Even before NASA was created, civilian and military labs were in search of spacemen.
- By Tony Reichhardt
- Air & Space magazine, September 2000
(Page 3 of 4)
More than half the names on that June 1958 MISS briefing chart would in fact fly the X-15: Armstrong, Rushworth, McKay, Walker, and Bob White. The rest were stars at Edwards Air Force Base. Bill Bridgeman, a test pilot for Douglas Aircraft, had taken his company's Skyrocket nearly to Mach 2 in 1951, and was even quoted by Heinz Haber in Man in Space: "I pick a spot in the sky, and I imagine I'm going right on through a hole, out of the earth's orbit. Am I driving this airplane or is it taking me somewhere? I am awed and apprehensive."
Air Force Captain Iven Kincheloe had already been dubbed "Mr. Space" by the press for piloting the Bell X-2 rocket plane to a world's record of 126,200 feet in 1956. Two weeks before his name appeared on the MISS weight chart, he had tested a science fiction-y spacesuit called the Mark I in a simulated flight to 100 miles. If anyone was primed to be the first space pilot, Kincheloe was. But a month later, he crashed to his death in an F-104 over the Mojave Desert.
As for Crossfield himself, "Yes, I was interested [in making the MISS flight]," he says. "However, I wasn't pushing it." He had his hands full with the X-15, and was still holding out hope that an orbital version would fly someday. Besides, Lovelace and others joked that they would blackball him if he volunteered. "I was too independent," he says. "I had a bad habit of turning off the radio if I didn't like the help I was getting from the ground."
In the end, it turned out to be neither the Holloman crowd nor the rocket plane pilots who became the first men in orbit. All this time, another, stronger undercurrent had been flowing, which led to the creation of a new civilian space agency and put the Air Force out of the man-in-space business. Immediately after opening shop in October 1958, NASA set about picking candidates for Project Astronaut, soon renamed Mercury, which was essentially the MISS concept in new clothes.
Throughout the fall a small team of doctors and psychologists in NASA's Space Task Group struggled to come up with a list of requirements for the first astronauts. By early December they had drafted an invitation to pilots, arctic explorers, deep-sea divers, mountain climbers, and anyone else who did hazardous work in severe environments and who had demonstrated ability to "react adequately under conditions of stress or emergency."
Their call for "research astronaut-candidates" was to have gone out to the public on December 22. But hardly was the plan formed when NASA officials realized the net was cast too widely. The Mercury project was moving too fast to spend valuable time screening proposals from every adventurer in America. So NASA's new administrator, Keith Glennan, and his deputies decided to limit the pool to military test pilots. When they presented the idea to President Eisenhower shortly before Christmas, he okayed it immediately.
For Ike, it was a natural decision. He had zero interest in the romance of space travel, and was only intrigued by the prospect of military men spying on the Soviets from orbit. "Eisenhower was not picking the first humans to go to the moon," says American University space historian Howard McCurdy. The people he had in mind "were more in the legacy of Francis Gary Powers than Lewis and Clark."
So that was it. Only military test pilots, who already had security clearances, need apply. Strictly interpreted, that meant no Scott Crossfield or Neil Armstrong, both civilians. And no David Simons, who was a physician.