Over 52 years ago, in the early hours of May 5th, 1961 the US prepared to launch its first man into space. Three weeks earlier, the Soviet Union had sent Yuri Gagarin on an orbital mission. This was a suborbital mission planed to last only 15 minutes. For the moment that did not matter, the entire nation held its breath while Alan Shepard became America’s first man in space.
“Who can say what contraption the future will bring?
There can be not a doubt, some more wonderful thing.
And if anyone ventures the future to scan,
Why indeed should it not be your old Weather Man?
Have you noticed how often in times that are past
We have used new inventions to improve the forecast?
Television is coming, it is not far away;
We’ll be using that too in a not distant day.
Photographs will be made by the infra red light
That will show us the clouds both by day and by night.
From an altitude high in the clear stratosphere
Will come pictures of storms raging far if not near
Revealing in detail across many States
The conditions of weather affecting our fates….” By George Mindling (Weather Bureau), 1939
“The designers made the Little Joe booster assembly to approximate the same performance that the Army’s Redstone booster would have with the capsule payload. But in addition to being flexible enough to perform a variety of missions, Little Joe could be made for about one-fifth the basic cost of the Redstone, would have much lower operating costs, and could be developed and delivered with much less time and effort. And, unlike the larger launch vehicles, Little Joe could be shot from the existing facilities at Wallops Island.”
On April 1, 1959, Robert Gilruth, the head of the Space Task Group, Charles Donlan, Warren North, and Stanley White selected the first American astronauts. The “Mercury Seven” were Scott Carpenter, L. Gordon Cooper, Jr., John H. Glenn, Jr., Virgil I. “Gus” Grissom, Walter M. Schirra, Jr., Alan B. Shepard, Jr., and Donald K. “Deke” Slayton.
Candidates were given continuous psychiatric interviews throughout the week, and extensive self-examination through a battery of 13 psychological tests for personality and motivation, and another dozen different tests on intellectual functions and special aptitudes–these were all part of the Week of Truth at Dayton.
Two of the more interesting personality and motivation studies seemed like parlor games at first, until it became evident how profound an exercise in Socratic introspection was implied by conscientious answers to the test questions “Who am I?” and “Whom would you assign to the mission if you could not go yourself?” In the first case, by requiring the subject to write down 20 definitional identifications of himself, ranked in order of significance, and interpreted protectively, the psychologists elicited information on identity and perception of social roles. In the peer ratings, each candidate was asked which of the other members of the group of five accompanying him through this phase of the program he liked best, which one he would like to accompany him on a two-man mission, and whom he would substitute for himself. Candidates who had proceeded this far in the selection process all agreed with one who complained, “Nothing is sacred any more.”
In late March, 1958, President Eisenhower publicly announced the United States’ intention to launch a spacecraft to the Moon. He assured the nation that this was not science fiction. It was an achievable goal presented by leading scientists. The announcement came less than 2 months after the first US satellite had reached orbit. The President was committing the nation to a space race to the moon with the Soviets. If all went well the country would have a spacecraft in orbit around the moon before the summer was over.