Project Mercury and the Pilots Role

Project Mercury evolved during these debates and solidified their outcomes. By 1958, it had become clear that NASA, and not the air force, would run the first American program to put people into orbit, in a project that would come to be known as Mercury. NASA introduced its first set of astronauts in April 1959, followed by a glossy exclusive spread in Life magazine that fall (and more than seventy articles on the astronauts and their wives in the following four years). Public response, fueled by Life's exclusive, heroic coverage, set a celebratory tone that only intensified in response to successful flights.19 While the astronauts explained their role as the ultimate backup system, ready to take over if the machines were to fail, the press and the public imagined them as American heroes in full control of their fates. As Mercury took center stage, what had been a professional debate among pilots and engineers now became a matter of public interest and cold war politics: just what should the human do in space?

Writer Tom Wolfe's book The Right Stuff and the popular (somewhat fictionalized) movie of the same name captured these tensions surrounding Mercury. Wolfe cast the debate between traditional test pilots like Chuck Yeager who compared riding atop a Redstone rocket to ''spam in a can'' and the hopeful, though uncertain astronauts. ''The difference between pilot and passenger in any flying craft,'' Wolfe recounted, ''came down to one point: control.''20 Wolfe wrote about the macho conflict between the Edwards test-pilot crowd (the men who founded the SETP) and the relative upstarts that would form the team known as the Mercury Seven (none of them SETP members), and how the test pilots gradually saw their glory eclipsed by the huge public response to Mercury. Whatever its limitations, the resonance and public impact of Wolfe's writing testifies to the issue's central place in the cultural image of the program.

Yet as we have seen, Wolfe overemphasized the ''cowboy'' nature of the test pilots and missed the scientific-technical dimension of their professional identities. He saw friction between the pilots, who wanted to fly, and engineers, who focused on automation and technology. But the conflict was not simply between pilots and engineers, but also between groups of pilots and groups of engineers, a clash of cultures with different visions of the human role. Manned spaceflight in America would be a synthesis of these visions, led by one group with a particular background: the Space Task Group.

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