Project Astronaut?

Preliminary procedures for pilot selection had been worked out by the aeromedical consultants attached to the Space Task Group at Langley during November. Their plan called for a meeting with representatives from industry and the services to nominate a pool of 150 men from which 36 candidates would be selected for physical and psychological testing. From this group 12 would be chosen to go through a nine-month training and qualification program, after which six finally would be expected to qualify.5l

On the basis of this plan, Donlan from Langley, and North in Washington, together with Allen O. Gamble, a psychologist on leave from the National Science Foundation, drafted civil service job specifications for individuals who wished to apply for the position of "Research Astronaut-Candidate." One of the early plans outlined very well the original expectations of NASA and STG on the type of man thought necessary. NASA Project A, announcement No. 1, dated December 22, 1958, was a draft invitation to apply for the civil service position of research astronaut-candidate "with minimum starting salary range of $8,330 to $12,770 (GS-12 to GS-15) depending upon qualifications." This document called the manned ballistic satellite program "Project Astronaut," and the first section described the duties of the astronaut:

[130] Although the entire satellite operation will be possible, in the early phases, without the presence of man, the astronaut will play an important role during the flight. He will contribute by monitoring the cabin environment and by making necessary adjustments. He will have continuous displays of his position and attitude and other instrument readings, and will have the capability of operating the reaction controls, and of initiating the descent from orbit. He will contribute to the operation of the communications system. In addition, the astronaut will make research observations that cannot be made by instruments; these include physiological, astronomical and meteorological observations.52
Only males between 25 and 40 years of age, less than 5 feet 11 inches in height, and with at least bachelor's degrees were to be considered. Stringent professional experience or graduate study requirements specified five patterns of career histories most desirable. Candidates who had either three years of work in any of the physical, mathematical, biological, or psychological sciences, or who had three years of technical or engineering work in a research and development program or organization might apply. Or anyone with three years of operation of aircraft, balloons, or submarines, as commander, pilot, navigator,communications officer, engineer, or comparable technical position, would be eligible, as would persons who had completed all requirements for the Ph.D. degree in any appropriate field of science or engineering plus six months of professional work. In the case of medical doctors, six months of clinical or research work beyond the license and internship or residency would be required. Furthermore, the job qualifications required proof that applicants had demonstrated recently their "(a) willingness to accept hazards comparable to those encountered in modern research airplane flight; (b) capacity to tolerate rigorous and severe environmental conditions; and (c) ability to react adequately under conditions of stress or emergency." The announcement added:
These three characteristics may have been demonstrated in connection with certain professional occupations such as test pilot, crew member of experimental submarine or arctic or antarctic explorer. Or they may have been demonstrated during wartime combat or military training. Parachute jumping or mountain climbing or deep sea diving (including SCUBA) whether as occupation or sport, may have provided opportunities for demonstrating these characteristics, depending upon heights or depths obtained, frequency and duration, temperature and other environment conditions, and emergency episodes encountered. Or they may have been demonstrated by experience as an observer-under-test for extremes of environmental conditions such as acceleration, high or low atmospheric pressure, variation in carbon dioxide and oxygen concentration, high and low ambient temperatures, etc. Many other examples could be given. It is possible that the different characteristics may have been demonstrated by separate types of experience.
Finally, as a last check on ruling out the "lunatics" who might send in crank applications, this proposed plan for astronaut selection required that each applicant have the sponsorship of a responsible organization. A nomination form [131] appended to this announcement would have required 17 multi-point evaluations of the nominee by some official of the sponsoring institution.

Clearly this astronaut selection plan was sober enough and stringent enough to ensure an exceptionally high quality applicant, but the plan itself was not approved and had to be abandoned. President Eisenhower during the 1958 Christmas holidays decided that the pool of military test pilots already in existence was quite sufficient a source from which to draw. Since certain classified aspects would inevitably be involved, military test pilots could most conveniently satisfy security considerations.53

Although some in NASA regretted the incongruity of allowing volunteers for the civilian manned space program to be drawn only from the military, the decision that the services would provide the candidates greatly simplified pilot selection procedures. A meeting held at NASA Headquarters during the first week of January brought together W. Randolph Lovelace II, Brigadier General Don D. Flickinger, Low, North, Gilruth, and several other members of the Space Task Group. There the elaborate civil service criteria for selection were boiled down to a seven-item formula:

  1. Age - less than 40.
  2. Height - less than 5 feet, 11 inches.
  3. Excellent physical condition.
  4. Bachelor's degree or equivalent.
  5. Graduate of test pilot school.
  6. 1,500 hours total flying time.
  7. Qualified jet pilot.
When these criteria were given to the Pentagon, service record checks revealed more than 100 men on active duty who appeared to be qualified. The military services were pleased to cooperate in further screening. NASA was relieved not to have to issue an open invitation, and STG was pleased to have Headquarters' aid in the selection.54

Contrary to the feeling expressed in some quarters, even among experimental test pilots, that the ballistic capsule pilot would be little more than "spam in a can," most members of STG believed from the beginning that their pilots would have to do some piloting. As George Low explained their views to Administrator Glennan, "These criteria were established because of the strong feeling that the success of the mission may well depend upon the actions of the pilot; either in his performance of primary functions or backup functions. A qualified jet test pilot appeared to be best suited for this task."55 Exactly how much "piloting," in the traditional sense, man could do in orbit was precisely the point in issue.

