The Astronauts

NASA could not have gone looking for astronauts in a more inhospitable place, a barren, snake-infested high desert where sand and sun had whitened the bones of the long-forgotten foolhardy, where winds sliced through the snarled Joshua trees which stood like sentries, and where a flat, dry lake bed offered America’s most skilled test pilots the longest runways in any direction: California’s Edwards Air Force Base.

It was from this high-tech flight center, as well as from the homes of the country’s best naval and marine aviators, that NASA gathered its future astronauts. Each candidate had to have at least fifteen hundred hours’ flight time in America’s fastest, most unforgiving jets. Fifty-eight air force, forty-seven navy, and five from the marine corps applied.

Early in 1959, these applicants were undergoing extreme physiological, psychological, and leadership tests at Wright Patterson Air Force Base in Dayton, Ohio. NBC thought that, being a pilot, I should crawl in these same horror chambers. But there was a difference. There was no way I was going to ride a temperamental rocket, and I could not think of a single reason why I should put my cowardly body through such torture.

But NBC did not agree, and I headed north to join Jim Kitchell. Kitch and crew were at Wright Patterson shooting a Chet Huntley Reporting, a thirty-minute news show aired Sunday evenings. For the next four days I held a microphone in my hand, trying to say something that made sense while I was frozen, roasted, shaken, and isolated in chambers so quiet my own heart sounded like the loudest drum in the parade.

I survived, NBC got its twelve “How I Became an Astronaut” reports for our old weekend radio show Monitor, and later that week, April 9, 1959, the Mercury Seven astronauts were named—names that would, within a few short years, become legendary.

There was Malcolm Scott Carpenter, a navy lieutenant from the Korean War; Leroy Gordon Cooper Jr., an air force captain who flew the hottest jets; John Herschel Glenn, a marine lieutenant colonel—a fighter pilot from two wars; Virgil “Gus” Grissom, an air force captain with one hundred combat missions over Korea; Walter M. “Wally” Schirra, a navy lieutenant commander, a veteran of ninety fighter-bomber missions in Korea; carrier and test pilot Alan Bartlet Shepard, a navy lieutenant commander; and Donald K. “Deke” Slayton, an air force captain who flew fifty-six combat missions over Europe and seven combat missions over Japan in World War II.

NASA announced their selection at a high-profile news conference in the nation’s capital. Since we happened to be in Dayton, Jim Kitchell decided to see if any of the seven were stationed at Wright Patterson. We were in luck. Gus Grissom’s home was a short drive, and we were off to interview his wife, Betty. Mrs. Grissom was most gracious. She invited us in and as the camera rolled, I asked, “How do you feel about your husband going into space?”

Betty smiled, and nodded toward her and Gus’s sons. “The two boys, Scott and Mark, and I have been living with a test pilot,” she began. “I don’t really feel flying into space is going to be all that different. We feel it will be risky, but if that’s what Gus wants to do, then we’re all for it.”

It was the perfect sound bite, and we were off to our television network affiliate in Dayton to develop the film. It was quick and dirty but we got our report on Huntley-Brinkley, and we were grateful. I had been a reporter long enough to predict much of the men’s future. The astronauts were instant celebrities, and I knew none of the families was remotely ready for what lay ahead. None had a clue that their privacy would soon be a fond memory.

For the next two years, the Mercury Seven would be hopping and jumping across the country, training to be astronauts while engineers were working to develop and perfect the Mercury space capsule.

Cape Canaveral would soon prove to be their favorite homeport, as the Florida sand spit had been an attractive stretch of land for settlements throughout its history. Here, bear shared the natural habitat with alligator and deer, and Indians buried their dead on sacred mounds. Later, some would try to hack out small patches of black, sandy earth for farming while a few went after the rich harvest of seafood. There were trappers, too, but taming the Cape was tougher than expected. It wasn’t only the persistent mosquitoes but rattlesnakes—rattlesnakes as long as gators—that had driven most of the early pioneers away.

