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First (and Last) Among Equals: NASA’s Astronauts of ‘62

When the ‘New Nine’ were introduced to the world’s media on 17 September 1962, speculation was rife that one of them would become the first man to set foot on the Moon. As circumstances transpired, three of the group – Neil Armstrong (pictured), Pete Conrad and John Young – accomplished the historic journey to plant their feet in alien soil. Photo Credit: NASA

Fifty years ago, this month, nine men fielded their first press conference at Ellington Air Force Base in Houston, Texas. Air Force test pilots Frank Borman, Jim McDivitt, Tom Stafford and Ed White were joined by naval aviators Charles ‘Pete’ Conrad, Jim Lovell and John Young and a pair of civilians, X-15 pilot Neil Armstrong and General Electric pilot Elliot See. As NASA’s second class of astronaut candidates, it was already widely anticipated by the assembled journalists that one of these men would be the first to set foot on the Moon. As circumstances transpired, a full third of the group would leave their bootprints in lunar soil, whilst two-thirds of them would at least journey into orbit around our closest celestial neighbour. To Deke Slayton, their boss and mentor, they were nothing less than “the best all-around group ever put together”.

Yesterday’s History article highlighted that, whilst astronauts are created equal, some were more equal than others…and yet their positions in line for flight, whether first or last, did not necessarily imply a position of favour or lack thereof with senior managers. Neil Armstrong, of course, was the last member of the group to fly, and ended up commanding the most epochal space voyage of all time. At the opposite extreme, Tom Stafford might have been the first, but was bumped off the Gemini 3 prime crew when his crewmate, Al Shepard, was grounded by an inner-ear ailment. Others, like Ed White, would enjoy stellar careers which ultimately ended in tragedy: reaching the peak of fame as America’s first spacewalker in June 1965 to dying in an inferno, sealed inside the first Apollo command module on the launch pad, just 19 months later. One of the class, Elliot See, would never get the opportunity to glimpse the grandeur of Earth from orbit.

To honour the 50th anniversary of NASA’s selection of ‘the New Nine’, AmericaSpace briefly summarises the careers of these nine remarkable men:

 

John Young, the ninth man to set foot on the Moon and the first person to record as many as six discrete space missions. Photo Credit: NASA

Name: John Watts Young Jr

Date and place of birth: 24 September 1930 in San Francisco, California

Education: Aeronautical engineering degree from Georgia Institute of Technology

Career history:  Served in Korea, performed weapons evaluations for the F-4 jet and set time-to-climb records to 10,000 feet and 80,000 feet

NASA history: Prime pilot of Gemini 3 in March 1965, backup pilot for Gemini 6, prime command pilot of Gemini 10 in July 1966, backup senior pilot for Apollo 7, prime command module pilot for Apollo 10 in May 1969, backup commander for Apollo 13, prime commander for Apollo 16 in April 1972, backup commander for Apollo 17, commander for STS-1 in April 1981 and STS-9 in November 1983 and would have been commander for STS-61J in October 1986, but flight indefinitely postponed by Challenger accident and Young was replaced

Funnies: In the days before Gemini 3, when asked if he was worried about flying with the fiery Gus Grissom, Young replied “Are you kidding? I’d have gone with my mother-in-law!”

Mark on history: First human to fly six space missions

 

Name: James Alton McDivitt

Date and place of birth: 10 June 1929 in Chicago, Illinois

Education: Aeronautical engineering degree from the University of Michigan

Career history: Served in Korea, met Ed White whilst studying at the University of Michigan, was a candidate for selection to fly the X-15, but applied instead for NASA’s astronaut corps

NASA history: Prime command pilot of Gemini 4 in June 1965, backup commander of Apollo 1 in March-November 1966 and prime commander of Apollo 9 in March 1969

Funnies: After four days without washing and the loss of a computer on Gemini 4, McDivitt was asked by flight surgeon Chuck Berry how he felt and what he needed. The response: “I feel darn woolly and I need my computer!”

