Whatever Happened to the Mercury Seven?

s63-18853_0Although the first astronaut class was not formally introduced to the public until April 9th 1959, the Mercury programme started in 1958: sixty years ago. Many people are familiar with the Mercury astronauts through The Right Stuff, based on Tom Wolffe’s wonderful book, although that film concentrated principally on just three members of the group: Alan Shepherd, John Glenn and Gordon Cooper. Many of the incidents portrayed and the personalities are based on real situations and events, although with some modifications and artistic licence. One example is the famous scene in which an impassive German engineer refuses the entreaties of the astronauts to add a window (or even instruments) to the dummy capsule: the film gives the impression that the engineer involved was Wernher von Braun but, in fact, it was not.

The last of the Mercury astronauts died in 2016. None are left alive of the first group of American pioneers to fly into space. The final survivor of this class was John Glenn, who died in 2016. With the death of Glenn, a page in the exploration of space was closed, finally and definitively. So, sixty years on, this is a good moment to take stock of the Mercury programme and the Mercury Seven.

All of the Mercury Seven, finally flew, although Deke Slayton was grounded before he could fly his assigned Mercury mission (it seems incredible that, with the famously ruthless and brutal testing that the astronauts went through for selection, his heart murmur was missed initially) and took more than a decade to convince the doctors to return him to flight status.

One of the most remarkable aspects of the Mercury Seven was their courage. They flew converted Redstone and Atlas missiles, at a time when the launchers were more than a tad unreliable. While the less powerful Redstone was regarded as the safer of the two, it could not carry a man into orbit: that required the more powerful, but also more temperamental Atlas and it is a tribute to the skill of the engineers – and not a little luck – that none of the manned Mercury flights was lost, although two of the first three unmanned Mercury-Atlas flights were failures, as well as the first unmanned Mercury-Redstone flight. Just six weeks after being presented to the public, the Mercury Seven were guests at a test flight of an Atlas rocket, which proceeded to explode shortly after launch. What the astronauts must have felt on seeing multiple failures of the rocket that was to take them into space, we do not know, but it must have tested even their iron nerve.

Similarly, the Mercury capsule itself was not exactly luxury. The joke was that you did not get into it, “you put it on”. Having climbed into a mock-up of the Mercury capsule fortunately, unlike the Mercury astronauts, I was not required to wear a space suit, it is easy to understand what they mean: you get in, with a bit of a struggle, you sit down and can move just a few centimetres in any direction. It was not a place for claustrophobes. The longest Mercury flight was 34 hours, which must have been a trial in such a limited space; to think that the plan was to launch Mercury flights of 3-days duration at the end of the project and that the Mercury astronauts fought to keep them in the programme!

Two of the Mercury Seven made just a single flight, while none made more than three. However, that statistic hides some remarkable stories and some remarkable achievements. So, let’s go through the Mercury Seven in chronological order of flight.


1. Alan Bartlett Shepherd

The astronaut chosen to make the first manned Mercury flight was Navy pilot Alan Bartlett Shepherd. Thirty-seven years old at the time of Mercury-Redstone 3, nicknamed Freedom 7, this was, in fact the fifth Mercury-Redstone flight, of which three were successes after the initial disastrous failure. The third flight – Mercury-Redstone 2 – had carried Ham, the chimpanzee, into space. Shepherd’s flight, on May 5th 1961, was the shortest and lowest of the Mercury missions, reaching a maximum altitude of just 188km.

Alan Shepherd’s experience highlighted one short-coming in the spacesuits designed for the astronauts that was rectified after his flight: it was assumed that an astronaut would have no need of bathroom facilities. This incident was portrayed humorously in The Right Stuff, but led to facilities being incorporated for disposal of bodily waste (as the longest Mercury flight was 34 hours, this was certainly necessary).

Famously, in 1963, he started to suffer from increasingly severe episodes of dizziness and disorientation and was diagnosed with Ménière’s disease, leaving him grounded until a surgical treatment was developed for the disease. During this period, he was head of the astronaut office and Deputy Chief Astronaut. The operation to cure him, in 1969, was a success and Shepherd was restored to flight status. What is less well known is that he was close to flying twice more on Mercury.

