Designing the Perfect Astronaut

The experimental, creative, and at times imaginative nature of the Mercury program has always fascinated me. The program and the decision that preceded it answer a totally unique question: what do you do when you suddenly need to put a man in space and you have no previous experience to build off of? (Left: the Mercury astronauts inspect a Mercury model. Front, L-R: Grissom, Carpenter, Slayton, Cooper. Back, L-R: Shepard, Schirra, Glenn. 1959)

Gene Kranz, who served as a flight director for the Mercury, Gemini, and Apollo programs, recalls in his autobiography that the Mercury program controllers were writing the procedures manuals for the program while the missions unfolded. Engineers, scientists, and flight controllers couldn’t anticipate what would happen to a man in space, but they could document events as they unfolded. The knowledge gained in the first missions affected those that followed, ultimately enabling NASA to compose a wealth of knowledge on manned spaceflight.

This cobbling together of procedures and methods isn’t limited to the missions. This same method of ‘learning while we go’ is evident in NASA’s astronaut selection criteria. Prior to the first-generation Mercury program, administrators had no idea what would these men would be facing. To be safe, they sought the most perfect specimens of health and mental stability – the most perfect man, or men, they could find.

The search for the perfect men was a multi-stage process. While acrobats, daredevils, and contortionists were briefly considered as potential astronauts, the final base requirement set by Eisenhower stipulated that the candidate pool be limited to test pilots. Test pilots were thought to be well suited in light of their experience with new and unproven aircraft. Additionally, their military status would simplify issues of security clearance – the US was, after all, at war. In addition to this background, candidates had to be under 40 years of age, under five feet eleven inches, in excellent physical condition, hold a bachelor’s degree in engineering or its equivalent, be a graduate of a test pilot school, and be a qualified jet pilot with at least 1,500 hours of flying time.

These requirements proved to be rather limiting. From the United States Air Force, the United States Navy, and the United States Marine Corps, only 110 men met the basic requirements. The first 69 to volunteer were interviewed. 32 were selected to proceed to the final round in the testing process – physical and mental fitness testing.

The 32 candidates first submitted to extensive physical examinations at the Lovelace Clinic in Albuquerque, New Mexico. In designing the physical tests, doctors and scientists had theorized about what havoc a weightless environment might wreak on the human body. Without gravity to maintain pressure on the eyes, would they change shape, causing blurred vision and putting the astronaut in sudden and desperate need of eyeglasses? Without gravity, would an astronaut be able to swallow? Would weightlessness cause the astronaut to lose his sense of equilibrium during flight, bringing on a sudden bout of space sickness? (Above, Scott Carpenter tests his balance)

The physical testing, most historians of the space age agree, was some of the most intensive and thorough medical exams ever to done on a group of men. More than 30 tests yielded complete chemical, encephalographic, and cardiographic data on each candidate. Otolaryngologists knew these men’s ears, noses, and throats and optometrists knew their eyes in intimate detail. Nothing was off limits to the doctors. The Mercury astronauts only half joked during a 1959 press conference that the doctors had probed every orifice the human male has to offer, and then some, all in the name of ‘science’.

To some candidates, the rationale behind such extensive physical testing was apparent: the doctors were trying to establish a physiologic baseline against which health in spaceflight could be measured. With this rationale in mind, many submitted more or less happily to the barrage of tests. Scott Carpenter interpreted the whole process as a test of his determination; to show discomfort was to show weakness. The real test was one of mind over matter. John Glenn was of a similar mind. The extent of the testing fascinated him, and he took great pride in his performance. (Above left, John Glenn proves he can balance, even in a bow tie)

Carpenter and Glenn were, perhaps, among the very few who took a positive outlook towards the physical tests. Many found the rational suspect and many grew increasingly skeptical with each round of probing. Deke Slayton felt he was a captive specimen at the mercy of doctors who were hell bent on seizing the opportunity and carry out experiments to their hearts’ content. Pete Conrad believed that NASA’s ultimate choice was likely to be based on what the doctors’ thought of the candidates’ rear ends, qualifications as pilots and degrees in engineering be damned.

Following the physical testing, the candidates were subjected to an extensive psychological exam at the Wright-Patterson Air Force Base is Dayton. This second phase of the selection process consisted of elaborate environmental stress tests, physical endurance tests, anthropometric measurements, and psychiatric studies. As with the physical exams, skepticism reigned among candidates. Stress tests administered in controlled environments were, as Deke Slayton pointed out, a poor indication of a candidate’s reactions to stress compared to his combat flight records. At the time of his psych exams, Slayton had flown combat missions and operational and test flights for seventeen years. That he was alive ought to have been a sufficient indicator that he could handle himself well in stressful situations. (Above, Wally Schirra has cold water pumped in one ear so doctors can measure the effect this has on his balance. The sensation induces nystagmus, an involuntary movement of the eyes. The glasses allow the doctors to see this reaction.)

