The Competition to Become the First American in Space
Who was the first American in Space?
On April 9, 1959, NASA introduced seven astronauts selected for the upcoming manned Mercury spaceflights. The pilots, drawn from the U.S. Air Force, Navy and Marine Corps, included: Malcolm Scott Carpenter; Leroy G. "Gordo" Cooper; John Glenn; Virgil I. "Gus" Grissom; Walter ‘Wally" Schirra; Alan B. Shepard, Jr.; and Donald K. "Deke" Slayton.
The Mercury Seven
The men had already been through an intense competition. America's 110 active test pilots had been invited to apply for Project Mercury. Officials had put more than 30 of them through a battery of tests to determine the best candidates.
Now the real competition began. Whoever was selected for the maiden flight would become the first American in space and, quite possibly, the first man in space. Two years of intensive training and tests followed as the engineers prepared their rockets and spacecraft to fly.
Many in the American press believed that Glenn would be the first man in space. He was the most accessible and quotable of the astronauts, and he came across as a church-going, all-American hero.
Things were different behind the scenes. Just before Christmas 1960, the astronaut's boss, Bob Gilruth, called a meeting of the astronauts. He asked them to write down on a piece of paper who, other than themselves, should be the first American in space.
On Jan. 19, 1961, Gilruth announced his selection: Shepard would be the first man in space, Grissom second, and Glenn would serve as backup to both astronauts. The decision was based on the peer vote as well a set of objective criteria, including how each man had performed in the Mercury simulator.
It was a great triumph for Shepard and a bitter disappointment for Glenn and his fellow astronauts. The decision was kept secret, leaving the impression that Glenn was still in the running to become the first American in space.
Before Shepard could fly, a monkey would test out the Redstone rocket and Mercury capsule. A chimpanzee named Ham blasted off from Cape Canaveral on a suborbital mission on Jan. 31, 1961. The Redstone malfunctioned, subjecting Ham to 17 times the force of gravity. The Mercury capsule depressurized in flight; Ham's pressure suit saved his life. The capsule landed 130 miles from its intended target and suffered serious damage. Ham nearly drowned in the leaking spacecraft before he was rescued.
Shepard believed the problems were minor technical glitches that could be easily fixed. He was ready to become the first American in space. However, Wernher von Braun insisted upon another unmanned test. The March 24 flight went perfectly, and Shepard's mission was scheduled for April 25.
Shepard still had a chance to be the first man in space. But, then fate intervened. On April 12, Soviet cosmonaut Yuri Gagarin completed a single orbit around the Earth aboard Vostok 1. Shepard was furious at von Braun over the additional test flight.
Shepard got his chance to fly on May 5. The flight went perfectly as he became the first American astronaut in space during a 15-minute suborbital ride. Shepard returned to a hero's welcome, having gotten America back into the Space Race and salvaged his nation's wounded pride.
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