The least technical task facing NASA and its Space Task Group in the fall of 1958 was choosing a name or short title for the manned satellite project. Customarily project names for aircraft and missiles were an administrative convenience best chosen early so as to guarantee general usage by contractors, press, [132] and public. Langley had earlier suggested to Headquarters three possible emblems or seals for the use of NASA as a whole: one would have had Phaeton pulling Apollo across the sky; another would have used the Great Seal of the United States encompassed by three orbital tracks; and a third proposed a map of the globe circled by three orbits. These proposals, as well as the name suggested by Space Task Group for the manned satellite project, lost out to symbols considered more appropriate in Washington. "Project Astronaut," preferred at first by Gilruth to emphasize the man in the satellite, was overruled largely because it might lead to overemphasis on the personality of the man.56

Silverstein advocated a systemic name with allegorical overtones and neutral underpinnings: The Olympian messenger Mercury, denatured by chemistry, advertising, an automobile, and Christianity, was the most familiar of the gods in the Greek pantheon to Americans. Mercury, alias Hermes, the son of Zeus and grandson of Atlas, with his winged sandals and helmet and caduceus, was too rich in symbolic associations to be denied. The esteemed Theodore von Kármán had chosen to speak of Mercury, as had Lucian of Samosata, in terms of the "reentry" problem and the safe return of man to Earth.57

Had a mythologist been consulted, perhaps the additional associations of Mercury with masterful thievery, the patronage of traders, and the divinity of commerce would have proven too humorous. But "Mercury," Glennan and Dryden agreed on November 26, 1958, was the name most appropriate for the manned satellite enterprise.58

Greeks might worry about whether Mercury would function in his capacity as divine herald or as usher to the dead, but Americans, like the Romans, could be trusted not to worry. On Wright Brothers' Day, December 17, 1958, 55 years after the famous flights at Kitty Hawk, North Carolina, Glennan announced publicly in Washington that the manned satellite program would be called "Project Mercury."59

51 "Status Report No. 1." See also Link, Space Medicine in Project Mercury, 44-59.

52 "Invitation to Apply for Position of Research Astronaut-Candidate," announcement No. 1, NASA Project A, Dec. 22, 1958, 1. Succeeding quotations are from pages 3 and 4. Original plans for a maximum age of 35 were compromised by the requirements for extensive experience. Accumulating 1500 hours of flying time requires about 10 years. See letter, Robert B. Voas to John A. Walter, Syracuse University, April 1, 1960.

53 Low, "Status Report No. 3 - Project Mercury," Dec. 27, 1958; letter, Emme to Link and Grimwood, March 23, 1964.

54 Donlan, interview, Langley Field, Va., Jan. 7, 1964. Cf. Neil A. Armstrong, "I Decided to Get Aboard," Life, CV (Sept. 27, 1963), 84.

55 Low, "Status Report No. 6 - Project Mercury," Feb. 3, 1959; see also Donlan, comments, Sept. 3, 1965.

56 Letter, Reid to NACA Dir., July 29, 1958; memo, Low to Silverstein, Dec. 12, 1959.

57 Letter, Low to Grimwood, Nov. 13, 1963; Theodore von Kármán, Aerodynamics: Selected Topics in the Light of Their Historical Development (Ithaca, N.Y., 1954), 189. The famous Renaissance sculpture by Giovanni da Bologna of Mercury poised on a zephyr's head, ready to spring into space, is an "image of energy" and the "accepted symbol of victorious speed," according to Kenneth Clark, The Nude: A Study in Ideal Form (New York, 1959), 282.

58 Edith Hamilton, Mythology (New York, 1958), 33; Thomas Bulfinch, Mythology, abridgement by Edmund Fuller (New York, 1959), 18; Emme, Aeronautics and Astronautics, 1915-1960.

59 The announcement of the code name for NASA's man-in-space program was reported in a two-page edition of the strikebound New York Times as an incidental part of the main story: "Big Rocket Engine for Space Flights Is Ordered by U.S.," New York Times, Dec. 18, 1958. See also, Ms., Louise Dick, "Public Statements on Manned Space Flight and Project Mercury," Aug. 12, 1960, 4.

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