The Mercury Seven were the group of seven Mercury astronauts announced by NASA on October 7, 1958. They are also referred to as the Original Seven or Astronaut Group 1. They piloted the manned spaceflights of the Mercury program from May 1961 to May 1963. These seven original American astronauts were Scott Carpenter, Gordon Cooper, John Glenn, Gus Grissom, Wally Schirra, Alan Shepard, and Deke Slayton.
Members of the group flew on all classes of NASA manned orbital spacecraft of the 20th century — Mercury, Gemini, Apollo, and the Space Shuttle. Gus Grissom died in 1967, in the Apollo 1 fire. The others all survived past retirement from service. John Glenn went on to become a U.S. senator, and flew on the Shuttle 36 years later to become the oldest person to fly in space. He was the last living member of the class when he died in 2016.
Although NASA planned an open competition for its first astronauts, President Dwight D. Eisenhower insisted that all candidates be test pilots. Because of the small space inside the Mercury spacecraft, candidates could be no taller than 5 feet 11 inches (180 cm) and weigh no more than 180 pounds (82 kg). Other requirements included an age under 40, a Bachelor's degree or equivalent, 1,500 hours of flying time, and qualification to fly jet aircraft.
After an advertisement among military test pilots drew more than 500 applications, NASA searched military personnel records in January 1959 and identified 110 pilots—five Marines, 47 from the Navy, and 58 from the Air Force—who qualified. Sixty-nine candidates were brought to Washington, DC, in two groups; the candidates' interest was so great, despite the extensive physical and mental exams from January to March, that the agency did not summon the last group. The tests included spending hours on treadmills and tilt tables, submerging their feet in ice water, three doses of castor oil, and five enemas. Six candidates were rejected as too tall for the planned spacecraft. Another 33 failed or dropped out during the first phase of exams. Four more refused to take part in the second round of tests, which eliminated eight more candidates, leaving 18.
From the 18, the first seven NASA astronauts were chosen, each a "superb physical specimen" with an IQ above 130, and the ability to function well both as part of a team and solo. Grissom, Cooper, and Slayton were Air Force pilots; Shepard, Carpenter, and Schirra were Navy pilots, and Glenn was a Marine Corps pilot.
All seven attended college or military academies in the 1940s. Shepard exceeded the educational requirement by earning a Master of Arts degree in 1957 at the Naval War College. Glenn and Carpenter, however, did not technically meet all of their schools' degree requirements, but were awarded their bachelor's degrees after their 1962 space flights.
NASA introduced the astronauts in Washington on April 9, 1959. Although the agency viewed Project Mercury's purpose as an experiment to determine whether humans could survive space travel, the seven men immediately became national heroes and were compared by TIME magazine to "Columbus, Magellan, Daniel Boone, and the Wright brothers." Two hundred reporters overflowed the room used for the announcement and alarmed the astronauts, who were unused to such a large audience.
Because they wore civilian clothes, the audience did not see them as military test pilots but "mature, middle-class Americans, average in height and visage, family men all," ready for single combat versus worldwide Communism. To the astronauts' surprise, the reporters asked about their personal lives instead of war records or flight experience, or about the details of Mercury. After Glenn responded by speaking eloquently "on God, country, and family" the others followed his example, and the reporters "lustily applauded them."
The astronauts participated in Project Mercury's design and planning. While busy with such duties and the intense training for their flights, the men also "roughhoused and drank and drove fast and got into sexual peccadilloes." NASA actively sought to protect the astronauts and the agency from negative publicity and maintain an image of "clean-cut, all-American boy[s]."
Before Slayton could make his Mercury flight, he was diagnosed in 1962 with an erratic heart rhythm (idiopathic atrial fibrillation), and grounded from flight by NASA and the Air Force. He stayed with the manned space program, first as unofficial "Chief Astronaut", then in November 1963 becoming Coordinator of Astronaut Activities.
The seven astronauts agreed to share equally any proceeds from interviews regardless of who flew first. In August 1959, they and their wives signed a contract with LIFE magazine for $500,000 in exchange for exclusive access to their private lives, homes, and families. Their official spokesman from 1959 to 1963 was NASA's public affairs officer, USAF Lt. Col. John "Shorty" Powers, who as a result became known in the press as the "eighth astronaut".
They wrote first-hand accounts of their selection and preparation for the Mercury missions in the 1962 book We Seven. Additionally, each of them separately wrote at least one book describing their astronaut experiences. In 1979, Tom Wolfe published a less sanitized version of their story in The Right Stuff. Wolfe's book was the basis for the film of the same name directed by Philip Kaufman.
The five Tracy brothers from the TV series Thunderbirds were named after five of the Mercury Seven astronauts.