The right stuff

In between press calls, the astronauts underwent intensive training. As well as the survival exercises in water and on land (just in case they made landfall over inhospitable territory), there were lessons in astronomy, space science, and engineering, alongside parachute jumps, parabolic flights to train for weightlessness, and endless simulations. And on top of all this, they had to maintain their flying skills. One thing above all disappointed the astronauts - in the initial plans, the Mercury capsule was so

February 1960

The Mercury Seven study celestial navigation at Morehead Planetarium, North Carolina.

February 1960

The seven begin "water egress training".

1 April 1960

The astronauts complete centrifuge training.

completely automated that it left them with little to do. Despite all their training, it seemed they would be little more than passengers, reduced to hoping that the engineers on the ground had got it right.

Teasing from test-pilot colleagues, and NASA's plans to use chimps in place of astronauts on some test flights, reinforced the feeling, and Deke Slayton was only half joking when he talked about engineers who believed they would have a far simpler job if they "didn't have to worry about the bloody astronaut".

HIGH FLIERS, TOP GUNS

The Mercury Seven assemble for a portrait in front of a Convair F-106 B, one of several high-performance aircraft purchased by NASA for use by the astronauts in maintaining their finely honed flying skills.

July 1960

The seven undergo survival training in the Nevada Desert.

FLYING THE "VOMIT COMET"

A pair of Mercury astronauts enjoy a few seconds of weightlessness in the cabin of a converted C-131 aircraft. The so-called Vomit Comet flew to high altitudes, then dropped on a parabolic flightpoth so that its occupants went into freefall.

Despite the media push for manned spaceflight, there were still many who felt there was no point in sending a man to do a machine's job, including scientists such as James Van Allen and some military strategists. Fortunately for the astronauts, there were also influential believers, such as von Braun and some politicians, who saw the value of spaceflight in shaping their new vision of America.

And so many of Mercury's systems were redesigned to give the pilot more to do. While the entire system was designed to operate automatically or under control from the ground, the astronauts would be able to take control of thrusters to adjust spacecraft altitude and to manually trigger the retro-rocket burn for re-entry.

1 April 1959

The Space Task Group's selection panel chooses seven potential astronauts for the Mercury programme.

-1956

December 1959

The astronauts begin weightless flight training.

1959

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9 April 1959

The Mercury Seven are introduced to the world at a press conference.

27 April 1959

The Mercury astronauts report for duty.

July 1959

Training begins using the I MASTIF gimbal rig.

TECHNOLOGY

NASA'S FIRST MANNED SPACECRAFT

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