He had been named back-up to Gordon Cooper as pilot of Mercury-Atlas 9; Cooper was close to being dropped from Mercury Atlas 9 for disciplinary reasons (a low overfly of Astronaut Headquarters in his jet) and, had the ultimate sanction been applied, Shepherd would have flown in his place. With Deke Slayton grounded, there was also a seventh Mercury seat available, which was planned to be a three-day flight to end the programme on a high, with a long duration mission. Alan Shepherd was assigned Mercury Atlas 10 but, one month after Gordon Cooper’s flight, Mercury Atlas 10 was cancelled and, despite a personal appeal to President Kennedy, was not restored. Shepherd was, instead, assigned to the Gemini 3, the first of the Gemini flights, until he was, himself, grounded before the mission.

A measure of Alan Shepherd’s standing in the Astronaut Corps was the fact that as soon as he was restored, he was assigned a Moon mission. The first available flight was Apollo 13, which would, normally, have gone to Gordon Cooper as the back-up commander for Apollo 10. The film Apollo 13 skates around the reasons for Jim Lovell’s crew being bumped-up from Apollo 14 to Apollo 13, suggesting that the reason was that Shepherd’s ear trouble had flared-up again. In fact, Shepherd’s crew of himself and two rookies, with a total of just 15 minutes and 22 seconds flight experience, was not considered to be ready for such an early flight and was replaced deliberately by Lovell’s crew (in one of these lovely pieces of irony that the space programme throws up occasionally, Apollo 13’s mission was considered so important that it was re-assigned to the Apollo 14 crew, while the presence of an experienced crew on board was undoubtedly vital to the survival of Apollo 13).

After returning to Earth Alan Shepherd retired from NASA and became a wealthy businessman. Shepherd was diagnosed with leukaemia in 1996, dying aged 74, just five weeks before his wife of 53 years of marriage. Shepherd was both the oldest astronaut to walk on the Moon and the only Mercury astronaut to walk on the Moon.


2. Virgil Ivan “Gus” Grissom

Gus Grissom is unfairly remembered in The Right Stuff, as the man who lost his capsule, Mercury Redstone 4 – Liberty Bell 7 – when the hatch blew suddenly after landing. He was, though, later vindicated and absolved of responsibility. Despite the failure of the explosive bolt on the Mercury capsule being, in theory, impossible, later failures showed that the bolt could fire spontaneously and that he was a victim of an unlikely and almost fatal malfunction. Grissom was lucky not to drown as his spacesuit filled with water and threatened to drag him under, while Liberty Bell 7 was swamped and sank to the bottom of the Atlantic Ocean, despite the efforts of the recovery crew to save it.

Grissom’s flight was essentially a repeat of that of Alan Shepherd, but he did have the satisfaction of flying higher and for longer than Shepherd, if only by 2km and by 15 seconds respectively. Many members of the public have been able to experience at least some of the sensations that Grissom was a party to, by riding in a simulation of the Mercury Redstone 4 flight profile in the itinerant NASA exhibition that toured Europe, mounting a capsule attached to a centrifuge, as Grissom narrated the experience on a TV screen[1]. A measure of Grissom’s status is that he was one of the three members of the Mercury Seven to be assigned a flight on Mercury, Gemini and Apollo: in his case, the second manned Mercury flight, the first manned Gemini flight and the first manned Apollo, making him NASA’s #1 pilot for testing new hardware. Again, it is ironic that Alan Shepherd was intended to command Gemini 3 and become the first astronaut to fly twice, losing both honours to Grissom on being grounded.

While Mercury Redstone 4 was sub-orbital and Gemini 3 made just three orbits – a total of just 5 hours 7 minutes of flight – Apollo 1 was to pave the way for a manned Moon landing and, after it, undoubtedly, Grissom’s career would have been rounded-off by commanding a Moon landing mission. As is well known, he perished in a fire during a launch rehearsal, along with Ed White and Roger Chaffee as they tried to de-bug the many problems that the Apollo capsule had. Grissom was 40 when he died.


3. John Herschel Glenn

Of the seven remarkable Mercury astronauts, maybe John Glenn can lay claim to being the most remarkable. Poster boy. Holder of a prestigious flight record. The ultimate “Clean Marine”, as he was dubbed in The Right Stuff, who served for twenty-four years. First American in orbit. First to suffer an in-flight emergency. Senator. Presidential candidate. The only Mercury astronaut to fly in the Space Shuttle. Longest interval between two flights (36 years). Oldest person to fly in space. Last of the Mercury Seven to die, at ninety-five years old. John Glenn was both a legend and a phenomenon.

I feel a particular connection with John Glenn, as his second flight is the only launch that I have ever witnessed live.

