made his Earth observations through a periscope. He clearly distinguished between cloud masses and land masses and recognized various landmarks including Lake Okeechobee in Florida, and the islands of the Bahamas. Shepard took control of the spacecraft twice for brief periods; his flight plan called for him to manually position the capsule for retrofire, and he corrected a slight pitch problem on the positioning of the craft in one instance. In the second, he took control for a brief period during reentry of the capsule's attitude. Shepard withstood space flight conditions well, including five minutes of weightlessness and everything about the flight, from ignition to recovery and debriefing, went without a hitch.

Machine-rating the humans had begun. This initial foray proved to American engineers and technical designers that humans could function in space, even while weightless, thus bolstering the argument that the astronauts should be part of the working systems of the spacecraft rather than passive passengers. Moreover, as an open news event, covered by the media throughout, the flight earned Cold War propaganda points by illustrating the openness of the American space program, in contrast to that of the Soviets. Although in strictly comparative terms, the first American in space did not come close to matching the feats of his Soviet counterpart, Shepard nonetheless became an immediate, full fledged American hero through his competent, laconic performance. President Kennedy awarded him the Distinguished Service Medal on May 8. 92

89. Several of the first test flights of Mercury spacecraft without human passengers failed on both the Redstone and the Atlas boosters.

90. See Launius, NASA, p. 40, as an example of these kinds of pressures.

91. Swenson, Grimwood, and Alexander, This New Ocean, p. 341.

92. Ibid., pp. 352-61; Bond, Heroes in Space, pp. 27-33.


The contrast between the accomplishments of Vostok I and Freedom 7, however, demonstrated that the Soviets had what looked like an overwhelming technological advantage; Shepard's flight had been in fact little more than a man shot out of a cannon on a very large scale. To address the fears and concerns of the American public who perceived a real danger in American second-place status in the space race, Kennedy had ordered Vice President Lyndon B. Johnson to make an overall survey of the possibilities for American space triumphs after Gagarin's initial flight in mid-April. After surveying the viewpoints of NASA staff, Congress, aerospace contractors, and experts in science and technology, Johnson produced recommendations for Kennedy on April 28. Johnson argued that world leadership increasingly depended on "dramatic accomplishments in space"93 and that continual Soviet dominance in that realm would ultimately lead to their presumed dominance in other international arenas. Human exploration of the Moon, Johnson thought, would be an effort worth a great deal, and it was possible that the United States could get there first.

Following this memo, Johnson submitted another report to Kennedy, with NASA director James Webb and Secretary of Defense Robert McNamara's concurrence.94 That led, in turn, to a shift in the American government's space policy as Kennedy committed the nation to going to the Moon and back in the decade of the 1960s. Kennedy announced his decision, and the new policy, in a major speech to a joint session of Congress on May 25, 1961, by saying, "I believe that this nation should commit itself to achieving the goal, before this decade is out, of landing a man on the moon and returning him safely to Earth."95

For Project Mercury, the policy change coming on the heels of its first successful human flight added urgency to immediate accomplishments and at the same time, diverted the attention of NASA and its supporters and suppliers to larger goals and more complicated projects. The Eisenhower-era basis on which Project Mercury had been designed, to use the simplest and most reliable approach with a minimum of new developments and incremental steps was replaced by Kennedy Cold War "urgent national needs" and an explosion of congressional budgetary support. In moving to the Manhattan Project approach to space efforts, Project Mercury became part of a program larger than itself. just as Alan Shepard's flight was eclipsed by Yuri Gagarin's, so was Project Mercury, in some senses, eclipsed by the opening of the race to the Moon.

America's original seven astronauts may have been the only part of the NASA hierarchy that remained focussed almost solely on Project Mercury, but the American public remained focussed on the astronauts. The second of seven planned suborbital tests carried Virgil L. "Gus" Grissom aloft in Liberty Bell 7 on July 21, 1961. Grissom profited from lessons learned on Shepard's flight and other astronaut comments early in the capsule design process. Liberty Bell 7 had a central window instead of portholes. An improved attitude control system allowed for more astronaut piloting. A new hatch, armed with explosive bolts, was another improvement. Grissom flew for 15 minutes and 37 seconds, at speeds of as much as 5,300 miles an hour to an apogee of 118 miles. The flight was virtually flawless until the recovery phase when, in a process that has never been fully explained, the hatch bolts suddenly blew. Grissom found himself in the water, with the oxygen inlet valve in his space suit open. He nearly drowned before the rescue helicopter picked him up, and the capsule Liberty Bell 7 was lost. 96

93. Lyndon B. Johnson "Memorandum for the President," April 28,1961, quoted in Logsdon, gen. ed., Exploring the Unknown, p. 427-29.