The testing took roughly 30 hours per candidate and was designed to determine not only which men could withstand the psychological stresses and pressures anticipated from spaceflight, but also why these men wanted to go into space in the first place. Where they interested in personal gain? Taking risks? Did they have a death wish? The perfect astronaut was one who possessed enthusiasm and willingness without recklessness. Mental stability was an absolutely necessary train in an astronaut. The tests were designed to profile the candidates in three main areas: personality and motivation, intellectual function and special aptitudes, and reactions to stress tests.

Personality and motivation measurements were taken through thirteen tests including the Rorschach inkblot test and the Minnesota Multiphasic Personality Inventory. The latter asked candidates to answer a series of yes or no questions such as “I often worry about my health” and “Strangers keep trying to hurt me.”

Intellectual functions and special aptitudes were measured by an additional twelve tests. These were comprised largely of analogies, some of which required the candidates display their intimate knowledge of engineering principles: “VACUUM TUBE is to THYRATRON as CONTINUOUS is to (alternating, regular, discrete, diminishing)”, the correct answer in this case is discrete.

Six environmental stress tests rounded out the psychological assessment. Candidates outfitted in pressure suits endured high altitude simulations, they were isolated and deprived of sensory perception, asked to respond to signals on a lit panel, accelerated in a centrifuge to accumulate g-forces, shaken, and heated. Perceptual and psychomotor tests were performed before each test to set a baseline as well as after each of the tests to determine any lingering effects.

Confronting the subjective nature of psychological testing, the doctors took certain precautions in an effort to ensure the legitimacy of their results. They rarely spoke to the candidate outside of administering or explaining a test lest they reveal more information than strictly necessary. They staggered the testing schedule to decrease the likelihood of candidates comparing answers – a precaution taken in vain since the candidates were living in very close quarters in the clinic.

At this point the candidates began to grow increasingly exacerbated with the inkblot and ‘complete a story’ tests. They routinely broke the ‘no communication about the tests’ rule, speculated on what the ‘right’ answers to the inkblot cards were. They discussed what the psychologists were most likely looking for, what characteristics each tests was most likely trying to reveal, and what answers they could give that would tell the doctors what they wanted to hear. As a form of rebellion, many began giving these deliberately misleading or pre-planned answers to the doctors’ questions. Unlike objective physical tests, this one an area of the process they could manipulate. Alan Shepard was convinced that answers suggesting virility would win him a spot as a Mercury astronaut.

As part of the Rorschach and Thematic Apperception tests, both designed to analyze personality and motivations, the candidates were asked to describe in detail the story they saw in a given abstract image. Deke Slayton thought these were comparable to a children’s game, and so he let his imagination run wild in an attempt to confuse the doctors. With Alan Shepard’s suspicion of ‘virility is the right answer’ in mind, Pete Conrad told the doctors fantastic stories of the mediaeval romances he saw in every image, complete with details of chainmail pants around the ankles of a knight. Perhaps one of the most celebrated vignettes is Conrad’s response when he was presented with a blank card during a Rorschach test. He scrutinized the card with great focus for some time before declaring that he simply couldn’t see the image properly. The doctor, he explain in absolute seriousness, was holding the card upside-down. (Above right, astronaut Deke Slayton)

In many of the stress test, the candidates employed the basic mantra of ‘mind over matter’, refusing to give the doctors anything to write about. The isolation test for example had each candidate alone in a dark room with padded walls that made it absolutely silent. Glenn, suspecting the doctors were looking for mental alertness at all times, occupied himself by listing activities one could do in the dark and writing poetry. Wally Schirra took a different approach, taking advantage of the quiet to nap. Gus Grissom ignored the discomfort of the heat test, during which candidates were in a sealed room heated to 135 degrees Fahrenheit, by rereading a back issue of Reader’s Digest. He ignored the pressure suit test, during which candidates wore a pressure suit in a chamber simulating an altitude of 65,000 feet, by watching TV. Wally Schirra recalls his participation in the selection process as though he was going through the motions while maintaining his misgivings about the process.

