Requirements for astronaut selection the NASA approach

In November 1958, a month after the civilian space agency NASA had been formed, planning to select the first candidates for the Mercury programme began. The first decision to be made concerned the type of candidate that would be most suitable. Experience gained in the manned rocket aircraft research programme, high-altitude balloon and parachute descent projects, and a variety of research by the USAF into aerospace medicine, had defined a number of parameters with regard to the stresses and strains of high-speed flight and deceleration. At the Space Task Group headquarters in the Langley Research Center, Virginia, meetings between the space agency, the military and industry resulted in a selection process that would propose 150 men, from which thirty-six would be chosen for physiological and physical testing. From these, a group of twelve would participate in a nine-month training and evaluation programme, at the end of which six (in the event, seven) would be selected to make flights aboard the Mercury spacecraft.7

The Mercury spacecraft was capable of completing a limited and pre-programmed mission on a totally automated basis, but due to the unproven reliability of automated systems over prolonged operations, it also included a totally manual capability. This would allow the astronaut to take over manual control if required and also give him the capability of participating in all aspects of the flight to expand its test and operational envelope. This meant an "active piloting capability'' over a totally automated flight programme, and helped the astronauts argue for pilot control of the spacecraft, as they would if they were flying an aircraft. Despite jibes from the test piloting community at Edwards AFB in California (where the rocket research programme was being directed) and media cartoons and tongue-in-cheek comments about them following monkeys into space, the astronauts would provide active input into the development of the spacecraft and its mission during their training and preparations for flight, thus rebuffing the sarcastic theory that they would be just "spam in a can''.

With a piloting capability for the vehicle, it was logical that any candidate should have already demonstrated similar capabilities in their career. In fact, the Mercury mission plans identified several tasks that the "astronaut" would have to be capable of performing, including sequence monitoring, systems management, attitude control, and research observations. In addition to these, they would have to be physically fit enough to endure various stressful conditions. As a result, it was decided early in the process that only males between the ages of 25 and 35 (later raised to 39 because too few applicants could meet the other requirements) should be considered, due to the expected high physical stresses that would be encountered during the flight. Equally restricting was the design of the spacecraft, which was limited by the capabilities of the Atlas and Redstone ballistic missile launch vehicles and meant that the applicants could be no taller than 180 cm (5 feet 11 inches).

Further, the candidates considered for astronaut selection in the Mercury programme had to possess a good knowledge of engineering and of operational procedures found typically in aircraft or missiles, and a high degree of intelligence and psychomotor skills that were similar to those required to fly high-performance aircraft. They had to demonstrate an above-average tolerance to stress and an ability to make decisions and to work with others, showing both emotional maturity and a strong motivation towards team objectives. A clean medical record was essential, along with a tolerance for physiological stress. Although a high educational degree was not required (few pilots had attained one), the very nature of the programme in investigating new fields of science, engineering and technology meant that the candidates had to demonstrate sound general scientific knowledge and research skills.

Using US government employment procedures, the selection was based on the technical requirements of the Mercury programme and the applicant's personal qualifications and experiences, so it was not possible to identify ethnic origin or gender. However, in the 1950s, there were very few black or female jet pilots, let alone test pilots.

An aeromedical team, comprising leading air force medical officials and representatives from the Space Task Group, NASA Headquarters and the Special Committee on Life Sciences, established a list of duties that the astronaut might be expected to perform during the mission. Principally, he had to be able to survive and return (always useful!) and to clearly demonstrate man's capability to be launched into space by rocket. He would need to withstand the crushing acceleration forces associated with lift-off, fly in orbit and perform simple tasks under the potentially disorientating conditions of weightlessness. He would also function as the back-up to the automated systems, offering further redundancy for mission safety and success and, drawing upon his previous talents, operate as an engineering observer, "as well as a true test pilot to improve flight systems and its components." A significant inclusion was that the astronaut must be able "to serve as the scientific observer ... to go beyond what instruments and satellites can observe and report."