94. See James E. Webb, NASA Administrator, and Robert S. McNamara, Secretary of Defense, to the Vice President, May 8, 1961, with attached: "Recommendations for Our National Space Program: Changes, Policies, Goals," in Logsdon, gen. ed., Exploring the Unknown, pp. 439-52.

95. John F. Kennedy, "Urgent National Needs" speech to a Joint Session of Congress, May 25, 1961, in ibid., p. 453.

96. Bond, Heroes in Space, pp. 33-35.


Five more suborbital flights were planned, but the Russians increased the pressure on NASA to launch an orbital flight when they sent Gherman Titov around the world 17 times in 24 hours in August. Three of those orbits were over the United States. As a result of this pressure and the more general pressure to work towards the more complex Apollo program, only one more suborbital launch took place, to test the Mercury-Atlas combination, with a chimp named Enos aboard. After that success, on August 18 NASA announced that the Mercury-Redstone sub-orbital program had achieved its objectives and was, thus, ended.97

As a result of that cancellation, John Glenn, originally scheduled to be only the third sub-orbital astronaut, instead became the first American to orbit the Earth. That fact was somewhat ironic, since Glenn had made no secret of his fury at being passed over for the initial suborbital space mission.98 "First," he said, "is first." Glenn had worked hard to build a public persona and become the best-known of the astronauts, but his ambition and straitlaced personal life contributed to a lack of popularity among the other seven space pioneers. Apparently, this lack of support played some role in his being chosen as backup pilot and his quasi-public complaints caused NASA higher-ups to suggest that he show some restraint lest he not fly at all.99

John Glenn's three orbits renewed the faith of Americans in their culture's scientific and technological knowhow. But when his turn finally came, the assignment demanded a good deal of patience. The first piloted orbital flight was postponed repeatedly in a period starting in December 1961 and only finally resulting in launch at 9:47 a.m. on February 20, 1962. Glenn's five-hour space flight saw three sunsets and three sunrises; as a Life magazine researcher estimated , he spent four Tuesdays and three Wednesdays in orbit.100 Dust storms and clouds obscured much of Africa. When Glenn passed over Australia the first time, it was night and the citizens of Perth turned their house lights on. To Glenn, Perth looked from space like a small town seen from an aircraft. As the sun rose for the first time, Glenn noticed thousands of particles swarming around the capsule. "It is," he said, "as if I were walking backward through a field of fireflies ."101

Although the flight began routinely, a number of problems developed during the mission of Friendship 7. An unexpectedly rough ride into orbit, caused partially by nearly empty Atlas fuel tanks, caused Glenn to comment, "They really boot you off" as he entered orbit, free of the Atlas superstructure at last.102 More seriously, an attitude control problem developed in the first orbit, in which first one and then the second of two yaw-controlling autopilots stuck. Glenn, proving the efficacy of having humans on board to compensate for automatic system malfunction, took over the attitude control manually and controlled it for the remainder of the flight. Finally, ground controllers had received what turned out to be an erroneous signal that the landing bag on Friendship 7 had deployed in orbit. Such deployment would mean that the capsule's heat shield, crucial equipment to keep the capsule from burning up during reentry, could rip off during the reentry process. Ground controllers, in consultation with Maxime Faget, the capsule's designer, instructed Glenn not to follow the regular procedures and jettison the retrorocket package that held the landing bag in place after retrorocket firing. These instructions turned out not to be necessary, since the signal received was erroneous, but Astronaut Glenn was not fully informed of the situation until just before he began the reentry process. He took great

97. Ibid., p. 36; Swenson, Grimwood, and Alexander, This New Ocean, pp. 370-78.

98. Bond, Heroes in Space, p. 37; London Wainwright, The Great American Magazine: An Inside History of Life (New York, NY: Alfred A. Knopf, 1986), pp. 272-73.