Mark on history: First Roman Catholic astronaut

 

Jim McDivitt (left) and Ed White prepare for a water survival training exercise in the weeks preceding Gemini 4. Photo Credit: NASA

Name: Edward Higgins White II

Date and place of birth: 14 November 1930 in San Antonio, Texas

Date and place of death: 27 January 1967 in Cape Kennedy, Florida

Education: Degree from the Military Academy at West Point and aeronautical engineering master’s degree from the University of Michigan; served on the West Point track team and narrowly missed (by just 0.4 seconds) selection for the United States’ track team in the 1952 Olympic Games

Career history: Flew F-86 and F-100 jets in Germany as an Air Force pilot at the height of the Cold War, served as a test pilot at Wright-Patterson Air Force Base in Dayton, Ohio, and later flew parabolic missions to prepare the Mercury Seven for weightlessness

NASA history: Prime pilot of Gemini 4 in June 1965, backup command pilot of Gemini 7, prime senior pilot of Apollo 1

Funnies: After four days without washing inside Gemini 4, White did not think there was anything wrong with his slight ‘aroma’. “I thought we smelled fine,” he said. “It was all those people on the aircraft carrier that smelled strange!”

Mark on history: America’s first spacewalker

On Apollo 12, Pete Conrad not only became the third man to walk on the Moon, but the first to perform a precision landing…only a few hundred feet from the unmanned Surveyor 3 probe. Photo Credit: NASA

Name: Charles ‘Pete’ Conrad Jr

Date and place of birth: 2 June 1930 in Philadelphia, Pennsylvania

Date and place of death: 8 July 1999 in Ojai, California

Education: Degree in aeronautical engineering from Princeton University

Career history: Flew F-9 fighters for the Navy, before admission into test pilot school and considered as a finalist for the Project Mercury selection in April 1959

NASA history: Prime pilot of Gemini 5 in August 1965, backup command pilot of Gemini 8, prime command pilot of Gemini 11 in September 1966, backup commander of Apollo 9, prime commander of Apollo 12 in November 1969 and prime commander of Skylab 2 in May-June 1973

Funnies: As a four-year-old boy, Conrad once found the keys to his father’s Chrysler and reversed it off the drive

Mark on history: Flew the highest-altitude, non-lunar mission of all time (Gemini 11)

 

Name: Frank Frederick Borman II

Date and place of birth: 14 March 1928 in Gary, Indiana

Education: Degree from the Military Academy at West Point and a master’s degree in aeronautical engineering from California Institute of Technology

Career history: Served as an Air Force fighter pilot in the Phillippines, qualified as a test pilot and held positions as an assistant professor of thermodynamics and fluid dynamics at the Military Academy

NASA history: Backup command pilot for Gemini 4, prime command pilot for Gemini 7, prime commander for Apollo 8 in December 1968

Funnies: Originally assigned as Gus Grissom’s pilot on the Gemini 3 backup crew, it was feared that the two men’s headstrong natures made them incompatible. One evening, Borman went to Grissom’s house to discuss the assignment…”and after that I was scrubbed from the flight!”

Mark on history: Commanded the first manned voyage to the Moon

Gemini 7 prime crew members Frank Borman (right) and Jim Lovell (centre) undergo a pre-flight physical check. Photo Credit: NASA

 

Name: James Arthur Lovell Jr

Date and place of birth: 28 March 1928 in Cleveland, Ohio

Education: Degree from the Naval Academy at Annapolis

Career history: Flew F-2H jets over the Sea of Japan during the Korean War and graduated from Naval Test Pilot School as first in class, surpassing classmates Wally Schirra and Pete Conrad, and was considered as a candidate for Project Mercury, but rejected following a minor liver ailment

NASA history: Backup pilot of Gemini 4, prime pilot of Gemini 7 in December 1965, backup command pilot of Gemini 9, prime command pilot of Gemini 12 in November 1966, prime senior pilot of Apollo 8 in December 1968, backup commander of Apollo 11 and prime commander of Apollo 13 in April 1970

Funnies: As a fighter pilot, flying the F-2H Banshee jet off the carrier Shangri-La in the Sea of Japan during the Korean conflict, Lovell was once involved in a night mission…when all of his instruments suddenly shorted out and plunged the cockpit into darkness. He used the phosphorescent algae, churned up in the carrier’s wake, to guide him home. His first act upon setting foot on deck: to down a small bottle of brandy in a single gulp!

