Three of the first seven of America’s astronauts—the Mercury Seven selected in April 1959—came from the ranks of the United States Air Force. They were L. Gordon Cooper Jr. (1927-2004), Virgil I. “Gus” Grissom (1926-1967), and Donald K. “Deke” Slayton (1924-1993). The selection had been grueling, for NASA had pursued a rigorous process of winnowing candidates that involved record reviews, biomedical tests, psychological profiles, and a host of interviews.
Those initial candidates included five Marines, 47 Navy aviators, and 58 Air Force pilots, and the final selectees included the three Air Force officers, three naval aviators, and one Marine. The three Air Force selectees went on to make a significant impact on the history of human spaceflight.
The first to fly was Captain Virgil I. Grissom, known to all as Gus. The second American into space, Grissom repeated Alan Shepard’s 15-minute sub-orbital flight on July 21, 1961. Unfortunately, this mission ended with Grissom being rescued from drowning after the hatch to his Liberty Bell 7 spacecraft unexpectedly blew off after splashdown. The two suborbital Mercury flights proved valuable for NASA technicians who found ways to solve or work around literally thousands of obstacles to successful spaceflight. Grissom also commanded the maiden flight of the Gemini program, Gemini III on March 23, 1965, with John W. Young, a Naval aviator chosen as an astronaut in 1962, accompanying him.
Grissom died in the tragic Apollo 1 capsule fire on January 27, 1967, during a ground test where he and his two crewmates, Edward White and Roger Chaffee, were practicing for what would have been the first piloted flight of the Apollo spacecraft in Earth orbit. At 6:31 p.m., after several hours of work, a fire broke out in the spacecraft and the pure oxygen atmosphere intended for the flight helped it burn with intensity. In a flash, flames engulfed the capsule and the astronauts died of asphyxiation. It took the ground crew five minutes to open the hatch. As the nation mourned the loss of the three astronauts, NASA appointed an eight member investigation board, and it set out to discover the details of the tragedy: what happened, why it happened, could it happen again, what was at fault, and how could NASA recover?
The members of the board learned that the fire had been caused by a short-circuit in the electrical system that ignited combustible materials in the spacecraft fed by the oxygen atmosphere. They also found that it could have been prevented and called for several modifications to the spacecraft, including a move to a less oxygen-rich environment. Changes to the Apollo capsule followed quickly, thanks to the efforts of a dedicated team of engineers, and within a little more than a year it was ready for flight.
Gordon Cooper, better known as “Gordo” to his colleagues, flew the last mission of the Mercury program, a 22-orbit flight on May 15-16, 1963, setting the stage for the Gemini program. Cooper also commanded the Gemini V mission on August 21-29, 1965, where he and Pete Conrad set a spaceflight endurance record with an eight-day orbital mission. Cooper left NASA in 1970 and worked in a variety of aerospace enterprises. He died at age 77 at his home in Ventura, California, on October 4, 2004.
Deke Slayton was originally scheduled to pilot the fourth Mercury mission but had to be removed from flight status because of a heart condition in August 1959. He early took the lead for the Mercury Seven and later officially headed the Astronaut office. Accordingly, he assigned crews for each mission and oversaw the full range of astronaut activities. Slayton returned to flight status in March 1972, and flew as a member of the crew of the Apollo-Soyuz Test Project (ASTP) in 1975. This mission was the first human spaceflight mission managed jointly by two nations and served an important cold war objective of demonstrating détente between the U.S. and the Soviet Union.
This mission tested the compatibility of rendezvous and docking systems for American and Soviet spacecraft and suggested that future international ventures in space had potential. Thereafter, Slayton directed the space shuttle flight research effort, retiring from NASA in 1982. He died on June 13, 1993, from brain cancer.
Collectively, these three USAF astronauts played exceptionally significant roles in the development of the nation’s space program. Slayton oversaw the entire effort for its first twenty-three years. More than any other person, he chose the crews of every flight, in the process ensuring mission success. Grissom was the quintessential test pilot who flew shakedown missions for both the Mercury and Gemini programs, and was training to do so for Apollo at the time of the 1967 accident. Cooper flew the first long-duration space missions, demonstrating the ability of humans to survive in the exceptionally harsh environment of space.