99. Wainwright, Great American Magazine, p. 273.

100. Dora Jane Hamblin, That was the Life (New York, NY: W.W. Norton, 1977), p. 81.

101. Quoted in Bond, Heroes in Space, p. 42.

102. Quoted in Ibid., p. 39.


Image of Launch of Mercury-Atlas, watercolor by John McCoy
"Launch of Mercury-Atlas," watercolor by John McCoy, NASA art program, Space Art-1. (NASA photo 67-HC-617).


exception to being treated as a passenger rather than as a pilot, and ground controllers from that flight on were much more open with the astronauts about the status of their capsules and flights while they were aloft. 103

John Glenn's return to Earth was cause for enormous celebrations in the United States. President Kennedy telephoned his congratulations to the astronaut aboard the recovery ship Noa. Kennedy also made a statement to the Nation, in which he said

I know that I express the great happiness and thanksgiving of all of us that Colonel Glenn has completed his trip, and I know that this is particularly felt by Mrs. Glenn and his two children.

I also want to say a word for all of those who participated with Colonel Glenn at Canaveral. They faced many disappointments and delays —the burdens upon them were great— but they kept their heads and they made a judgment, and I think their judgment has been vindicated.

We have a long way to go in this space race. But this is the new ocean, and I believe the United States must sail on it and be in a position second to none. 104

Although Glenn got the bulk of the praise from the media, those of the technical teams came in for some note; one periodical praised the "leaders of this technical team who did their work on civil service pay and sold no serial rights to national magazines. "105

Glenn and the other astronauts paraded past an estimated 250,000 people in Washington, on their way to a twenty-minute speech before a joint session of Congress. New York City held a tickertape parade and proclaimed March 1 "John Glenn Day" in the Big Apple. The headquarters of the United Nations held a reception in his honor. Glenn was greeted by 75,000 people who turned out in New Concord, Ohio, his home town.106 And, as the NASA historian noted, "NASA discovered in the process of this hoopla a powerful public relations tool that it has employed ever since ."107

Three more Mercury launches took place between February 1962 and May 1963. Malcolm Scott Carpenter was launched on May 24, 1962, in Aurora 7 for a three-orbit mission. The launch went perfectly, but numerous problems developed during the flight because Carpenter's flight plan was too full and he was too interested in observing the Earth to calculate carefully the amount of fuel he was using. Still, two three-orbit missions completed successfully indicated to NASA administrators that the Project Mercury mission might be lengthened for the next flight. 108

Walter Schirra was next, but in the meantime, the Russians orbited Vostoks 3 and 4 for six days in space, with a combined total of 112 orbits. Schirra's flight in Sigma 7, in comparison to the freewheeling orbits of Scott Carpenter, was to be all test piloting with few additional scientific experiments. October 3, 1962, was the launch date for Schirra's flight, six orbits with a splashdown in the Pacific. Schirra's mission produced very low fuel consumption and clear proof that a pilot could fly the Mercury spacecraft in an efficient, very accurate manner.109

The final flight in the Project Mercury series was Faith 7, piloted by L. Gordon Cooper, Jr., who was launched on May 15, 1963. The last launch of an Atlas with a human aboard,

103. Ibid., pp. 42-47; Swenson, Grimwood, and Alexander, This New Ocean, pp. 429-30; Launius, NASA, p, 80.

104. President John F. Kennedy, quoted in Swenson, Grimwood, and Alexander, This New Ocean, p. 434.

105. Ibid., p. 435.

106. Ibid.

107. Launius, NASA, p. 81.

108. Swenson, Grimwood, and Alexander, This New Ocean, pp. 446-60.

109. Ibid., pp. 461-86; see also Captain Walter M. Schirra, Jr. with Richard N. Billings, Schirra's Space (Boston, NM: Quinlan Press, 1988), pp. 79-95.


this mission lasted for 22 orbits. Cooper's ground observations and the surprising level of detail he reported being able to see had implications for security undertakings in space. The major difficulty in this last flight involved the loss of the automatic control system in the twenty-first orbit. Cooper had to position the capsule manually for reentry and fire the retrorockets manually. He did so with great accuracy and showed once again that the human presence could save a mission with serious mechanical failures. 110

Cooper's Project Mercury flight was truly "the end of the beginning" 111 of piloted space undertakings. Some discussion had already occurred within NASA as to the form that commemoration of these early days of space exploration might take. 112 Almost a year before Cooper's flight, in September 1962, Webb decided to commission artists to capture each stage of the launch-and-return process. As Webb commented at the time, "important events can be interpreted by artists to give a unique insight into significant aspects of our history-making advance into space."113