Citrus growers followed, but by 1960 beneath the launch gantries, the blockhouses, the hangars, and the offices, there were thousands of electrical arteries, a finely woven network of underground cables through which flashed the impulses of energy, vital messages, and electronic commands that would launch the astronauts. The Mercury Seven loved it. The persistent mosquitoes and sand fleas and other pests were under control. Air conditioning was here to stay, and island libations simply made the hot days and balmy nights a tropical paradise.

It was other chores in the astronauts’ paradise that gave them heartache. Among their duties was playing tour guide for an assortment of VIPs. They came from all branches of government and the industrial world, with little or no knowledge of the technological challenges. Putting a man in space definitely would not be easy. It would take time, and America’s leaders were shocked when the first Mercury-Atlas was launched. The mighty rocket with an unmanned Mercury spacecraft on top rode a stack of fire into the Florida sky, where it promptly blew itself to hell and beyond.

The leaders looked at the astronauts with genuine pity and offered them more congressional monies, assuring themselves the taxpayers’ dollars would buy success.

The problem was not too little money, nor was it confined to Atlas. The next time the astronauts and congressional and industry leaders gathered, it would be a Mercury-Redstone rocket they would be watching. At the moment of ignition an electrical problem shut off its engine. The Redstone quickly settled back on its pad. Then, just as quickly, the escape-tower rocket fired, jerking itself free from the Mercury spacecraft it was suppose to lift out of danger. It raced into the sky, leaving spacecraft and rocket sitting on the launch pad.

The sight of an out-of-control rocket painting the sky with fiery brush strokes brought loudspeakers blaring the warning, “Everyone on the Cape take cover.” It was an unprecedented picture in the new space age: astronauts and congressmen and business leaders and we reporters jumping beneath bleachers and under vehicles to gain cover from flames shooting over our heads. My feet came to a stop under the press-site platform, arms wrapping my body securely around a pylon. Instantly, I felt another set of arms clinging from the opposite side. A grinning Alan Shepard asked, “Are we having fun yet?”

“Your first trip?”

We both laughed as we watched the top of the Mercury capsule pop open and the parachutes unravel and spill down the side of the Redstone.

At the same time, in a sky filled with twisting smoke trails, the escape tower’s rocket burned out and the tower tumbled back to Earth. It crashed about four hundred yards from the pad, and for those who care about such things, the tower rocket had scooted to a height of four thousand feet.

“That’ll get your attention,” Shepard said.

I nodded. “It’s your ass.”

“You wouldn’t ride it?”

“Not on the back of a flatbed truck to Cocoa.”

During the Cape’s early days, humor lightened long workdays. Practical jokes were the in thing, and the astronauts quarterbacked most of them.

About thirty miles south of the Cape’s launch-pad row, Jim Rathmann ran the local Chevrolet dealership. A world-class race-car driver who was the 1960 winner of the Indianapolis 500, he was really cut from the same cloth as the astronauts, the only difference being that Rathmann did his speed on the ground instead of in the air. He worked out a deal with General Motors to give the Mercury Seven new Corvettes. Of course, such an arrangement would not be tolerated today by NASA, but in 1960 Jim Rathmann sold General Motors on the fact that the public-relations and advertising benefits would more than offset the cost, and the guys happily hopped into a strong friendship with Rathmann and his hot ’Vettes.

Competition was mother’s milk for the astronauts. They had to see who could get the most speed out of anything they flew, drove, sailed, or pedaled, and each astronaut’s personal Corvette was at the top of the list. After a full day of training, they would set up drag races on the long, deserted road called ICBM Row.

Cooper, Grissom, and Shepard were an unholy trio on the asphalt. They’d line up and burn rubber down the straight road by the rockets and gantries, sending rabbits, deer, wild hogs, but more important, traffic cops running through the sand dunes.

At first, there was a Barney Fife wannabe who was determined to give the astronauts tickets. The Mercury Seven, and those who had gathered to watch the fun, regarded this deserted and restricted road as none of his business. They took his ticket book and ripped it to pieces. Cooper decided to eat a few pages while the others undressed the “Rent-A-Cop” and threw him and his pistol, badge, and uniform into the surf. Next they drove his patrol car deep into the sand, where it took two wreckers to get it out. It was a great way to get rid of the tension that built up during the long work hours, and the polite astronauts thanked Barney Fife for the good fun.

