So these men worked constantly and drank heavily and philandered freely and played practical jokes and challenged each other to fantastic, frivolous competitions (John Glenn, the ‘Clean Marine’ was the exception to most of this behavior). Nearly as important to them as their place in the flight line was the outcome of their drunken corvette races which they wryly labeled ‘proficiency tests’. All this they brought with them to the infant space program and the early astronaut office was something like the Delta Tau Chi house except with members who’d been to two dozen funerals. Their ground control counterparts, while lacking the macabre background and its consequent hooliganism, were hardly the reclusive pencil necks of stereotype. These guys were brash, outspoken and not without their own wicked sense of humor. And young. The average age of a mission controller during the Mercury, Gemini and Apollo programs was 28.
The Mercury Astronauts would go on to various levels of notoriety and success, the most notable being John Glenn’s long political career which he embarked on soon after his historic three orbit flight. Al Shepard became the first American in space on his Freedom 7 mission although it was something of a study in anticlimax as Yuri Gagarin had become the first man in space two weeks before and Shepard’s flight could not even achieve orbit (Khruschev mocked it as a puddle jump). He would later command Apollo 14 and be forever immortalized as the first Moon golfer. Gus Grissom’s star crossed space career started with the sinking of his Liberty Bell 7 capsule during recovery. In one of life’s sicker ironies this would lead he and a review board to agree that explosive bolt hatches be scrapped from spacecraft design and when a fire broke out inside his Apollo 1 capsule during launch pad tests, he and astronauts Bud White and Roger Chaffee had no chance of escape. Deke Slayton would fall victim to that constant adversary of all military pilots, the flight surgeon. Grounded by a heart condition prior to his Project Mercury flight, he’d later be restored to flight status by an experimental surgery and command an Apollo Applications mission, rendezvousing an Apollo Command Module with a Russian Soyuz.
Perhaps one of the greatest achievements of the Mercury Seven was training the ‘New Nine’ and ‘Next Nineteen’ classes that followed them and provided the backbone for the iconic Apollo Program. These new astronauts were every bit the accomplished pilots and irascible hell raisers of their predecessors but also carried degrees in aerospace engineering and orbital mechanics. Obviously these would include the world famous Armstrong and Aldrin but also the light hearted Jim Lovell, first Longhorn on the Moon Al Bean and the hilarious Pete Conrad, first man to unwittingly carry pornography to another celestial body.
Today only Glenn and Carpenter remain of the Original Seven (their moniker, intended to differentiate themselves from the ‘New Nine’; always a hierarchy) and when their successors aren’t making news through tragedy it’s through absurdity. Who can forget the cross-country-driving diaper-wearing Lisa Nowak and her ill advised abduction attempt of her rival? The only redeeming quality of the entire kerfuffle is the revelation that the object of her obsession is a real life Zapp Branigan.
Part of the problem is the mundaneness of today’s space goals. Let’s face it, no kid’s putting up a poster of the International Space Station on his door. Still, there’s hope for the immediate future of space exploration. Sometime this year SpaceX is likely to become the first private organization to place a habitable craft in orbit, a number of companies are honing space hotel plans and the Orion Program is set to come online in 2015, perhaps regaining some of the magic of those programs of first generational space flight.
Needless to say, I’ve become a space geek. If great minds discuss ideas, average minds discuss events and small minds discuss people I readily admit to falling squarely in the latter category as it was the stories of the people who tamed this unforgiving frontier that drew me in. I can’t help but be fascinated by this group of hard drinking, foul mouthed, hyper competitive overachievers that through bravery, tireless work, intrepidity, a limitless budget and a little help from some Nazi scientists, conquered the stars.