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The Science Zone: The Mercury astronauts

Dr. Ken Bridges More Content Now
Posted on 12/12/2016, 11:17 AM

Former astronaut and former U. S. Senator John Glenn died recently at the age of 95. Glenn, originally a fighter pilot in the Marines, was the last of the original Mercury astronauts, the first seven men chosen by NASA for manned space missions. The Mercury program was designed by NASA as a stepping stone to later space exploration. The small, one-man capsules were designed to test how spacecraft could operate in space as well as to see how well human beings could tolerate the stresses of space flight. All seven men were veteran military test pilots and instantly became American heroes, celebrated for their achievements in science and exploration well after the Mercury program ended in 1963.

The facts on the momentous Mercury missions:

1. The first Mercury missions were unmanned tests of the rockets and capsules while the Mercury 2 mission launched a chimpanzee into space in January 1961 to see how a man could possibly survive the mission.

2. Alan Shepard (1923-1998) was the first American in space, flying into a suborbital spaceshot on May 25, 1961, on the Mercury 3 mission (which NASA allowed him to nickname Freedom 7), just 5 weeks after Russian cosmonaut Yuri Gagarian became the first man in space. Shepard later walked on the Moon in 1971 as part of the Apollo 14 mission.

3. Virgil I. "Gus" Grissom (1926-1967) flew the second manned Mercury flight, Mercury 4 (nicknamed Liberty Bell 7) in 1961, reaching an altitude of 103 miles (or 165 kilometers).

4. John Glenn (1921-2016) was the first American to orbit the Earth with the Mercury 5 probe (also called Friendship 7) in 1962, with three orbits. He served as a U. S. Senator from Ohio from 1975 to 1999 and flew on the space shuttle Discovery in 1998.

5. Donald K. "Deke" Slayton (1924-1993) was scheduled to fly Mercury 6 (Delta 7) in 1962, but the mission was cancelled because of health concerns. However, he later flew in the joint Apollo-Soyuz mission with Soviet cosmonauts in 1975.

6. Scott Carpenter (1925-2013) orbited the Earth three times at an altitude of 164 miles on Mercury 7 (Aurora 7) in 1962 and became the first American to eat solid food in space.

7. Walter Schirra (1923-2007) orbited the Earth nine times with the Mercury 8 (Sigma 7) mission in 1962 and later flew in the Gemini 7 mission in 1966 and commanded Apollo 7 in 1968.

8. Gordon Cooper (1927-2004) flew the Mercury 9 mission (Faith 7) in May 1963 completing 21 orbits over 34 hours, the longest of the Mercury missions and the end of the Mercury program.

9. Gus Grissom later flew the Gemini 3 orbital flight in 1965 but tragically died in a fire in the Apollo 1 test capsule in 1967 along with astronauts Edward H. White (1930-1967) and Roger Chafee (1935-1967).

-- Dr. Ken Bridges is a writer and professor living with his wife and six children in Arkansas. He can be reached by e-mail at The Science Zone is distributed by More Content Now, a division of Gatehouse Media.