The traffic-cop matter was soon dropped because the U.S. Attorney had the final say on federal property, and it seems that he had married the sister of one of those involved. The ticket writer was invited to leave the Cape. He found a ticket-writing vacancy in the Cocoa Beach Police Department.

Only days had passed when the same traffic cop found himself in another donnybrook with the feds.

Air police with Thompson submachine guns were escorting an urgently needed secret missile unit through Cocoa Beach at about 3:00 in the morning. The speed limit was 35, but the urgently needed freight was moving about 50 along deserted A1A. Barney Fife pulled the escorted truck over and began writing the driver a ticket. The air police ordered him to step aside, and Barney Fife decided to draw his big, bad .38. The clicking sounds of rounds going into the barrels of the Thompsons persuaded him to rethink his action.

As the story goes, the John Wayne of spacecoast traffic cops decided his talents could best be used in the backwaters of Louisiana. He wasn’t missed, and the drag races continued without further interruption.

We reporters weren’t permitted on federal property to witness these races, but some of us got the results first hand daily. A few years before Alan Shepard died, he admitted, “Barbree, there’s no way all the stories that have been told about us can be true. But most of them are good for a laugh.”

Soon Gordo Cooper was leaving Alan Shepard in the dust at the starting gate of the drags. Alan wasn’t laughing. Fuming, he turned to Gus. “What the hell’s going on?”

Gus grinned. “You’re getting your ass kicked,” he told Alan, who drove off disgusted and headed for Rathmann’s Chevrolet.

Jim was in the garage, and Alan went in growling. “There’s something wrong with my car, Jim; you gotta do something.”

“Leave it with me, Alan,” Jim said, smiling.

Jim was in on Gordo’s prank, and when Alan picked up his ’Vette and tried Gordo again, he lost. He had expected his ’Vette to perform better, but now it was even worse. Alan was beginning to smell a rat, and he took the car in again, even more adamant with Jim that something be done.

Astronaut Gordon Cooper (seated in race car) is seen here with Jim Rathmann (kneeling) and astronaut Gus Grissom (standing on left) in Rathmann’s garage, where most nasty pranks were hatched. (Rathmann Collection).

Fighter pilots had a tradition of painting swastikas or rising-sun flags for each kill on the side of their cockpits during World War II. When Alan returned this time, his car had four Volkswagens and two bicycles painted on its driver’s door. Alan was on his knees laughing. He soon learned the mechanic had changed the rear-end ratio on his ’Vette. This gave him more speed but less pickup. Gordo’s car could outrun Alan’s for about two miles—long enough to win every drag. It was truly a classic “Gotcha.”

The fun soon spilled over into their workplace. Walt Williams was the boss. He was a serious man. Williams moved about the Cape’s buildings and launch complexes with a driven determination. A frown on his face was a major part of his daily dress, and on one particular day, when the astronauts were working on the Mercury-Redstone launch pad, Williams suddenly remembered he had to make a luncheon speech in Cocoa Beach. “I’ve gotta be in town in twenty minutes,” he complained. “I left my car back atthe office.”

Alan Shepard stepped forward. “Take my ’Vette, Walt, I’ll catch a ride in with Gus.”

Walt Williams was rarely offered a favor. He wasn’t sure how to respond. He did, however, manage a slight smile. “Thank you, Commander Shepard,” he said politely. “But I don’t know if I can drive a hot car like yours.”

“Sure you can, Walt,” Alan assured him. “C’mon, I’ll help you get it started.”

The two men rushed across the parking lot, and Alan helped buckle Walt into his ’Vette. The Project Mercury director sat there, staring at all the knobs, buttons, switches, and instruments. “What the hell,” he mumbled, fussing with the unfamiliar controls.

“Here, Walt,” Alan said, reaching across and starting the vehicle.

“Thank you,” Walt said, closing the door.

Alan heard his ’Vette’s gears cry in agony as Walt jammed the stick in first and chugged away, stopping and starting and eventually getting the sports car to move at a somewhat steady pace.