As an act of defiance, Pete Conrad turned the tables of scrutiny on his observers. Irritated by doctors who noted his every move in little spiral notebooks, he procured the same pen and notebook and made a habit of audibly taken notes on the doctors’ every move – lowering of the eyes… a repressed hypertrophy of the latency! This, unfortunately, gave the doctors plenty to write about. Conrad failed to make the final cut as a Mercury astronaut; NASA cited his unsuitability for long-duration flight as the formal reason for his dismissal. (Left, astronaut Pete Conrad)

Given the extent to which a number of the candidates deliberately tempered their performance throughout the selection process – whether by inventing answers, conferring with colleagues, or completely ignoring their surroundings – the selection process can hardly be considered perfect. This is, however, an unsurprising result. As with most new programs that don’t have a prior knowledge on which to build, there were faults in the process and the results were less perfect than anticipated.

The extensive testing was intended to single out the best of the best. In the end, seven men fit the bill and were chosen as the first group of astronauts – Scott Carpenter, Gordon Cooper, John Glenn, Gus Grissom, Wall Schirra, Alan Shepard, and Deke Slayton. The men were the perfect specimens to fulfil the parameters of the Mercury program. But the men were not, it turned out, all as well suited to NASA’s long-term aims as they were to this initial program.

Despite the extensive medical testing, both Shepard and Slayton were removed from active flight status due to Menière’s syndrome and atrial fibrillation respectively. Carpenter was also removed from active flight status following his Mercury mission; a serious piloting error prompted Flight Director Kris Kraft to swear that Carpenter would never fly again, and he didn’t.  Glenn left NASA to pursue politics shortly after his landmark orbital flight. By the time Mercury ended in 1963, only Schirra, Cooper and Grissom were left.

With its first manned space program under its belt and a wealth of new knowledge to build on, NASA reconsidered the strict prerequisites it had previously demanded its astronauts fulfil. The parameters that made the perfect astronaut were beginning to change. Subsequent groups were required to meet more lax basic requirements and were subjected to significantly less testing.

The second group of astronauts joined NASA in 1962. The basic physical requirements for this second group remained unchanged, but the educational component was broadened to include all science degrees, and the age limit was lowered from 40 to 35. The selection process was much less painful; the physical exam was done in one day and there were no inkblots or stress tests much to Pete Conrad’s pleasure. He was selected as an astronaut with this second group. The most striking change in NASA’s astronaut requirements at this point in the organization’s history was the inclusion of civilians with this group, the first of which was Neil Armstrong.

Those selected in 1963 as the third group of astronauts was held to the same standards as the previous group with two exceptions: they were only required to have 1,000 hours flying time and the age limit was lowered again to 34. The fourth group selected in 1965 represented a major change: this was the first cohort of ‘scientist-astronauts’. Each candidate was required to hold a doctoral degree in natural sciences, medicine, or engineering and the flight experience requirement was dropped. The most notable member of this group is perhaps Jack Schmitt, the geologist who served as Lunar Module Pilot on Apollo 17 – the only geologist to set foot on another body in the solar system. (Above, astronaut Jack Schmitt, Apollo 17, 1972)

The fifth group was the final group whose members participated in Space Race era programs. Selected in 1966, this cohort was selected based on the same criteria as the third group, with the age limit raised from 34 to 36 years.

The early years of the space age were not without trials – programs built from nothing and procedures invented as needed. The constantly changing parameters of the perfect astronaut are indicative that this same uncertainty affected the inner workings of the organization as well. In a similar way that the eventual technological achievements in the Apollo program that developed from the previous Mercury and Gemini programs, the perfect astronaut each program can be argued to result in the constant re-evaluation of what was needed in the new addition to the corps.

Perhaps the constantly evolving parameters of what makes the “perfect astronaut” may be part of what enabled NASA such success in its early years; missions were given to astronauts who best suited the parameters, and the changing selection criteria ensured there was a wide variety of skills in the astronaut corps.

Suggested Reading/Selected Sources

1. Astronauts and Cosmonauts Biographical and Statistical Data, Revised March 31, 1983. U.S. Government Printing Office: Washington. 1983.

2. Caidin, Martin. The Astronauts. E. P. Dutton and Co., Inc.: New York. 1961.

3. Carpenter, Scott and Stover, Kris. For Spacious Skies: The Uncommon Journey of a Mercury Astronaut. Harcourt: Orlando. 2002.

4. Carpenter, Scott et al. We Seven: by the Astronauts themselves. Simon and Shuster: New York. 1962.

5. Conrad, Nancy and Klausner, Howard A. Rocketman: Astronaut Pete Conrad’s Incredible Ride to the Moon and Beyond. New American Library: New York. 2005.

