Wednesday, November 17, 2010

Inches of Mercury


Pawing through NASA's image archives is one of the great joys of my life, and not just because they never copyright anything. While that makes my blogging life easier than say, celebrity stalkers, I'm pretty sure I would pay for the privilege even if it wasn't free.

I recently ran across perhaps the most interesting photograph I had ever seen of any astronauts, anywhere. Oh, we've seen astronauts in simulators, astronauts in neutral buoyancy labs, astronauts golfing on the moon, and all other manner of oddities... but have you ever seen a bunch of astronauts in their underwear with parachute veils??

NASA Mercury Seven
The Mercury 7 in training in 1960

Left to right: Gordon Cooper, Scott Carpenter, John Glenn, Alan Shepard, Virgil "Gus" Grissom, Walter Schirra and Donald "Deke" Slayton.

Hmm, I don't remember seeing this scene in The Right Stuff. However, in 1960, the seven men selected to be America's first astronauts had to undergo (among many other trials that were depicted in the film) hostile-environment survival training. Each was left at a remote location in the Nevada desert near Stead Air Force Base (operational 1942-1966) for four days with a mock-up of a Mercury spacecraft, a parachute and a different survival scenario.

The idea, of course, was to prepare the men to survive in the event of an emergency landing in the wilderness, due to the [albeit unlikely] possibility that they could land in an unpopulated area of Africa or South America. During this training, Deke Slayton would later write, "We learned how to protect [ourselves] from the sun, how to utilize a limited water supply, and to build clothing and shelter from the parachutes."

Mercury 7 Crew
The official press portrait was a bit more spiffy...

But wow, would you trust these clowns to babysit if they knocked on the door? I wouldn't. In a fascinating twist, they actually pulled off all the goals of Project Mercury: Orbit a manned spacecraft around Earth, investigate man's ability to function in space, and recover both men and spacecrafts safely back on the planet.

And if this looks scary, check out this history page to see their egress water training… yikes! Also included are interesting tidbits about academic training, flight training, static training, dynamic training, weightless training, mission training, preparatory simulation training… I'm getting exhausted just thinking about it.

I also found a great list of each of the astronauts "specializations" that I had never seen before, and I enjoyed examining this old record:

Mercury Seven Crew Specializations