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Fiftieth Anniversary of The Mercury Seven

I wasn't always a space geek. In fact absolutely no one I knew growing up was. Not that it would've been unmentionable if I had been. Of course there was a mutual expectation of knowledge of and interest in sports but one was also allowed an idiosyncratic fascination or two without significant derision. For some it was comic books and others it was WWF. Some kids liked drawing and others played the drums. No matter. There was an unconscious, unspoken acceptance of diversity of talent and interest, so long as it didn't devolve into the faggotry of Billy Squier fandom. So pretty much universal acceptance. And yet not one kid I knew was into space.
I think that can be almost entirely attributed to the era I grew up in. I was five when the Challenger exploded over Florida and throughout my life space exploration has been defined more by tragedy than triumph. But it wasn't always that way.

50 years ago this week, the newly formed National Aeronautics and Space Administration (NASA) introduced the Mercury Seven. These fresh faced, straight talking fellows promised the country the best chance to bridge the assumed technological gap between us and the Soviets that had so intimidated Americans since Sputnik flew over their heads two years previous. They smiled for the cameras, straightened their ties and spoke in endearingly halting patriotisms. They were instantly loved. They graced the cover of LIFE magazine which-in those days of television's infancy-was just about the pinnacle of celebrity. They were the embodiment of all that was best about America. Of course they were less and more than this.

All of them were test pilots, be it from the Air Force or Navy, and along with their background came an intimacy with death, often less from their combat experience than through the fatality rate of their subsequent test pilot assignments (numbers vary but 25% for that era is generally considered conservative). Their job was both to skirt death and then to casually diminish it through braggadocio. Failure (in these men's world's an idiom for dying) could only happen to someone else and could only happen through his own error because to believe otherwise would be to admit fallibility. Vulnerability. Mortality. Anathema to a test pilot.

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.

A fierce competition ensues over who can make the best dick joke.

A fierce competition ensues over who can make the best dick joke.

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.

Yay Detente!

Yay Detente!

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.

Welcome to my humble chamber or, as I call it, The Lovenasium.

Welcome to my humble chamber or, as I call it, "The Lovenasium".

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.