Alan turned and ran into the launch pad’s office. As Walt was turning onto the main road, he phoned the cops. “This is astronaut Alan Shepard,” he shouted. “Some sonofabitch just stole my Corvette. He’s headed for the south gate.”

Walt chugged and jerked Alan’s ’Vette up to the Cape’s exit, and the guards pounced on the stoic man, lifting him from the car and spread-eagling him over the hood.

Alan was already on the phone with NASA security chief Charlie Buckley. “You better get to the south gate right now, Charlie,” he laughed. “They have the boss in handcuffs.”

Then, it was the day.

The seven astronauts doodled at their desks in their office at the Langley Research Center in Virginia. It was January 19, 1961. Tomorrow, John F. Kennedy would be sworn in as President of the United States. But right now Robert Gilruth was more important to the Mercury Seven. As chief of the Space Task Group, Gilruth ran Project Mercury. He owned the candy store. He was Walt Williams’s boss, and he would say who would be the FIRST TO GO! That had been the engine driving the Mercury Seven’s training, and that afternoon Gilruth had called the astronauts. “How about hanging in after quitting time, guys? I have something to tell you.”

Astronaut Alan Shepard atop the back of his beloved Corvette. (Barbree Collection).

There it was. He’d made his decision, and each of the seven reviewed where they stood in the program. There’d been an unquestioned breakthrough in mid-December when a Redstone carried an unmanned Mercury capsule through a perfect flight. That’s when Gilruth said oh so casually, “Everybody better start thinking about who goes first.”

Okay. Each astronaut voted for himself. Then Gilruth smiled and said, “I would like for you guys to take a peer vote. If you were unable to make the first flight, select the man you think should go.” He was aware of their discomfort and smiled. “Drop your choice by my office soon.”

The astronauts couldn’t determine whether Gilruth had really given them a vote or if he was playing it clever. Either way, the Mercury Seven knew he could simply select the man he wanted, and the astronauts would never be the wiser.

The door opened. Gilruth came in and got right to the point: “What I have to say to you must stay with you. You can’t talk about it, not to anyone, not even to your wives. Now let’s keep it that way. Each of you has done an outstanding job. We’re grateful for your contributions, but you all know only one man can be first in space.

“What I’m about to tell you,” Gilruth continued, “is the most difficult decision I’ve ever had to make. It is essential this decision be known to only a small group of people. We’ll make it known to the public at the appropriate time.”

He hesitated only to take a breath.

“Alan Shepard will make the first suborbital Redstone flight, Gus Grissom will follow Alan on the second suborbital flight, and John Glenn will be backup for both missions.”

Six hearts sunk as the seventh raced ahead with pride.

Alan Shepard understood the other guys’ disappointment, but they all knew from the beginning that one would go, six would watch.

John Glenn stepped forward and shook Shepard’s hand as the other five moved in and offered their congratulations before quietly leaving the room. Shepard knew this was a time to keep his feelings inside, but as he went through the door, he permitted himself one little click of his heels.

We reporters were kept in the dark, but within days I learned the selection committee had picked Shepard because he was judged to be the smartest. The committee selected Grissom because of his engineering skills and Glenn because he always brought his plane back no matter how badly it had been shot up.

None of this did me any good as a reporter, for I had received the information off the record. The other astronauts knew the smart guy would be in the seat for the unknown, the engineer would be there to analyze and fix any hardware during the second flight, and the third guy would push the envelope. If he pushed it too far and they got into trouble, well, somehow Glenn would bring the ship home.

They also knew that if Shepard’s flight came off as planned, then all of them would have their turn. They had no fight with one another. Their struggle was to develop safe hardware and come home alive.

The Mercury Seven returned to Cape Canaveral on a mission to get rid of what the press was calling “AstroChimp.”

As a precaution, NASA had decided to send a chimpanzee into space first. The astronauts to a man thought the chimp was unnecessary.

“The only way for us to go,” Alan Shepard told the others, “is to stay in the faces of those making the decisions. They must understand the chimp isn’t needed and they must know we’re ready. We gotta work hard and play hard. What about it?”

There was a chorus of, “Yeah, let’s do it.” The Mercury Seven grabbed hands, and from that day forward they worked hard, played hard, and “gott’er done.” But there still was a problem—a “stinking” problem.

