Biography of American Astronauts: Introduction

About the history and biography of the astronauts in the United States space program at NASA.

An Earthy Look at the American Astronauts

Few men have been as admired and glorified in recent times as the American astronauts. In the 1960s--a decade of assassinations, campus violence, and a war in a distant land--the citizenry of the U.S. was in desperate want of heroes, and the spacemen filled that need.

But the National Aeronautics and Space Administration (NASA) was not content simply to have the astronauts respected for what they were--courageous men experiencing many of the same pleasures and pains as other human beings. Instead, the astronauts were "sold" as a unique and elite cadre of supermen. It was one of the most ambitious and successful public relations campaigns in history.

From the beginning, the media treated the astronauts as exceptional individuals. In its 1st article about the original Project Mercury astronauts, Time said: "From a nation of 175 million they stepped forward last week: 7 men cut of the same stone as Columbus, Magellan, Daniel Boone, Orville and Wilbur Wright." The New York Times described them as "a group of square-jawed, trim halfbacks recruited from an All-American football team."

The astronauts told their exclusive stories in Life, and they presented themselves as angelic, one-dimensional characters. Walt Cunningham, crew member of Apollo 7, later complained, "Instead of letting us be human, they wanted us to act like Boy Scouts, live in a monastery."

Edwin "Buzz" Aldrin, Jr., the 2nd man to walk on the moon, wrote in his own book, Return to the Earth: "I suppose the portrayal we received in Life and subsequently in nearly all the media helped the space program a great deal. Unfortunately, nearly all of it had us squarely on the side of God, country, and family. To read it was to believe we were the most simon-pure guys there had ever been. This was simply not so. We may have regularly gone to church, but we also celebrated some pretty wild nights."

Yes, the astronauts were human. They were more than the "strange, plasticized, half-communicating Americans" that Norman Mailer saw in his book Of a Fire on the Moon.

Writing in The New York Times, Howard Munson declared that the astronauts, "to our relief," turned out to be not much different from the rest of us. "They cheat a little when presented with too great temptation (witness the brisk trade in postal covers that were taken to the moon and other articles that were autographed by astronauts); they get divorces from their wives [at least 6 have]; they see a psychiatrist when necessary; they get interested in freaky things like ESP, Eastern religions, poetry, one-worldism, and brotherhood."

Since the space program began, 73 pilots and scientists have been selected to be astronauts. Forty-one have sailed into space, 3 died in a fire on the test launching pad in 1967, and 5 others were killed in test flights or automobile accidents. Most of the astronauts are now retired from the NASA program.

Following are the stories of 8 of the most prominent American spacemen--their accomplishments, their human frailties, and their lives since their historic voyages.

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