Disney Plus original series The Right Stuff tells the story of the Mercury Seven, an elite group of men selected from the US Armed Forces who competed for the title of first American in space.
This true story was previously chronicled in Tom Wolfe’s 1979 book of the same name, which was adapted into an Academy Award-winning film just four years later.
Disney’s television version frames their journey to the stars as “America’s first reality show”, owing to the huge media interest in their ongoing training and personal lives.
Did the Mercury Seven make it into space? If so, who earned that coveted title of being first? Find out those details and more below, but be warned that some of these facts could be considered spoilers for The Right Stuff television show.
Who were the Mercury Seven?
The Mercury Seven were an elite group of men selected by NASA from the ranks of the US Armed Forces to be considered for the position of America’s first astronaut. In the TV series, The Right Stuff cast includes Patrick J Adams (as John Glenn) and Jake McDorman (as Alan Shepard).
The space agency was under a lot of pressure as the Cold War raged on, with the USA locked in a bitter race to the stars with their rivals in Russia.
As such, the process of narrowing down candidates was ruthless, involving some tough decisions and rigorous training that pushed applicants to their limits.
Successful candidates had to be younger than 40 years old, shorter than 5 feet 11 inches, in good health, holding a bachelor’s degree or equivalent qualification, while also being a qualified jet pilot and graduate of test pilot school with a minimum of 1,500 hours in the air.
Even with such specific conditions, the scheme still found itself with dozens of willing participants, which were whittled down upon inspection of their medical records and other personal factors.
That left 32 men in the running, sent though a series of difficult physical and psychological tests at the Lovelace Clinic and the Wright Aerospace Medical Laboratory.
As depicted in The Right Stuff series on Disney Plus, they were tasked with spending hours on treadmills to test their stamina, while other endurance challenges included submerging their feet in ice-cold water.
In addition, they were subject to invasive medical examinations in order to uncover any underlying conditions that could have made them unsuitable for the job.
Eventually, seven prospective astronauts were chosen: Scott Carpenter (Navy), Gordon Cooper (Air Force), John Glenn (Marine Corps), Gus Grissom (Air Force), Wally Schirra (Navy), Alan Shepard (Navy), and Deke Slayton (Air Force).
Were the Mercury Seven famous?
As depicted in the Disney Plus series, the Mercury Seven went on to become very public figures for a period of time.
On 9th April 1959, NASA introduced them to the world during a press conference held at its then-headquarters: Dolley Madison House in Washington, DC.
Reporters spent the next 90 minutes firing off questions at the seven would-be astronauts, a challenging experience for some who had little experience working with the media.
Immediately hailed as national heroes, the group found themselves inundated with requests from members of the press, with some of the coverage looking to pry into their personal lives.
To take some of the pressure off, NASA brokered a deal with LIFE magazine, giving the publication exclusive rights to all coverage of the Mercury Seven, as well as their Earthbound wives.
Did the Mercury Seven go to space?
The Right Stuff explores an intense period in the lives of the Mercury Seven, as the members balance their friendship with a competitive desire to be the first American in space.
Ultimately, all seven would go on to impressive careers in the space programme, but it was Alan Shepard who holds the esteemed title of first American in space, manning a Project Mercury flight in May 1961.
Several members followed soon after, with Gus Grissom being the second American in space, John Glenn in third, Scott Carpenter in fourth, and Wally Schirra taking fifth.
In 1963, Gordon Cooper finally took to the stars on a 34-hour trip, becoming the first American to spend an entire day in space and the last launched on a solo orbital mission.
Slayton was grounded temporarily after the diagnosis of a heart murmur, but did eventually go to space in 1975, flying on a joint American-Soviet spaceflight.
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