The astronauts’ crew quarters in Hangar S were smelly, military, uncomfortable, and too damn close to the chimpanzees’ colony. They spent their nights listening to the squat anthropoid apes hoot and holler and howl, and besides all this punishment, the astronauts had to step aside for one of the dung flingers to go into space first.

The Mercury Seven took a vote and decided they might have to follow one of these anthropoids into space, but they didn’t have to live with them, and the Homo sapiens abandoned Hangar S. They took up residence in their favorite motel on Cocoa Beach.

The Washington bean counters mumbled something about cost, but the astronauts gave them the silent finger. They felt human again and would spend hours jogging along the hard ocean sands, drinking in the fresh salt air while racing with pelicans and scattering hundreds of sandpipers.

Each astronaut had his own room at the Holiday Inn, run by Henri Landwirth, who as a boy had been one of Hitler’s guests in a concentration camp. Somehow the Belgian-born youngster survived the horrors and made it to the United States with two shirts and a pair of trousers. His one pair of shoes held up just long enough for him to apply for American citizenship, after which he settled in Florida and became an innkeeper.

If the astronauts or anyone gave Henri or his staff trouble, he would throw them out. With his melodious Flemish accent, he reminded them, “Customers I can always get! Where am I going to find good help?”

Henri tried to hide his love for the astronauts, but his hospitality and food and his efforts to get them anything they needed gave him away. He was their protector. He offered them privacy and a place to relax. Gordo Cooper returned his love by having the motel pool filled with fish. With pole and fishhooks in hand, Gordo loudly announced, “I have never caught a fish in Florida, and this time it’s going to be different.” The rest of the guests weren’t too pleased about swimming with saltwater trout and dodging Gordo’s hooks. Happily for them, the chlorine soon killed the fish.

The fish-in-the-pool prank held the record until one night the Mercury launch team and the astronauts decided to move their party to Henri’s. The only problem was their party was on a boat. The chop on the river grew too rough so they picked up the vessel, carried it by hand across busy A1A, and dropped it in Henri’s swimming pool.

The astronauts and engineers clung to the boat, shouting, “More rum, wenches, more rum,” until Henri and crew jumped in the pool and heaved them overboard. It took two cranes and a house-mover to get the boat out of the pool the next day, but that wasn’t the end of it.

Wally Schirra was a masterful practical joker by himself, and one afternoon Henri and Wally walked out of Wally’s room, the innkeeper supporting a wounded astronaut with a bloody towel wrapped around his arm. The pool was crowded with reporters and tourists, and we rushed to Schirra’s aid.

Concerned, I asked, “What happened, Wally?”

Wally turned, nodding toward a large field of palmetto and shaggy oaks. “In there, Jay. It was in there. I don’t know what,” he groaned with pain, “but we got it—we got the damn thing…. It tore my arm up good.”

“Did you call a doctor?”

“There’s one on his way,” Henri nodded.

“Good,” I answered, staring at the thick, bloodied towel.

“We need to wait for the doctor in the room,” Henri said, and some of us followed a moaning Wally Schirra inside.

The bloodied astronaut pointed to a large box on his bed, covered with a blanket, and turned to me. “Be careful, Jay. That thing’s dangerous. I think it’s a mongoose.”

“Big mongoose,” Henri agreed.

I shook my head. “There are no mongooses in Florida.”

“Maybe it got loose or something. Who the hell cares?” Wally argued, growing more agitated. “Damnit, look for yourself.”

Being from a farm, I have never been too afraid of animals. I moved toward the box on the bed.

“Careful!” Wally insisted.

I was wondering why there was no movement in the box when—


A huge, spring-loaded hairy thing with long teeth and claws burst through the blanket into my face, knocking me backward onto the floor. Those who had followed me into the room shot outside, stopping a safe distance away. Wally was on the floor beside me, his arms around the “jack-in-the-box wild thing,” doubled over with laughter.

In the coming months, the “mongoose” sent some of the country’s most daring astronauts and fighter pilots hurtling through doors and windows to safety.

As of this writing, Wally tells me he still has his treasured mongoose in his garage.

