On 2 April 1958, in response to Soviet space efforts that were proving demoralizing to the American public, President Eisenhower had sent a bill to Congress calling for the immediate establishment of a civilian aeronautics and space agency. Congress passed the Space Act on 29 July, resulting in the creation of NASA, which officially came into existence on 1 October.

A Space Task Group was formed at the Air Force’s Langley Research Center, Virginia, on 5 November, with Robert Gilruth appointed as director. On behalf of NASA, this task group was given four major objectives: to prepare specifications for a manned spacecraft; to plan and build a world-wide tracking network; to select and develop a suitable launch vehicle; and to select and train potential space pilots who would undergo a two-year training program.

With no precedents or government procedures to follow, NASA had to decide where the best candidates could be found, how many were required, and how they should be tested. What they did know was that the astronaut selection process would hinge on three crucial factors: physical, psychological, and technical.

In the final week of 1958, after several meetings between NASA Administrator Keith Glennan and his deputy Hugh Dryden, Robert Gilruth, and other upper-level representatives of NASA and the Space Task Group, a consensus was reached. For speed and facility in arriving at the selections, it was decided to restrict the search to the ranks of military test pilots. There were several reasons for this: test pilots were familiar with the rigors of service life, they were available at short notice, and their full service and medical records were on file for scrutiny.

It was decided to carry out the medical testing at an independent medical facility in New Mexico called the Lovelace Clinic, and to conduct further stress testing and psychological evaluations at the Wright Air Development Center in Ohio, which had already been involved in evaluation testing of space candidates for other poten­tial service programs.

The Space Task Group determined that any candidate had to possess a university degree; be a graduate of a test pilot school; have around 1,500 jet hours; be in superb condition, both mentally and physically; be no taller than 5 feet 11 inches – a height dictated by the confines of the Mercury spacecraft – and be less than 40 years of age at the time of selection.

The first task for those involved in the initial selection phase, or Phase One of the operation, was a trip to the Pentagon where they pulled and evaluated the records of 508 pilots against broad selection criteria, checked their medical records and reports by superior officers, verified that they had the minimum amount of jet flying hours, and assessed the type of flying involved. Out of 225 Air Force records screened, only 58 met the minimum requirements. Of 225 Navy records screened, only 47 made the grade. Of 23 Marine Corps records screened, only five met the minimum standards. Thirty-five Army records were screened, but none met the requirement of being a graduate from a test pilot school. Women were excluded from consideration as there were no female military test pilots. Hence out of the 508 records screened, 110 met the minimum standards.

Each of the 110 candidates was then ranked in terms of his overall qualifications and the reviews were then placed in ranking order, from the most promising to least promising. These men were to be brought to Washington under secret orders and in civilian clothing in order to be briefed at the Pentagon by a senior officer from their respective service, as well as NASA officials. The first two groups would each have 35 men, with the remaining 40 men forming the third group. The groups were to be briefed in successive weeks during Phase Two of the operation.

The first group of 35 candidates turned up at the Pentagon on Monday, 2 February 1959, where the Air Force candidates were initially briefed on Project Mercury and what it might mean for their service careers by the Chief of Staff of the Air Force, General Thomas White, while the Navy and Marine candidates were simultaneously briefed in another room by the Chief of Naval Operations, Admiral Arleigh Burke. Prior to this, the men knew very little of Project Mercury or what it entailed. After the service briefings, the men were gathered together in one room for a more spe­cific NASA briefing and an outline of Project Mercury by Charles Donlan, the asso­ciate director of the STG, Warren North, a NASA test pilot and engineer, and Lt. Robert Voas, a Navy psychologist. The men were then told that if they wished to opt out of consideration at that stage it would not be held against them or noted in their service records.

Those candidates that were willing to continue to the next phase were subjected to a preliminary suitability interview by psychologists Dr. George Ruff and Dr. Edwin Levy, then they sat through a review of their medical history. Some men proved to be taller than the limit, and were eliminated from the process. After the second round of briefings the following week, a total of 69 men had been pro­cessed. Faced with a higher than expected volunteer rate, Donlan canceled the third group, since he had more than enough applicants to fill the intended twelve positions. Eventually, six of the 69 candidates were found to be too tall and 16 declined to continue, leaving 47. Further checks and testing by NASA eliminated another 15 candidates, bringing the number down to 32.


Mercury astronaut candidate Scott Carpenter undergoes reaction testing at the Wright Aeromedical Laboratory. (Photo: USAF)

All 32 men endured a meticulous, demeaning, and in some ways brutal week-long medical examination at the Lovelace Clinic in New Mexico. This was followed by another torturous week at the Wright Aeromedical Laboratory in Ohio, where they were subjected to extreme fitness and physiological testing, the purpose of which was to sort out the supermen from the near-supermen. Or to quote author Tom Wolfe on the subject, the selectors were seeking a group of men with “The Right Stuff.”[1] In the process, one (James Lovell) was excluded for health reasons.

Then the results were compiled and considered, and the remaining 31 candidates were slotted into the following four categories:

Outstanding without reservations: 7

Outstanding with reservations: 3

Highly recommended: 13

Not recommended: 8 [16]

Early in March 1959 the results were forwarded to a panel at NASA Headquarters in Washington, D. C., for the final decisions to be made. It had been decided to halve the number required from twelve to six, but it proved impossible to decide between the final pair and so they were both accepted. Those chosen were notified on 2 April. A week later, on 9 April, seven test pilots were introduced to the waiting news media as the nation’s first astronauts: Scott Carpenter, Gordon Cooper, John Glenn, Virgil (‘Gus’) Grissom, Wally Schirra, Alan Shepard, and Donald (‘Deke’) Slayton. They were about to be trained for a task beyond all others for a pilot – a flight into space with Project Mercury.

Giving his reason for wanting to become an astronaut, Shepard said, “I thought it was definitely a chance to serve my country. And I guess everyone feels an urge to do something no one else has ever done – the urge to pioneer and accept a challenge and try to meet it. I realized what it would mean to the Nation in prestige and morale. And I felt that I’d like to contribute whatever ability and maturity I had achieved. It would also, of course, be a big boost to my own self-confidence to know that I had done well in my chosen field. Every man needs that.” [17]