Fifty years ago, Project Mercury – the United States’ effort to place a man into orbit around Earth – had accomplished its primary objective and was winding down towards its conclusion. At the same time, two successor groups of missions, Gemini and Apollo, were gearing up to deliver on President John Kennedy’s pledge of American boots on the Moon before the end of the 1960s. With a crew of two aboard each of the ten scheduled Gemini flights and crews of three aboard each Apollo mission, the paltry ‘Original Seven’ astronauts selected by NASA in April 1959 would be woefully insufficient to support the needs of the grandest endeavour in science and engineering in history. Fifty years ago, this month, nine new men – the ‘New Nine’ – were selected in anticipation of a massive increase in spaceflight opportunities. Their names are a veritable who’s who of the most famous names in early space exploration and they were described by Deke Slayton, their boss and mentor, as perhaps the finest all-round astronaut class ever selected.
Their selection was one of the primary goals of Deke Slayton, an unflown member of the Mercury Seven. Since the summer of 1962, he had served as NASA’s co-ordinator of astronaut activities and would later become head of Flight Crew Operations, determining not only the selection of new candidates, but also the fundamental make-up of each spacegoing crew. Since the Gemini spacecraft would be bigger than Mercury, Slayton devised his own set of selection criteria for the next group of astronauts, increasing the height limit and changing the age restriction. “One thing that got tougher,” he wrote in his autobiography, Deke, “was that we dropped the maximum age from 40 to 35. In Mercury, we were looking at a programme that would conclude in three years. We knew that Apollo would be going until 1970 at the very least.” Moreover, Slayton insisted on receiving letters of recommendation from each candidate’s last employer.
In April 1962, a formal announcement of NASA’s intent to select astronauts was issued and 253 applications were received by the closing date of 1 June. (A week later, a late application from an outstanding civilian test pilot named Neil Alden Armstrong arrived and was quietly slipped into the pile.) A series of gruelling medical tests at Brooks Air Force Base in San Antonio, Texas, winnowed the names down to 33 finalists, who were interviewed by Slayton, Al Shepard and NASA test pilot Warren North at the Manned Spacecraft Center (MSC) in Houston. In Deke, Slayton wrote that he could have turned to the finalists from the Mercury Seven selection – which included Jim Lovell and Charles ‘Pete’ Conrad – to make his choices, but did not do so. Years later, he expressed gladness over his decision. “That second group,” he explained, “is probably the best all-around group ever put together.”
By September 1962, nine men were settled upon for selection into the world’s most elite flying fraternity and on the 17th they assembled in Houston for their first press conference at Ellington Air Force Base. In response to complaints from some journalists over the exclusive rights of Life magazine over the Mercury Seven’s personal stories, NASA had already issued a news release on the 16th to assure “equal access by all news media” and revealed that “specific guidelines were spelled out covering the sale by the astronauts of stories of their personal experiences…[with] sharp prohibitions against such stories containing…official information concerning the astronauts’ training or flight activities not previously available to the public”. Future missions, the release added, would benefit from a post-flight press conference, in which all accredited members of the media would have the opportunity to question the astronauts in depth. Privately, and in response to the business deals made by several of the Mercury Seven with the proceeds from their lucrative Life contracts, Slayton told the new astronauts that, with regard to gratuities, they should follow the old test pilot’s creed: “Anything you can eat, drink or screw within 24 hours is perfectly acceptable!”
Many of the new astronauts – who came to be known as ‘the New Nine’ – were, however, far more interested in which of them would be first to walk on the Moon. As circumstances transpired, a third of their number would do just that, whilst two-thirds of them would reach lunar orbit. Neil Armstrong would be first to tread the Moon’s dusty surface, Frank Borman would command the first expedition to lunar orbit, Pete Conrad would save America’s first space station, Jim Lovell would lead the dramatic Apollo 13 mission, Jim McDivitt and Tom Stafford would clear key hurdles on the road to meeting Kennedy’s deadline, Ed White would perform America’s first EVA, John Young would fly Gemini, Apollo and the Shuttle…and poor Elliot See would lose his chance in a fatal jet crash.
The New Nine included four Air Force officers (Borman, McDivitt, Stafford and White), three naval aviators (Conrad, Lovell and Young) and two civilians (Armstrong and See). At least two of them almost made the cut for Project Mercury, but Lovell was dropped following the detection of a minor liver ailment, whilst Conrad – according to Deke Slayton – had shown “a little too much independence when it came to some of the medical tests”. (On one of these, Conrad had been shown a Rorschach card and asked what he could see. Convinced that the psychologists were looking for evidence of male virility, he made sure that he saw a vagina in each card…) Of the others, John Young was still at Naval Test Pilot School at the time of the Mercury selection, whilst Tom Stafford had been an inch too tall for admission.