Project Mercury was running out of days in February 1961, and a serious tone settled over the upcoming launch teams. But the decision to mislead the public as to who was going to be first held. The media’s general consensus was that John Glenn would be chosen. I didn’t agree. Shepard and I had swallowed a little too much of Jack Daniel’s sour mash one evening and, off the record, he told me.

I wished he hadn’t. Had I learned of his selection to be first another way, I could have used the information.

The secrecy surrounding the selection was to continue right up to launch day, with Bob Gilruth deciding that Shepard’s name would be made public only after the Mercury-Redstone lifted off. There was even some incredible deceptive plan about bringing all three of the astronauts to the pad dressed to fly, with hoods over their heads. That way not even the launch team would know who had climbed in the Mercury spacecraft to be first.

I ran into Gilruth in the Holiday Inn. I told him I had heard about this deception, and I asked him a simple question: “Why?”

He stared back and finally muttered, “It’s my business.”

I jumped in his face. “No, it is not your business,” I said bluntly. “It’s the American taxpayer’s business. NASA is a civilian, open agency. You want secrecy, join the CIA.”

He was not pleased. He walked away without another word.

No one in the know cared for Gilruth’s cover-up, but it was a minor irritation compared with the fact the chimpanzee was flying first. All that animal would do was bang levers and push buttons and get jolted with electricity if he didn’t perform as trained. The astronauts protested, but the medical folks insisted. There were too many unknowns about space flight to risk a human life without first sending up a chimp as a possible sacrifice. The fact that a chimpanzee is a highly intelligent anthropoid, an animal closely related to and resembling a human, didn’t matter. Killing one’s animal cousin appeared to be acceptable.

Of the seven candidates that came to the Cape for final flight training, a chimp named Chang was considered to be prime, and Elvis was the backup. The only problem was that Elvis was a female, so named because of her long sideburns. In order to cause no offense, the names had to be changed. Chang became Ham and Elvis was christened Patti. Ham stood for “Holloman Aero Med,” his home in New Mexico, and (known to just a very few) Patti stood for “Patrice Lumumba,” the African tyrant, because the chimps came from the French Cameroon.

NASA selected the newly crowned Ham, and on January 31, 1961, the astronauts gathered to watch the launch. The flight turned out to be a bit more interesting. Redstone had a “hot engine.” It burned all of its fuel five seconds early. The control system sensed that something was wrong. Instantly it ignited the escape tower hooked to the Mercury capsule, and it blew the spacecraft away. This sent Ham higher, faster, and farther. The chimpanaut landed 122 miles beyond his target and came down hard, hitting the ocean with a teeth-jarring stop.

Space chimp Ham, looking worn from his near drowning and harrowing suborbital flight, is greeted by the captain of his recovery ship. (NASA).

The rough splashdown was followed with the stomach-churning motion of six-foot waves, and by the time the recovery choppers showed up, Ham’s capsule was on its side. More than eight hundred pounds of water had rolled in and they had a sputtering, choking, almost-drowned chimp on their hands.

Alan Shepard reviewed Ham’s flight. He knew he could have survived it, but he also knew his own flight was in deep trouble. If only the damn chimp ride had been on the money, then he would have been off the launch pad in March.

But Ham’s flight wasn’t on the money, it was a disaster, and Dr. von Braun was worried. He had the responsibility for the astronauts’ lives. “We require another unmanned flight,” he said soberly.

Working with the engineers, Shepard confirmed that the problem with Ham’s Redstone had been nothing more than a minor electrical relay. The fix was quick and Shepard said, “Even von Braun should be satisfied with what we found!”

Shepard was wrong. Dr. von Braun stood fast. “Another test flight.”

The March 24 repeat Redstone launch was perfect. Shepard could have killed. He knew he should have been on that flight. America would now have the first astronaut in space.

Over drinks, he told me, “We had them, Barbree. We had the Russians by the gonads and we gave it away.”

“Maybe not,” I said, trying to resurrect hope. “You could still be first. May’s not that far away.”

“Not a chance,” he said in that distant manner of his. “It’s the damn Sputnik thing all over again.”

If you find an error please notify us in the comments. Thank you!