50th Anniversary of NASA’s First Astronauts

Article written: 6 Apr , 2009
Updated: 24 Dec , 2015
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This week marks the 50th anniversary of the “Mercury Seven;” NASA’s first seven astronauts. On April 9, 1959 NASA held a press conference in Washington, DC to introduce the men — Gus Grissom, Alan Shephard, Scott Carpenter, Wally Schirra, Deke Slayton, John Glenn and Gordon Cooper. They would become household names in the US and media sensations. “I can’t believe it’s been that long,” John Glenn said in an interview with an Ohio newspaper, the Zanesville Times Recorder. “The experience back then of being selected and participating in the early flights is so vivid to me, it seems like this all happened a couple of weeks ago.

NASA has created a very cool interactive feature to celebrate this 50th anniversary, including an interactive “press conference,” a transcript and video clips of the original press conference, and a gallery of pictures.


The Mercury flights proved than humans could survive in space, and paved the way for the Gemini and Apollo flights.

“The early flights got so much attention because they were open to the world, they were not secrets,” Glenn said. “When the Soviets sent up Gagarin, the data and information was secret. We had international press at the Cape (Canaveral) for the launch, and the Soviets hadn’t had that; it wasn’t permitted. President Eisenhower decided he wanted the program open for the whole world; he said we were going to succeed or fail with the world watching, and I think that was a good decision.”

For further information about each of the six Mercury missions, see our Mercury section in Universe Today’s Guide to Space.


13 Responses

  1. star grazer says

    50 Years, amazing. The world is so different today. I many ways, it is better, in some ways, it is not so good. Anyone who longs for the so called ‘good old days’ forgets there was fear of diseses that can kill and did not know what to do about it,there was much improvement on medical reseach that bettered their lifes, and 50 years ago was a very dangerous world. It is dangerous today, but in a different way. I don’t long for the world 50 years ago as we now know so much about the Universe and other things created that improved most peoples way of life. The next 50 years in space research and exploration will be exciting, and the fallout from the reseach will better humans if they so choose.

  2. Astrofiend says

    These guys were classic – all they did was smash the booze and get laid. There are some funny accounts of it. Then they got to go into space! BEST-JOB-EVER!

  3. star grazer says

    Astrofiend Says:
    The stories were quite humorous,at the time woman was still considered 2nd class, and woman doctors served coffee to them!
    I don’t think that will happen today! Lol

  4. I believe that the Thunderbirds were named after these guys: Alan, Scott, Virgil (Grissom), John and Gordon. Why didn’t Wally and Deke get a guernsey?

  5. marcellus says

    I had a Sting-ray bike, a paper route, a little Jason refractor telescope and a transistor radio back then.

    I had it made.

  6. marcellus says

    I had a Sting-ray bike, a paper route, a little Jason refractor telescope and a transistor radio back then that I listen to the space launches.

    I had it made.

  7. jim dameron says

    They are not the first astronauts….there was a secret military program with 32 or 33 ? Guys before and during and now? Yes …however they have the equivalent mojo and are amongst my heros

  8. guillermo says

    the “video footage” is great. the astronauts are smoking… everybody is smoking!

  9. BrianV says

    Those were the days… a different time for sure.

    Manned spaceflight hasn’t come that far since then, moon landings excepted.

    But unmanned space exploration has made astonishing leaps in the last 50 years. We’ve visited all the planets, some many times, and spacecraft have left the solar system.

    I guess unmanned remains the way of the future, except for a few brave souls (and soon-to-be tourists) in low Earth orbit.

  10. carl the engineer says

    It would be nice to get some of the same adulation heaped on the astronauts given to the engineers who put them there, folks live Max Faget and Von Braun, etc. Not to take anything away from these brave fellows, but frankly, they would never have received any of their fame without the hard word and genius of the engineering and science community. Let’s give engineering its due too. Then perhaps we might get a few more Gen Y and Gen Z folks striving for careers in Aerospace Engineering instead of wanting to be American Idols.

  11. huygens says

    I love the fact that one of the first questions the reporters asked the Mercury astronauts was how many of them smoked and if they could handle not being able to smoke during the time they were in space!

    I miss those days. We dreamed big and we lived big. People today are wimps by comparison.

    Oh, but you have iPods, my bad.

  12. When We Left Earth is the best documentary I’ve seen on these guys.

  13. jason says

    wow… the video of the press conference is great… everyone is smoking, and the question about the wives shows an entirely different mentality than today.

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