John Glenn served as a fighter pilot in the Pacific War theatre, flying fifty-seven combat missions, later flying ninety in Korea, although he never achieved his stated aim of becoming a jet fighter ace (five victories were required to be designated an ace, but his three victories over the legendary Mig-15 all came in the last two weeks before the armistice).

That John Glenn was selected to be an astronaut was remarkable because, of the three requirements marked – to be under 1m80cm (5’11”), to be under 40 years old and to have bachelor’s degree in science or engineering – Glenn had no degree and was barely inside the age limit, which should, in principal, have made him easy to exclude from selection, as Chuck Yeager was for not having a university degree. However, his image and flight record – he did, genuinely, appear as a guest celebrity on “Name that Tune”, as portrayed in The Right Stuff – helped him to overcome the deficiencies in his CV. Glenn and Shepherd were in direct competition for the first manned orbital flight but, while Shepherd got the first sub-orbital flight, Glenn won the bigger prize of being the first American in orbit.

Despite Scott Carpenter’s famous call on launch “Godspeed, John Glenn”, Glenn was the first astronaut to have to deal with a major in-flight emergency. In fact, he suffered two emergencies in a flight of just under five hours duration. After no less than eleven countdown holds, Mercury Atlas 6 – Friendship 7 – was finally able to launch successfully. However, on his first orbit, the automatic control system failed, obliging Glenn to take over manual control both of the flight (had the modifications not been made to the Mercury capsule at the request of the astronauts, this would not have been possible) and of the re-entry. Even more serious, and potentially catastrophic, a sensor indicated that the heatshield had possibly separated from the capsule, hence the decision was made to re-enter the atmosphere with the retro-rocket pack still attached by its straps to the base of the capsule, in the hope that these straps would also hold the heatshield in place, rather than jettisoning the retropack before re-entry. After landing safely, it was determined that the sensor itself had been faulty and not the heatshield.

Glenn’s status as an American hero excluded him from all possibility of flying again before Apollo. By then, his age – he was 49 when Apollo 11 flew, two years older than Alan Shepherd when he made his Apollo 14 flight – seemed certain to exclude him from a Moon landing. Instead, he was encouraged to challenge for the Ohio Senate seat. Severe concussion from a heavy fall in a hotel bathroom left him unable to campaign for the 1964 election and Glenn withdrew, although such was his popularity and fame that he could well have won even without campaigning. Later, Glenn lost a very close primary battle in 1970, where his lack of political skill, which was to haunt him in his presidential bid, came to the fore. Finally, he defeated comfortably, in 1974, the same primary opponent who had beaten him in 1970, going on to win the Ohio Senate seat. He challenged for the Democratic presidential nomination in 1984, but a fifth-place finish in Iowa and third in New Hampshire left his campaign damaged and, despite a distant second-place finish to eventual nominee, Walter Mondale, in Alabama, he withdrew in mid-March. Despite this setback, he served as Senator for Ohio until 1999 and was considered as a candidate to be Vice-Presidential nominee on no less than four occasions between 1976 and 1992.

Glenn’s career took its next twist in January 1998, when he was assigned to the crew of STS-95. He stated later that he did not know that NASA planned to send him into space again, although claims were made in the press that he had spent two years lobbying to get the flight. The stated aims of the nine-day mission were gerontological research, given the fact that the human body suffers changes in ageing that are similar to the deterioration that the human body suffers in space.

John Glenn was 77 when he flew on the Space Shuttle Discovery. With him on the flight was the young Spanish astronaut, Pedro Duque, who had been selected for the European astronaut corps in 1992. At 35, Pedro Duque was the youngest member of the crew. The forty-two-year age difference meant that Duque was the perfect control subject for the experiments on Glenn, meaning that every test and sample extraction performed on John Glenn also had to be performed on the unfortunate Spanish astronaut. Pedro Duque later commented that the opportunity to train with a living legend for six months was the best part of the mission, although they rarely coincided on the ISS itself.

Soon after his return to Earth, he announced that he would retire from the Senate. Although he continued to participate in some NASA activities, such as the ceremonial retirement of the shuttle Discovery to the Smithsonian in 2012, he was disappointed both that the Shuttle programme was cancelled and that NASA did not take up the opportunity to send more old astronauts into space to follow-up the research carried-out in his own flight. At the time of writing, his wife of 73 years of marriage, Annie Castor, is still alive.