With more hyperbole, H. Lester Cooke, curator of paintings at the National Gallery of Art who served as the first head of the program, said in 1963 that "not since the lungfish slithered out of the oolitic ocean have living creatures sought to change their basic environment, and it was felt that this epic step must be recorded in every way possible ... what if Queen Isabella had sent along a top-flight artist with Columbus? or artists had been at Kitty Hawk? or at the White Sands Proving Grounds? And what a stroke of genius to send Winslow Homer to the Civil War front!" And he added, "Perhaps this project will help to prove to future generations that the United States in the sixties produced not only engineers and scientists capable of shaping the destiny of our age but also artists worthy to keep them company."114

The first artists arrived at Cape Canaveral in May 1963 to cover Gordon Cooper's Mercury flight. Seven artists worked at the Cape itself; one flew out to the Pacific to cover the splashdown. Peter Hurd's visual sense manifested itself from the airplane:

Activity on the Cape is continuous throughout the day and night and my impression from the air was of a vast and deceptively festive display. Whether by design, by chance, or from technical need, the score or more of enormous gantry cranes, which seemed to stride in a great marching procession along the shore, were painted an intense and subtly beautiful shade of red. The cranes are of open steel work, an interlacing maze of girders and tubing, lavishly lighted from inside and out, giving an unbelievable realistic effect of incandescent filigree.

The routine devised for the artists began with a tour of the Cape. The first night was the last of relative quiet. At the Mercury Control Center, "moonlight ruled the stage, making pools of deep shadow from which emerged a long narrow scaffold of crisscrossed girders. This in turn was surmounted by a profusion of television antennae like fragile spangles of silver gleaming in lost-and-found pattern against the night sky. . . ." A substantial portion of information about NASA was imparted during the tour including a description of safety procedures and a recounting of the "shake test" in the White Room, where the Mercury capsule being assembled was shaken to reveal loose bolts, screws, filings and hairs. 115

110. Swenson, Grimwood, and Alexander, This New Ocean, pp. 488-501.

111. Ibid., p. 492.

112. Memo of James E. Webb to Dr. Hiden Cox, March 16, 1962, Impact-Art, NASA Historical Reference Collection.

113. Quoted in Robert Schulman, "Space Art," Space Times, November-December 1989, p. 5.

114. H. Lester Cooke, "Countdown at Canaveral," Art in America, No. 5, 1963, p. 60.

115. Ibid., p. 62.


On May 15, the "Big Morning" as Hurd called it, the artists were driven to a roadside viewing area where they were surrounded by rescue craft and news crews. At T minus 60 seconds, Hurd stopped being able to write; as he explained later, "I pick up from memory the suspense of those last seconds —terrifying for us, for we were each of us in that capsule whether conscious of it or not." In trying to explain his feelings, he added, "Perhaps it was in witnessing a supreme gathering of forces, the sight of so many individuals engaged in a wide range of techniques, all addressed to achieving one objective: the successful completion of another orbital flight. The thought kept occurring to me that a similar mass effort built the great cathedrals; the same desire of man to attain to his ultimate capacity."116

The artist captured the awe that most civilian observers felt for the seven daring test pilots of Project Mercury and the structures and scientific and engineering feats that sent them aloft into that new ocean. James Webb was right to capture that in art as well as in photographs, and in what might be called big culture as well as in big science and technology. The award of the Collier Trophy to the original astronauts confirmed their importance to the engineering fraternity in NASA and to American culture. Webb commented about the award of the Collier Trophy that "The recognition of these outstanding Americans by the representatives of the National Aeronautic Association is indeed a high honor, and I feel that this honor will be one of the highlights of their careers and a highlight in the growth and development of the National Aeronautics and Space Administration."117

The award was undoubtedly a highlight for the National Aeronautic Association as well, for the organization honored the pioneer pilots rather than the engineering hardware and joined the general celebration of human effort in Project Mercury. Not quite hood ornaments, not passive passengers, but not test pilots free to follow their own instincts either, the Mercury Seven were the last group of astronauts to solo in Earth orbit. The transition group between airplane test pilots and astronauts of the later programs, they were honored for being the first —and in a real sense, for being the last.118

116. Ibid., p. 64.

117. James E. Webb to Martin M. Decker, President, National Aeronautic Association, September 10, 1963, NASA Historical Reference Collection.

118. Bond, Heroes in Space, p. 63.

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