Even so, the effort was cloaked in the can-do spirit of the time, the romance of the new science, the vigor of the test pilots who filled the ranks of the Original Seven astronauts (always rendered upper-case), and the redemption of centuries of longing to reach toward the moon, the planets and the stars.
There was a gee-whiz quality to Mercury, but the wonder of the engineering was accompanied by knowledge of the risks -- and of the improvised nature of the undertaking. The program was a showcase for American competence, but the Mercury space capsule itself was a metal can bolted atop an ICBM.
“Not only did it involve no flying, there wasn’t even a window to look out of,” Tom Wolfe recounted in “The Right Stuff,” his classic account of Project Mercury and its astronauts. “There wasn’t even a hatch you could egress from like a man; it would take a crew of swabbos with lug wrenches to get you out of the thing.”
No matter. Americans were going to match the Soviets and travel into space. So taken with the endeavor was a middle-school student in Pittsburgh that he sneaked his transistor radio into school, inserted his earphone and listened on the radio to the suborbital flight of Alan Shepard aboard Freedom 7, the first American manned space mission. The study-hall monitor at Shady Side Academy sent him to detention.
Thirty years later, Jay Apt made his first space flight and took two space walks. “Project Mercury was thrilling to all of us,” says Apt, who eventually flew on four shuttle missions. “I treasure a recording of John Glenn’s description of the sunsets and sunrises. The images he painted with those words led me to the path that allowed me to see them for myself.”