4. Scott Carpenter

Scott Carpenter is perhaps the least-known of the Mercury Seven and, as such, barely figures in The Right Stuff. He only flew once: Mercury Atlas-7, Aurora 7. Originally, the second manned orbital flight had been assigned to Deke Slayton, with Scott Carpenter replacing him. Essentially almost an exact repeat of John Glenn’s flight, although his apogee was very slightly higher, Carpenter also suffered a serious malfunction to the automatic control system that caused his capsule to overconsume fuel. Carpenter’s re-entry had to be over-ridden manually and he ended up overshooting his landing site by 400km as a result of a combination of problems with the retrofire. There are reports that Mission Control were unhappy with his performance and that he was unlikely to be nominated for another flight, although a post-flight investigation found that the hardware problem that he had to overcome was “mission critical” (shorthand for “potential loss of mission and crew”). In the end though, he suffered a serious injury in a motorcycle accident in 1964 that took him off flight status anyway.

In the end, Scott Carpenter died in 2013, at the age of 88, the penultimate survivor of the Mercury programme. One almost forgotten contribution that Scott Carpenter made was to explain the “fireflies” that accompanied John Glenn’s flight and that had concerned flight controllers. He realised that they were due to small flakes of ice separating from the capsule and flying parallel to it that caught the sunlight. Carpenter found that, by giving the wall of his Sigma 7 capsule a healthy bang, he could produce a cloud of fireflies, although there were suggestions that he spent too much time playing with the fireflies when he should have been at work with his instruments.


5. Walter Marty Schirra

Wally Schirra was, in the end, the only astronaut to fly in the Mercury, Gemini and Apollo programmes.  Like several of his Mercury colleagues, his NASA career ended in certain acrimony. Like John Glenn, Schirra was a combat pilot in Korea and is credited with downing two Mig-15s. Schirra was the man chosen to fly the first of the longer-duration Mercury flights: while Shepherd and Grissom were sub-orbital and Glenn and Carpenter made just three orbits, Schirra’s flight was a full six orbits long.

Again, Schirra’s role is relatively little covered in The Right Stuff, however, he had an important series of tests to carry out in the flight in preparation for the Gemini missions with the rendezvouses, testing manual control of manoeuvring and positioning of his capsule in orbit. This made him the obvious candidate to command the first rendezvous in space, which was scheduled hurriedly when the Gemini 6 Agena target vehicle exploded shortly after launch. In the end, Gemini 7 was launched before Gemini 6 and acted as Schirra’s target. Originally scheduled to launch eight days after Gemini 7, Gemini 6 suffered the only launch abort that NASA were to suffer to the end of the Apollo programme, testing Schirra’s iron nerve.

As the countdown reached zero, the Titan 2’s two engines fired and started to build up thrust, before shutting down again. During a Mercury or an Apollo flight, the small, but very powerful launch escape system would have fired, lifting the astronauts to safety. The Gemini capsule did not have a launch escape system. Instead, protocol demanded that Schirra should give the order to eject from the capsule using the ejector seats that were used as a substitute. Knowing that this would scrub the mission, he decided to hold tight until the crew could be released through the hatch along the access arm. After a three-day delay, Gemini 6 finally launched successfully, and Schirra moved to within 30cm of the Gemini 7 capsule, although the engineers advised against contact fearing that an equalisation of electric potential (i.e. a static discharge) could occur on contact that might have consequences for the two craft. Tom Stafford’s experience flying with Schirra on Gemini 6 made him an obvious choice to command the lunar landing rendezvous mission, Apollo 10, where the rendezvous and docking technique for the lunar module would be tested in lunar orbit after a simulated lunar landing.

The initial planning had given Schirra command of Apollo 2, which was to be a repeat of the Apollo 1 mission, although Schirra was known to be unhappy with this assignment. After the Apollo 1 disaster, Wally Schirra was the obvious choice to take over the role of shakedown of the Apollo capsule from Gus Grissom. The reasoning was to have an old hand with experience of flight and in-flight problems on board. Certainly, after the Apollo 1 disaster, Schirra’s calm in saving Gemini 6 when it had the launch abort must have weighed heavily in his favour. All logic suggested that a successful flight would be followed by command of a Moon landing mission: perhaps Apollo 13 or 14. Apollo 7 flew the redesigned Apollo capsule aboard a Saturn 1b – the only Apollo mission to use the Saturn 1b (although they were later used to ferry astronauts to Skylab and for the Apollo-Soyuz mission). That Moon mission, of course, never happened.