Mark on history: First human being to travel twice to the Moon

 

Tom Stafford (centre) and crewmates John Young (right) and Gene Cernan (left) undergo training in the months before Apollo 10. Photo Credit: NASA

Name: Thomas Patten Stafford Jr

Date and place of birth: 17 September 1930 in Weatherford, Oklahoma

Education: Degree from the Naval Academy and was selected for Harvard Business School, when he learned of his admission into NASA’s astronaut corps

Career history: Served with John Young aboard the USS Missouri, flew F-86 and F-100 jets, graduated first in class from the Air Force’s Test Pilot School and co-authored two manuals on high-performance flight testing

Missions: Backup pilot of Gemini 3, prime pilot of Gemini 6 in December 1965, prime command pilot of Gemini 9 in June 1966, backup commander of Apollo 7, prime commander of Apollo 10 in May 1969 and prime commander of the US portion of the Apollo-Soyuz Test Project in July 1975

Funnies: As a child, Stafford was admittedly involved in a few scrapes. He admitted to shooting out streetlights with a BB gun, throwing a firecracker into a police station…and often ended up painting the fence, “like Tom Sawyer”, as a punishment.

Mark on history: Commanded the American half of the world’s first joint space mission between two nations

 

Pictured in the lunar module Eagle, shortly after his historic Moonwalk, Neil Armstrong would gain eternal fame which will endure through the ages. Photo Credit: NASA

Name: Neil Alden Armstrong

Date and place of birth: 5 August 1930 in Wapakoneta, Ohio

Date and place of death: 25 August 2012 in Cincinnati, Ohio

Education: Degree in aeronautical engineering from Purdue University

Career history: Flew combat missions in Korea, served as a civilian pilot for the National Advisory Committee on Aeronautics, flew chase on experimental aircraft drop tests and was selected for the Man In Space Soonest project, flew the X-1 and X-15 aircraft and was a candidate for Dyna-Soar

NASA history: Backup command pilot for Gemini 5, prime command pilot for Gemini 8, backup command pilot for Gemini 11, backup commander for Apollo 8 and prime commander for Apollo 11

Funnies: After missing death by seconds in the crash of a Lunar Landing Training Vehicle in May 1968, Armstrong nursed a lacerated tongue and went back to work in his office.

Mark on history: First human being to set foot on the Moon

 

Pictured during training as backup pilot for Gemini 5 in July 1965, Elliot See was the only member of the New Nine who did not reach space. Photo Credit: NASA

Name: Elliot McKay See Jr

Date and place of birth: 23 July 1927 in Dallas, Texas

Date and place of death: 28 February 1966 in St Louis, Missouri

Education: Degree from the US Merchant Marine Academy and a master’s degree in engineering from the University of California at Los Angeles

Career history: Served as a naval aviator and worked as a civilian flight test engineer, group leader and experimental test pilot for General Electric, flying the F-4 jet

NASA history: Backup pilot for Gemini 5 and would have been prime commander for Gemini 9, but killed weeks before launch and replaced by Tom Stafford

Funnies: As backup pilot for Gemini 5, See frequently occupied the Capcom’s console in Mission Control and was required to ‘translate’ astronauts Gordo Cooper and Pete Conrad’s somewhat cryptic messages. For example, Conrad’s call of “Sorry, Gordo can’t come to the phone right now, as he’s busy” was translated by See as “Gordo has diarrhoea and is presently wiping himself up!”

Mark on history: Only Merchant Marine ever selected for astronaut training

 

This is part of a series of History articles which will appear each weekend, barring any major news stories. Next week’s article will focus on the 50th anniversary of Sigma 7, America’s third manned voyage into Earth orbit in October 1962.

 

Missions » Apollo »

3 comments to First (and Last) Among Equals: NASA’s Astronauts of ‘62

  • JohnDB

    I love that these articles always have a few new nuggets of info. Never knew that Cooper had (ahem) digestive distress on GT-5, or about Borman’s removal from Grissom’s crew. Thanks for a fine pair of articles this weekend, Mr. Evans.

  • Ben Evans

    Thanks John. The Borman-Grissom info came from Slayton’s autobiography, Deke, and from Borman´s own oral history. Doolan and Burgess´ FALLEN ASTRONAUTS is a great source for info on Elliot See. Thanks again. Ben

  • Clayton Llewellyn

    Hello,

    My name is Clayton Llewellyn and I am a Technical Operations Manager for USAIRWAYS; Elliot See is my Uncle and I so enjoy reading about his history as an Airman/Astronaut. I am trying to find a model of the launch vehical Elliot would have commanded so I can put it in my office; any help with this would be greatly appreciated.

    Also, my Aunt Marilyn (Elliots Wife)has a photo of Uncle Elliot with the launch vehical but I can’t seem to locate a copy of it either; again any help would be greatly appreciated.

    Regards

    Clay