First Up?

Even before NASA was created, civilian and military labs were in search of spacemen.

David G. Simons prior to the second Manhigh flight in August 1957. (USAF)
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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.

The three Manhigh pilots at Holloman had different reactions to the NASA decision. Kittinger, the only one who was a military test pilot, talked to Stapp about applying, and his boss thought he would have a good chance. But in the end, he decided to stick with what he was already doing, including preparing for the high-altitude Excelsior jumps. Clifton McClure, the 26-year-old Manhigh pilot who'd been dreaming about spaceflight since he was a kid, wanted badly to go into orbit, and was "devastated" to not have the chance, according to Simons.

Simons downplays his own disappointment at not being invited to participate in Mercury. He threw his hat in the ring to become director of biomedical research for the astronauts, but was rejected. So he went on to a rewarding career in mainstream medical research, ending up at Emory University in Atlanta, where he lives today. Don't look back, he says.

And yet, every so often, he surely does think back on that day in August 1957, six weeks before Sputnik, when he had outer space all to himself. Simons was the first man in history to watch the sun rise and set from above the atmosphere. When he took a break from work and just sat there munching sandwiches and chocolate bars in his tiny capsule 20 miles up, he turned reflective. Later, in his official pilot's report, he wrote: "It seemed right that I should be going toward space, as if that was where I belonged. In this sense I experienced a separation of emotional ties and interests from the earth below and felt an identification with the void of space above."

Unlike many of the astronauts who would follow him, Simons was always more interested in the place he was going than in the machinery that took him there.

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