It was later claimed that Schirra had already planned to resign from NASA before the Apollo 7 flight. Whatever the truth of the matter, the controllers at Houston had to deal with a situation that at times boarded on mutiny and the ultimate reality was that none of the crew flew again. Apollo 7 was a long mission in a low-Earth orbit; only Gemini 7 of previous NASA flights had been longer and no Apollo flight would be longer until the first multi-day lunar landing of Apollo 15. Unlike the later missions in which there would be the Lunar Module to give extra space and privacy, Apollo 7 had no such conveniences and was nearly twice as long as the similarly Lunar Module-less Apollo 8 flight. What no one needed in a confined environment was to get ill: Schirra developed a bad cold.

A cold can be a miserable enough experience when one is at home on Earth with a hot drink, an ample supply of paper tissues and no one bothering you; in space, it has to be thoroughly unpleasant, particularly when you have to keep to a strict daily schedule and are under constant pressure. To make things worse, he passed the cold to Don Eisele too. The inevitable consequence was that Schirra became increasingly impatient and short-tempered, the tensions were not adequately diffused and, at times, the crew snapped. While Schirra, as commander, took the majority of the blame, his two rookie crewmates, who would have expected prime assignments as a reward later in the programme, were held culpable of insubordination, and passed over for future assignments.

Schirra stayed closely associated with the Apollo programme as he became a TV expert, covering the seven Moon landing missions with Walter Cronkite. In a wink to his illness on board, he also advertised later the cold remedy that the Flight Surgeon had prescribed him, when it became an over the counter medicine. He also had a distinguished business career, working with various companies as Director, vice-President and President and being involved in projects as important as the Alaska pipeline.


6. Leroy Gordon “Gordo” Cooper Jr.

Gordon Cooper was one of the principal characters in The Right Stuff and made out to be the playboy of the group, although it was Alan Shepherd who incurred John Glenn’s wrath with his lifestyle. Gordon Cooper, though, was another of the Mercury astronauts whose relationship with NASA became more and more uneasy as time went by and finally soured completely as he fell foul one of his Mercury colleagues. Possibly Gordon Cooper was simply too much of a free spirit for the very disciplined atmosphere of the NASA Astronaut Corps. Although the film makes much of the problems in his marriage, he actually stayed with Trudy, who was a flight instructor at his training base when they met, until they divorced in 1971, shortly after he resigned, unhappily, from both NASA and the US Air Force (which makes one suspect a connection between the two events).

We have already seen how Gordon Cooper came close to losing his Mercury-Atlas 9 flight – Faith 7 – over a low-flying violation. However, he did fly and, when Faith 7 ran into serious problems, as had various of the Mercury missions, he saved the day with some cool seat-of-the-pants flying. On the nineteenth of his twenty-two orbits, the capsule suffered a power failure, obliging him to take manual control of the flight, with both the temperature and the carbon dioxide levels inside the cabin rising sharply. Gordon Cooper calculated the de-orbiting retro fire manually and was extremely proud of his pin-point landing alongside the recovery carrier. Normally, his excellent performance on that flight would have placed him in line for a prestigious flight further down the line. There are different versions of what happened later, but what seems not to be in doubt is that he showed attitude issues that made the NASA machine regard him as too unreliable for a major mission.

Gordon Cooper was selected to fly the eight-day, Gemini 5 mission with Pete Conrad, who was later to command Apollo 12. This was the first of the long-duration Gemini flights. Of the sixteen astronauts who flew Gemini (John Young, Tom Stafford, Jim Lovell and Pete Conrad all few twice on Gemini), Gordon Cooper was though the only one not assigned an Apollo flight.

There are various versions of what happened next. One is that, having been assigned to the back-up commander on the crew of Apollo 10, he was due to fly as commander of Apollo 13: this was the normal system whereby a crew that was back-up for one mission would, in normal circumstances, be prime crew three missions later. It continues that, when Alan Shepherd was returned to flight status, Gordon Cooper was bumped-off the crew to make room for Shepherd and, seeing that his best chance of walking on the Moon had gone, resigned in disappointment. Another version is that Cooper was never in line to be selected for Apollo 13, as Deke Slayton had no confidence in him – there is an irony in the fact that in either case, it was a Mercury colleague who blocked him from flying again.

Why had Gordon Cooper’s star fallen so far? There was a feeling that his attitude both to training and to safety had got far too lax. He was not enthusiastic about using the simulator, when other Gemini astronauts took pride in how many hours they spent training in it. Another incident, though, indicates his attitude and probably was the biggest trigger in his fall from grace. While in training for the Apollo 10 mission, Gordon Cooper signed-up as a driver for the Daytona 24-hour race: this harked back to his low pass over astronaut headquarters when in training for his Mercury flight. Deke Slayton was furious that he would sign-up for such a dangerous activity when in training for a mission and withdrew him from the race. The impression is that, with this serious error of judgement, he had had his “three strikes” in Slayton’s mind and was not going to fly again.

