The First Three USAF Astronauts

The Mercury 7 astronauts in spacesuits.

The Mercury 7 astronauts in spacesuits.

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.

This entry was posted in Cold War Competition, History, Personal, Space and tagged , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , . Bookmark the permalink.

5 Responses to The First Three USAF Astronauts

  1. David Shomper, ex-Apollo engineer says:

    Slayton was originally scheduled to fly the 4th (not final) Mercury mission; he was replaced by Carpenter. See:


  2. OM Frack Tuu says:

    …Good article, Roger. A couple of points,, tho:

    1) For better or worse, I find it at least interesting to note that when discussing Gordo Cooper’s post-NASA career, you *didn’t* mention his “coming out” and claiming he’d actually seen UFOs (pl. sic) during his test pilot days. Back in the Glory Days of, the general consensus was spit down the middle: either Gordo had gone nuts in his later years, or he was stringing the MUFON Morons along making a few bucks off of the Hoaxland Contingent. Out of curiosity, do you have a position on which side of the sanity fence Gordo was sitting on during this period?

    2) I recently read – much to my distaste in some chapters – Dr. Larry Lamb’s autobiography. If you can trust the info he gives, once you’ve dug past the “TV Medical Crusader” image he paints of himself, Deke Slayton not only knew he was suffering from the fibrillation issues before he was selected for the Lovelace tests, but that Lamb himself was the “crusader” who fought to get Deke grounded all the way up to when the official announcement came after John Glenn’s flight. In your article, you state that Deke was grounded in 1959. Was the date you gave reflective of Lamb’s claims – apparently backed up with EKG charts in his book – or have you come across other documentation that clarifies just when Deke was actually grounded and/or that the official announcement was delayed for morale/agitprop reasons?

    3) One point I’ve tried to clarify over the years when discussing Deke’s death was that the cause of death was ruled as a malignant brain tumor. When Deke passed, quite a few obits and news reports had erroneously claimed he died of lung cancer. From the research I did on ASTP some years ago, the reports may have been all based on an AP wire story that wasn’t properly fact checked, where the unnamed wire reporter opined that Deke’s cause of death was “believed to have been the result of his earlier smoking habits, and the exposure to the fumes from the RCS dump prior to the splashdown of the [ASTP CM]. Although Deke had a small lesion, the biopsy concluded “[the lesion] was consistent with lung tissue scarring known to result from the exposure to the components of the fuel used in the [Apollo CM] RCS thrusters, and does not appear to be carcinogenic in nature.” Deke’s lungs were examined during the final autopsy, and found to be free of any signs of cancers, either benign or malignant.

    4) Finally, where Deke’s final years at NASA are concerned, it should be noted that he participated in the ALT program for the Shuttle, along with Fred Haise, Dick Truly, and the late Gordo Fullerton. As a result, Deke Slayton can be argued – and yeah, I *will* argue in favor of this point 🙂 – to have been the first commander of a spacecraft named “Enterprise”. It might not have been refitted and used as originally planned, but if Gus Grissom inarguably earned his title as the first commander of an Apollo mission…:)

    Again, good article. I Should have subscribed to your mailing list when you set this blog up, dammit…:(


  3. David Shomper, ex-Apollo engineer says:

    Your items #1 & #2.


Leave a Reply

Fill in your details below or click an icon to log in: Logo

You are commenting using your account. Log Out /  Change )

Google+ photo

You are commenting using your Google+ account. Log Out /  Change )

Twitter picture

You are commenting using your Twitter account. Log Out /  Change )

Facebook photo

You are commenting using your Facebook account. Log Out /  Change )


Connecting to %s