1960 Signed Mercury 7 Photograph & Paperwork
The seven pilots of the Project Mercury program, from left to right: Scott Carpenter, Gordon Cooper, John Glenn, Virgil Grissom, Walter Schirra, Alan Shepard, and Donald Slayton.
(Image from http://history.nasa.gov/40thmerc7/photos.htm)
Project Mercury made many contributions to the study of human space travel in the 20th century.
In October 1958, the National Aeronautics and Space Administration (NASA) made headlines around the world when it announced its first major initiative: a program called Project Mercury, aimed at sending astronauts into space. No one knew if human beings could survive in space. But NASA officials reasoned that the challenges facing astronauts are similar to those that confront military test pilots. More than 500 candidates—all of whom were military test pilots, and all of whom were male—applied to participate in Project Mercury. (The program was named for the Roman god Mercury, whose speed was legendary.) A selection committee narrowed the field to 32 men, who underwent a grueling battery of physical and mental exams. On April 1, 1959, NASA announced that it had chosen America’s first group of astronauts. Known as the "Mercury 7," the group included M. Scott Carpenter; L. Gordon Cooper, Jr.; John H. Glenn, Jr.; Virgil I. Grissom; Walter M. Schirra, Jr.; Alan B. Shepard, Jr.; and Donald K. Slayton. These seven astronauts are pictured in the photograph featured in this ANTIQUES ROADSHOW segment; each has autographed the photo, which is accompanied by a document with details on medical exams that were being conducted in 1960 in preparation for the astronauts' ascent into space.
Alan Shepard (back row, far left) became the first American in space on May 5, 1961, when he made the initial Mercury flight—a journey that lasted 15 minutes. John Glenn (bottom row, second from right) set another milestone on February 20, 1962, when he became the first American to orbit the earth. Astronauts made a total of six flights during Project Mercury, which spanned five years and proved that human space travel is possible.
A Closer Look
- What is an autograph? Can you identify the two Greek roots from which this word is formed, along with the meaning of each root? Check your answers by consulting a dictionary.
- Why do you think collecting autographs is a popular pastime? What makes an autographed object valuable? In what ways does an autograph provide a connection to a moment in history?
- To whom was the photograph of the Mercury 7 autographed? (See image 3 for a close-up view of the inscription.) What personal connection does the photo’s owner have to the astronauts and to the document featured in this segment?
- According to the appraiser, what is the estimated value of the photo? What aspects of the photo’s provenance make it particularly valuable? What factors decrease the photo’s worth? What argument does the appraiser make about the impact of current events on the value of historical objects, and what evidence does he offer to support this argument?
- Whose autograph would you most like to have? Why? Discuss as a class.
Activities and Investigations
- Choose one of the astronauts pictured in the Mercury 7 photo—M. Scott Carpenter; L. Gordon Cooper, Jr.; John H. Glenn, Jr.; Virgil I. Grissom; Walter M. Schirra, Jr.; Alan B. Shepard, Jr.; and Donald K. Slayton—and find out more about his life and work. What motivated him to become an astronaut, and what selection process did he go through to become a member of the Mercury 7? What missions did he fly? In what ways is his legacy evident today? Create a biographical profile, incorporating quotations from your subject and utilizing at least three sources.
- In November 2013, President Barack Obama honored Sally Ride, the first American woman in space, by presenting her with a posthumous Presidential Medal of Freedom—the nation’s highest civilian honor. Watch the Medal of Freedom ceremony at http://www.c-spanvideo.org/program/316372-1. Then, working with a partner and doing additional research as necessary, imagine a conversation on women in space between Sally Ride and one of the following:
- A member of the Mercury 7
- A skeptical reporter who interviews Ride in 1982 and questions whether it is advisable to send women into space
- A contemporary teenager who is thinking about becoming a space researcher
- Go to http://www.pbs.org/wgbh/roadshow/archive and type "autograph" in the box labeled "Enter keywords." Of the approximately 130 segments that come up, choose two that interest you and watch the appraisal videos. Then, orally or in writing, compare the autographs presented in these segments. What is particularly noteworthy or surprising about each autograph? How do the autographs compare in value? What questions would you like to ask the appraiser or guest in each segment?
- In his appraisal of the Mercury 7 items, Philip Weiss refers to "eight initial astronauts, including, at the bottom, you have William Douglas, right down there, who didn't make it in. He didn't make it…. So you would have had the Mercury 8, and now you have the Mercury 7." Using print or online sources, fact-check Weiss’ statement. Who was William Douglas, and what role did he play at NASA? Was he, in fact, rejected from joining Project Mercury altogether? Share your findings with the ANTIQUES ROADSHOW team by sending an email to email@example.com with "Mercury 7" in the subject line. Be sure to cite sources for your conclusions.
For Further Exploration
International Space Hall of Fame
In-depth profiles of prominent astronauts from around the world, including all members of the Mercury 7, William Douglas, and Sally Ride.
40th Anniversary of the Mercury 7
NASA site on the history and impact of Project Mercury, including astronaut biographies, a timeline, photos, primary-source documents, a bibliography, and related links.
by M. Scott Carpenter; L. Gordon Cooper, Jr.; John H. Glenn, Jr.; Virgil I. Grissom; Walter M. Schirra, Jr.; Alan B. Shepard, Jr.; and Donald K. Slayton (Simon & Schuster, 2010)
Originally published in 1962 and reissued to commemorate the 50th anniversary of the space program, this book presents vivid first-hand accounts from each of the seven astronauts who were part of Project Mercury.
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