One of the New Nine’s first activities was to travel to Cape Canaveral and witness the launch of Wally Schirra and Sigma 7 on 3 October 1962. They were pounced upon by the media, who knew that one of them would most likely be the first to set foot on the lunar surface, and were frequently forced onto the circuit of cocktail parties, signed many autographs and met countless officials and dignitaries. In January 1963, under the tutelage of planetary scientist Gene Shoemaker, they visited a meteor crater outside Flagstaff, Arizona, observed the Moon and examined lava flows.
After the completion of their basic science training, the New Nine was integrated with the Mercury Seven to form a 16-man unit, which, in June 1963, spent a week at the Caribbean Air Command Tropic Survival School at Albrook Air Force Base in the Panama Canal Zone. In addition to jungle-survival training, they focused on the identification and toxicity of tropical plants, their methods of preparation, local fauna and even interaction with indigenous people, all of which could someday prove essential in the event of an unhappy landing from a space mission. Three months later, at the Naval School of Pre-Flight at Naval Air Station Pensacola in Florida, they underwent water-survival training, including underwater egress, escaping from a dragging parachute, boarding a life raft and learning flotation techniques in a Gemini space suit.
The Nine also received their own technical assignments: Borman monitoring the development of the Titan II rocket, McDivitt handling spacecraft guidance and control, Young overseeing the Gemini pressure suits, Armstrong the simulators, Conrad the cockpit displays, See the electrical systems, White the flight controls, Stafford the range safety and communications and Lovell the re-entry and recovery techniques. Deke Slayton assigned veteran astronaut Gus Grissom, already working on Gemini, to supervise their work. “They’re all talented,” Grissom admitted. “In fact, when one of them comes up with an answer for some problem, I think they are a lot smarter than our original group of seven.”
Additionally, the Nine kept up their flying proficiency in high-performance aircraft, thanks to NASA’s fleet of T-33s and F-102s, although plans were in the pipeline to upgrade to either the Air Force’s T-38 or the Navy’s F-4. Despite the objections of some in the corps, who felt the Mach 2-capable F-4 was the better choice and a ‘hotter’ jet, its complexity and expense of maintenance ultimately led NASA to opt for the T-38. It is a training aircraft still used by astronauts today.
Nine equal astronaut candidates were selected in September 1962, but as Deke Slayton admitted in his autobiography, “some are more equal than others”. Certainly, when the time came to select members of the new class to fly missions, Slayton knew which ones carried the greatest potential to deliver. The first four Gemini missions would be essential in demonstrating the new spacecraft’s capabilities (Gemini 3), flying a record-breaking seven days (Gemini 4), flying a rendezvous (Gemini 5) and pushing the envelope with a full-lunar-duration mission (Gemini 6). In his internal planning, Slayton assigned Al Shepard and Tom Stafford to Gemini 3, Jim McDivitt and Ed White to Gemini 4, Wally Schirra and John Young to Gemini 5 and Gus Grissom and Frank Borman to Gemini 6.
Circumstances changed almost immediately. The Agena target vehicle, needed for the rendezvous mission, would not be ready in time for Gemini 5 and was pushed back to Gemini 6. In response to this change, Schirra and Young were jostled into position as the new Gemini 3 backups and their places on Gemini 5 were taken instead by Grissom and Borman. However, interpersonal relationships had an important part to play. In his biography of Grissom, Ray Boomhower cited fellow astronaut Gene Cernan as once commenting that the egos of Grissom and Borman were too large to fit the same flight – both men were strong-headed leaders – and in the end they were separated. In his NASA oral history, Borman acquiesced that he “went over to [Grissom’s] house to talk to him about it…and after that I was scrubbed from the flight”.
Fate had its own card to play when Al Shepard was struck down by an inner-ear disease and in April 1964 he was replaced by Gus Grissom. Deke Slayton considered John Young to be a better personality fit with Grissom and named him as Gemini 3’s new pilot, replacing Tom Stafford. Of course, Slayton had nothing against Stafford and revealed in his autobiography that “Tom was probably our strongest guy in rendezvous” and this prompted him to move the astronaut to the pilot’s seat on Gemini 6, now scheduled to fly the first rendezvous with the Agena. Aboard Gemini 6, Stafford would be joined by command pilot Wally Schirra, who had expressed no interest in flying a long-duration mission and for whom a complex rendezvous flight seemed more suitable.
As for Borman, he received his own command. Paired with Jim Lovell, the men firstly backed-up McDivitt and White on Gemini 4 and would then be recycled as the prime crew of Gemini 7, which would attempt the 14-day record duration. With the departure of Grissom and Borman from consideration for Gemini 5, Slayton assigned Gordon Cooper – who had flown America’s then-longest space mission in May 1963 – and Pete Conrad, with Neil Armstrong and Elliot See as their backups. In the absence of an Agena, Gemini 5 evolved into an endurance mission, lasting up to eight days. Judging from the arrangement of crews during this period, several astronauts were earmarked for command from an early stage and to this day McDivitt, Borman and Armstrong represent three of only five Americans in history to have commanded their very first orbital space missions. Yet all nine of them would become intimately involved in the most pivotal era of exploration and scientific discovery in human history.
Tomorrow’s article will briefly summarise the careers of each of the New Nine.