6. Glenn, John and Taylor, Nick. John Glenn: A Memoir. Bantam: New York. 1999.

7. Kraft, Kris. Flight: My Life in Mission Control. Plume: New York. 2001.

8. Kranz, Gene.  Failure is Not an Option: Mission Control for Mercury to Apollo 13 and Beyond. Berkley Books: New York. 2000.

9. Lovelace, W. R. “Duckings, Probings, Checks that Proved Fliers’ Fitness” in Life vol. 46 no. 16. 20 April 1959.

10. Sherrod, Robert. “Men for the Moon: How they were chosen and trained” in Edgar M. Cortright ed. Apollo Expeditions to the Moon. Dover Publications: Mineola. 2009.

11. Slayton, Donald K. “Deke” and Cassutt, Michael. Deke! U.S. Manned Space: From Mercury to the Shuttle. Forge: New York. 1994.

12. Wolfe, Tom. The Right Stuff. Picador: New York. 1979.


13 thoughts on “Designing the Perfect Astronaut

  1. Hey Amy, as you know this is my exact special area of interest, so I’m sure you knew I’d comment on this!

    Here’s my take: In my work, I argue that astronauts are not simply “the right tools for the job,” but rather products of specific scientific selection cultures, laden with historically contingent sets of cultural values.

    In my research I’ve found that Eisenhower demanded test pilots because he was following a recommendation published in 1957 from a whole field of scientific concern called “Space Medicine,” which existed almost exclusively within the United States Air Force from 1948 until 1958.

    NASA–having no prior expertise in environmental medicine, or human factors research–asked USAF doctors like Randolph Lovelace II, Brig. Gen. Donald Flickinger, and Hubertus Strughold to set empirical requirements for bodies bound for space, and to carry out the screening program.

    They did this based on research that USAF Space Medicine had been producing for over a decade during the late 40s and 1950s using human centrifuges (to simulate the effects of high accelerations—G-forces), altitude chambers (to simulate low-oxygen, low pressure environments), isolation chambers (to simulate, you guessed it, isolation) and parabolic flights (to simulate weightlessness). The USAF actually selected 8 pilots in early 1958 which they intended to fly in space before the creation of NASA put a damper on their human space activities.

    The USAF experts, who crafted the ideals of medical “perfection” that NASA used to select its first group of astronauts, were led by a group of German doctors (Hubertus Strughold, Heinz and Fritz Haber, Bruno Balke, Siegfried Gerathewohl, etc.) who were transferred from the Luftwaffe into the USAF in 1948.

    Once installed at the USAF School of Aviation Medicine (SAM) in Texas, this core of former Luftwaffe life scientists formed the world’s first Department of Space Medicine, and continued work—now alongside interested American colleagues like Lovelace and Flickinger—that they were already carrying out for Germany during the war (this, unfortunately, had involving performing lethal experiments on some 590 prisoners at the Dachau concentration camp).

    I feel that the history of the science behind the stabilization of “the ideal space body” is extremely problematic as its production involved the painful execution of hundreds of innocent, non-consenting human subjects. Also because the tenants of Space Medicine were developed by Luftwaffe doctors while successfully operating within a regime that was overtly politically invested in promoting a very specific type of body (see Nazi race theories, the production of the Aryan male ideal, and Nazi eugenics and propaganda).

    Don’t get me wrong, I still think Alan Shepard, Gus Grissom, and the rest were super-brave dudes to do what they did, but I see the choices made by space medicine experts like Lovelace to prefer a specific body/mind-type as being culturally constructed. Selection criteria, and the groups of space workers they produce, are not a reflection of any “natural truth” about which human bodies are “best” or “perfect” for operating complex technical systems in extreme environments, they are “thick” with politics; the contingent products of particular histories and cultures.

    (This comment is basically a super-condensed version of my MA thesis. If you’re ever interested in seeing the 107 page version, let me know!)

    Please keep up with this blog, it’s so great to have a forum for space-related discussions! Thanks Amy!

  2. Wow, fascinating read! I will admit, first time on your site. I somehow stayed away while it blew up a few weeks ago despite seeing the wild numbers you were pulling. I was not aware you were so prolific. I suppose I have envy of those witha proclivity for the esoteric, and I am throwing down a bookmark… On a side note: I have elected to save the lengthy, but probably erudite post of your commenter for another time. Hope you’re well Amy…

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