On This Day: Nasa reveals America’s first seven astronauts

Alan Shepard, Gordon Cooper, John Glenn, Scott Carpenter, Gus Grissom, Wally Schirra and Deke Slayton were all military test pilots

APRIL 9, 1959: America revealed its first seven astronauts on this day in 1959 – two years after entering the Space Race.

Alan Shepard, Gordon Cooper, John Glenn, Scott Carpenter, Gus Grissom, Wally Schirra and Deke Slayton were all military test pilots.

It was hoped that one of these men, who had been selected from a group of 32 flying aces following a series of gruelling tests, would become the first man in space.

A News of the Day newsreel filmed these men – dubbed the Mercury Seven - in space suits training in a device that simulated weightlessness.

They were later shown wearing suits as while carrying out other tasks – such as climbing out of a mock capsule – to an excited press at Langley Field, Virginia.

During their training by the National Aeronautics and Space Administration (Nasa), they underwent tests so tough that only 18 candidates remained after a week.

Among the daily simulations they endured were spending an hour in a capsule that was pressurised to the same level as if they were 65,000ft above the earth.

They also spent two hours in a chamber heated to 54C and were subjected to extreme g-forces on a spinning centrifuge machine.

Following interviews, seven candidates were selected who were all considered to be a “superb physical specimen” with a genius-level IQ.

But after a series of technical problems, America was beaten again by the Soviets, who had launched the Space Race in 1957 by sending the first satellite into the orbit.

Russian Cosmonaut Yuri Gagarin, who was partly chosen due to his working class credentials, became the first man in space on April 12, 1962.

The U.S. would have to wait until May 5, when Shepard, the son of a high-ranking military officer, became the first American in space.

Nine months later, on February 20, 1962, Glenn, who later served as a U.S. Senator, became the first American to match Gagarin’s other feat of orbiting Earth.

Yet Nasa continued to trail the Soviets in space and President John F Kennedy was determined to beat them by putting a man on the moon by the end of the decade.

The Space Race was initially launched because the U.S. feared that rocket that could enter the orbit might be capable of delivering nuclear weapons thousands of miles.

Washington also worried that Soviet technological advances would raise the prestige of their communist system.

Sputnik – simply meaning satellite in Russian - particularly irked the U.S because the U.S. had previously twice failed to launch a transmitter under Project Vanguard.

American politicians were further angered and dismayed when the Soviets sent the first living animal – the dog Laika - into space on November 3, 1957.

The 'Mercury Seven' in their spacesuits in 1959. (Rex)
In response, U.S. President Dwight Eisenhower ordered more of his country’s superior economic resources to be devoted to the Space Race.

But the Americans suffered another setback when, on December 6, their third rocket crashed, leading to the Daily Express nicknaming the craft “flopnik”.  

The U.S. Army finally put their own satellite in space on January 31, 1958 – with the National Aeronautics and Space Adminstration (NASA) being set up soon after.

But, despite effectively won the Space Race – when Neil Armstrong, Buzz Aldrin and Michael Collins touched down on July 20, 1969.

Armstrong took the first ever steps on the moon and famously declared: “That's one small step for man, one giant leap for mankind.”

Yet few people at the time realised just how close the USSR came to dashing JFK’s dream.

The secretive Soviets kept under wraps the fact that, 17 days earlier, its own N1 moon rocket exploded seconds after lift-off, causing the biggest non-nuclear blast in history.

Details of explosion, which was powerful enough to level a town the size of Luton, were only revealed after the fall of communism in the 1990s.
The lid was also lifted on how the brave Bolsheviks kept on trying – and failing – with ten launches between 1969 and 1974, when its moon programme was axed.

Nasa successfully landed six manned shuttles on the moon between 1969 and 1972 when the U.S. government ended its expensive programme.

Glenn later made history again after travelling into space again 36 years after his original mission as part of the Space Shuttle Discovery crew on October 29, 1998.