The next task was to identify from where such experience could be obtained. The categories considered by the Space Task Group were aircraft pilots, balloonists, submariners, deep sea divers, scuba divers, mountain climbers, Arctic and Antarctic explorers, flight surgeons and scientists (including physicists, astronomers and meteorologists).8 Candidates with flying experience were considered, as were those with three years' work in appropriate sciences, holders of a PhD or medical degree, or those who could demonstrate three years' experience as an aircraft, balloon or submarine commander, pilot, navigator or communication officer, plus engineers or those with comparable technical positions. All this demonstrated the desire to

America's Mercury astronauts. From left, in their standard "CCGGSSS" alphabetical order: Navy Lt. M. Scott Carpenter, USAF Capt. L. Gordon Cooper, Jr., Marine Lt. Col. John H. Glenn, Jr., USAF Capt. Virgil I. (Gus) Grissom, Navy Lt. Cdr. Walter M. Schirra, Jr., Navy Lt. Cdr. Alan B. Shepard, Jr., USAF Capt. Donald (Deke) Slayton.

America's Mercury astronauts. From left, in their standard "CCGGSSS" alphabetical order: Navy Lt. M. Scott Carpenter, USAF Capt. L. Gordon Cooper, Jr., Marine Lt. Col. John H. Glenn, Jr., USAF Capt. Virgil I. (Gus) Grissom, Navy Lt. Cdr. Walter M. Schirra, Jr., Navy Lt. Cdr. Alan B. Shepard, Jr., USAF Capt. Donald (Deke) Slayton.

offer the chance of flying into space to the broadest, yet most qualified range of individuals available. However, time constraints imposed by the programme meant that a protracted selection process was impractical, and the selection board reasoned that test pilots would already meet most of the criteria, particularly graduates of the USAF or Navy test pilot schools.

Their reasoning was sound: the test pilot group would be already familiar with stress levels, forces of acceleration and deceleration, reduction of pressure, vertigo, and other flying phenomena on a daily basis. They would be familiar with partial or full pressure suits, and have training for (or experience in) emergency situations, parachute training, and in some cases, combat situations. Being military pilots, their education and security clearance would already be appropriate, while retaining their active flight status required mandatory regular physical examinations and sustained good health. In December 1958, in a meeting with President Eisenhower, the idea of restricting the selection of the nation's first astronauts to military test pilots was suggested, which went against the president's push for a "civilian space agency''. However, Eisenhower agreed. Years later, Dr. Robert Gilruth, Director of the Space Task Group and subsequently first Director of the Manned (Johnson) Spacecraft Center, admitted that the decision to recruit military test pilots was one of the best that Eisenhower ever made. Test pilots already screened for security (in a programme where certain national and defence "secrets" would be part of their daily working environment) favoured neither a purely military nor solely civilian space programme, but a blend of both.

The final selection process for the first group of NASA astronauts is beyond the scope and direction of this book, but once the decision was made to restrict selection to military pilot astronauts, any possibility of considering candidates with a principally scientific background was quietly abandoned. The section of the first seven Mercury astronauts in April 1959, the subsequent media coverage, and their spellbinding exploits, quickly gave rise to the sublime myth of "the astronaut programme.'' Extending the test piloting "Right Stuff'' beyond the atmosphere, the professional elite of the flying profession - the test pilots - also supported the pioneering notion of the early manned flights into space, testing the prototype vehicle so that later spacecraft could fully explore the new environment.

With the development of the Gemini programme to gain operational experience of techniques in preparation for the Apollo programme, the criteria of group selections in 1962,1963 and 1966 were influenced by flying credentials rather than scientific capabilities, underlining the "testing" nature of the programme. This persisted for the initial missions leading up to and achieving the first landing on the Moon. Even in the parallel military programme, piloting skills were paramount in the selection of crew members for the rocket research planes, such as the X-20 and the USAF Manned Orbiting Laboratory (MOL) programme. When that programme was cancelled in 1969 without any manned flights taking place, the MOL astronauts who transferred to NASA primarily had a flying career background, not one involving research or experimentation. The exception was Don Peterson, who had gained a Master's degree in nuclear engineering before working towards a PhD. In the USAF, he had served as a nuclear systems analyst as well as being a pilot.

It would require a change of policy in both NASA and the government to allow the selection of more scientifically-trained astronaut candidates, rather than applying the standard military piloting criterion, which was also somewhat governed by the environment of the "Cold War''.

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