The Magnificent Seven

May 30, 2007 at 8:22 am 2 comments

NASA photoBack in the Jurassic Park days of youth, I was pretty obsessed with astronauts and space. It was a close call – did I want to be an astronaut or an archaeologist when I grew up? somehow, I ended up in information and knowledge management (after a long stint in law) – not sure of the connection between KM, astronauts and archaeology – probably has to do with the unknown: digging up artefacts from long lost cultures; flinging yourself off into black space inside a metal capsule to go where no person has gone before; surfacing the deep contextual knowledge of corporate employees (harder if you ask me than flinging yourself into space).

I’ve retained a life-long love for history/archaeology and anything to do with space. So each day I look forward to getting, via my RSS feeds, the NASA image of the day. I love the image accompanying this post (you can access larger version here), which came in the other day. It is a 1960 photograph that looks like a poster for some Hollywood movie about tough guys surviving in the desert. Well, not far off what the photo is all about actually. It shows the seven original Mercury astronauts participating in U.S. Air Force survival training exercises. Pictured from left to right are: L. Gordon Cooper, M. Scott Carpenter, John Glenn, Alan Shepard, Virgil I. “Guss” Grissom, Walter Schirra and Donald K. Slayton. Portions of their clothing have been fashioned from parachute material, and all have grown beards from their time in the wilderness. The purpose of their training was to prepare astronauts in the event of an emergency or faulty landing in a remote area. Love the look on Shepherd’s face (centre of photo).

John Glenn was the first American to orbit Earth and thirty-six years after his first space flight, he was a member of the crew of the space shuttle Discovery (mission STS-95). Glenn also entered politics and was Senator John Glenn of Ohio from 1974-1999. Shepherd was the only one of the seven Mercury astronauts to go to the Moon, he was the first American in space (1961) and I think was the only astronaut to play golf on Earth’s desolate satellite. Schirra died in May 2007 at the age of 84. Grissom was apparently told privately that he’d be the first man to walk on the Moon and unfortunately died in 1967 in the Apollo 1 fire at Cape Kennedy. Carpenter was the fourth American in space and the first to eat solid food in space.

Mmm…ever wonder how astronauts answered the call of nature? well, Prince Phillip (naturally) asked this profound question recently while on tour in the US. Apparently, it all has to do with air flow, which carries away waste products. This is one of NASA’s most frequently asked questions (my question would be: can I still apply lipgloss while floating around the cabin?!)

If you look at the image closely, you have to wonder what stuff these men were made of. Most had been pilots in WWII and seemed to have no fear about launching into space in ‘flying experiments’. Did they ever suspect they might not come back? Did they ever wonder whether the technology and early computers were advanced enough to bring them safely back to Earth? It combines adventure with suspense that’s for sure. Have a read of Deborah Cadbury’s great book, Space Race, to get a sense of the calibre of these early space voyagers and the political paranoia sparked by the superpower rivalries of the former USSR and the US, which led to a space race. Or check out Hansen’s First Man, the life of Neil Armstrong, the first man to step foot on the Moon in 1969.

These guys seem to be heroes of an era long gone. Maybe they were created by the turmoil of the mid-20th Century – WWII and the Cold War. Maybe we create a different sort of hero today. But I’m not sure what these heroes look like or where they are. Any suggestions?


Entry filed under: Books, History, NASA, Photography, Reflections.

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2 Comments Add your own

  • 1. Logan Antill  |  May 31, 2007 at 6:44 pm

    Marvelous photo. Sort of look like 7 versions of T.E. Lawrence. I would argue that these men loved what they did–for the time. I wonder if they’d had their metal tested in Iraq instead of WWII if they’d still have the same suave stubble and self-assured swagger. Maybe. Our space program certainly isn’t as revered as it once was–a space shuttle launch hardly makes a blip on the cultural radar.

    I think we have to look at the culture we’ve fashioned for ourselves. Because we have fashioned it, and the same way we choose what monument will replace the WTC, we also choose the visages of our heroes.

    We still want heroes, though that word itself has nearly become an archetype of Hollywood. As the world expands ever-outward, connecting us to one another even in the deepest tunnels of NYC, we have built an endless stream of lives for ourselves: Second Life avatars, AIM friend icons, myspace profiles, YouTube channels, blog blog blog. Each one of these avenues can be a chance for us to be a hero to someone–to anyone–to the wandering pilgrim with a palmpilot. We are always accessible and the span of our influence has never been greater.

    But this may ultimately destroy us, or wreck our psyche. Hubris. Our excessive hubris will most likely be our undoing.

  • 2. thinkingshift  |  May 31, 2007 at 10:13 pm

    Hi Logan
    I think you touch on something very interesting. The way the word ‘heroes’ has become a product of Hollywood. And now we build our own personal heroic profiles on MySpace etc.We have a voice of influence that we never had before. So public heroes are now personal heroes. I hope that as NASA heads towards the Mars mission, some of the awe and wonder will be brought back to the space programme.


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