Like Wally Schirra, Gordon Cooper went into business and acted as consultant for numerous companies, including two years working with the Walt Disney company. However, he again courted controversy in his ghosted autobiography, published four years before his death, with comments that the US government was covering-up UFO reports. In the book, he stated that he was convinced that they are “extra-terrestrial vehicles and their crews are visiting this planet” and commenting that his fellow astronauts were reluctant to discuss them.


7. Donald Kent “Deke” Slayton

Deke Slayton was also a very marginal figure in The Right Stuff. He did, however, have a considerable war record, flying fifty-six bombing missions over Europe in World War 2, followed by seven over Japan. He received the Distinguished Flying Cross and the Air Medal, as well as the standard victory medals given to combatants at the end of the conflict. Slayton went through the Mercury selection process and was picked to fly Mercury-Atlas 7 in May 1962 but, in summer 1961, when Alan Shepherd had already flown, he was diagnosed with an irregular heartbeat. Contrary to popular belief, every effort was made to treat the condition before he was grounded finally, both by NASA and by the Air Force, more than a year after diagnosis: NASA simply did not know enough about the physiological effects of spaceflight to take a risk on an unexpected reaction disabling an astronaut during a mission.

After Project Mercury ended, Deke Slayton was rewarded, first with the unofficial role as head of the Astronaut Office and, later, formally, as Chief Astronaut. As such this gave him enormous power over the other astronauts and, in particular, over the future career of his Mercury colleagues. As we have seen, the careers of Schirra, Cooper and, quite possibly, Carpenter (formally, the decision that he should not fly again was made by Chris Craft, but it was almost certain that he would have discussed it with Slayton) were ended by Slayton when he decided that they were untrustworthy, or unreliable, while Grissom and Shepherd, in contrast, received very favourable treatment. The way that Schirra went from favoured son, replacing Gus Grissom as the man trusted to command the shakedown of the capsule that would take astronauts to the Moon, to being deemed unsuitable to fly another mission shows a ruthless streak in Slayton, as does the way that he gave his Deputy and colleague, Alan Shepherd, a prime mission, over the objections even of one of the astronauts assigned initially to fly with him.

Deke Slayton though never gave up his hopes of getting assigned to flight status and, almost exactly nine years to the day after his irregular heartbeat was diagnosed, it was found to have disappeared. It took twenty months to convince the doctors to return him to flight status, but return him they did, just as the Apollo programme was ending. Eleven months later, Slayton was named on the crew of the final Apollo spacecraft to fly: the Apollo-Soyuz mission. He joined Tom Stafford, an astronaut with a distinguished career – Gemini 6 pilot, Gemini 9 commander, Apollo 10 commander – and the luckless Vance Brand, who had been assigned to three previous, cancelled flights (Apollo 18, Skylab 4 and Skylab 5).

Slayton spent nine days in space in the end, becoming, at 51 years old, the oldest man to fly in space until William Thornton flew at 54 years old, in 1983. On return to Earth, Slayton requested that he be assigned to fly in the Shuttle programme, being told politely, but firmly, that this was not going to happen. However, in a final irony, when the Apollo capsule landed in the Pacific, the crew were hospitalised as a precaution, due to a gas leak that vented a quantity of toxic gas into the cabin. While in hospital, a (benign) tumour was found on his lung which, had its existence been known earlier, would have, again, seen him disqualified from flying and missing his assigned mission. Slayton finally died, in 1993, at 69 years old, from a brain tumour.


There you have it. Seven remarkable men who were the pioneers of the American space programme. Despite its sanitised image as a programme that went from success to success, several of the Mercury flights suffered in-flight emergencies that showed how necessary it was to have an astronaut aboard to deal with a dangerous situation. One of the seven, never flew again. One had to wait thirteen years to fly. One walked on the Moon. One died in a launch rehearsal. One flew Mercury, Gemini and Apollo, but never went to the Moon. One lost his chance to go to the Moon through indiscipline. And one had a long political career and became a candidate for President, before finally returning to space at the age of seventy-seven. Truly, a remarkable bunch.

[1] My first reaction when the ride, which was limited to a maximum acceleration of 2g, rather than the 11g that Shepherd and Grissom endured, finished was to exclaim “let’s do it again!” Unfortunately, the length of the waiting queue was a powerful disincentive.

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