A Brief History of Spacefarers


On History

How America imagines its astronauts.


The Mercury Seven, 1960.

One of the things that makes the job title astronaut different from other jobs is that it existed in the collective imagination for centuries before it was ever actually anyone’s occupation. In the second century CE, Lucian of Samosata imagined travelers going to the moon and fighting a war with its inhabitants. In Jules Verne’s immensely influential 1865 novel, From the Earth to the Moon, the word astronaut is never used, but three men seal themselves into a metal capsule in order to fly to the moon. Many of the details Verne came up with were so outlandish as to invite ridicule if they had not become reality a hundred years later in the Apollo program, including a launch from Florida and a safe splashdown in the Pacific Ocean. Verne’s three space travelers behave in some ways we now associate with astronauts—they solve problems that arise on their mission, analyze new information they observe outside their windows, and do calculations to figure out their location and speed. On the other hand, they indulge in nonastronaut-like behaviors such as getting drunk, becoming histrionic about unexpected problems, and expressing doubt about the meaning of their journey, about whether they should be doing this at all.

One of the first uses of the word astronaut to refer to a human traveling in space was in Neil R. Jones’s short story “The Death’s Head Meteor,” in 1930.

The young astronaut entered the space flyer, closed the door, and was alone in the air-tight compartment just large enough to accommodate him. On the instrument board before him were dials, levers, gauges, buttons and queer apparatus which controlled and operated the various features of the craft. He turned on his oxygen supply and his air rejuvenator so that the air could be used more than once, after which he shoved his starting lever forward. The craft raced suddenly off the roof and into the cloudless sky above the vast city of the twenty-sixth century.

Jones was probably as surprised as anyone to learn how soon his new word became an actual job title, only twenty-nine years later. In between, during World War II, the first actual rockets emerged. This was the beginning of a new era in which the astronaut became a consistent character to tell stories about, if still speculative. Though the rockets weren’t ready to safely contain humans, their streamlined hulls brought with them a clearer image of the astronaut fantasy. Part fighter pilot, part frontiersman, the helmeted spaceman climbed into sleek machines and left Earth in the black-and-white television shows of the fifties. In 1954, Walt Disney created Man in Space, a series intended to promote his new Disneyland, which was set to open the following year. In the opening shot of the series, Walt himself speaks into the camera. “One of man’s oldest dreams has been the desire for space travel,” he tells us with an avuncular twinkle. “Until recently this seemed to be an impossibility.”

Man in Space gives a brief history of rockets, complete with a racist cartoon of the first Chinese rocket builders. This historical overview is politely evasive about the German rocket program, referring to the V-2 rockets as “forerunners to space travel” rather than as instruments used to rain death upon our allies in Europe.

Man in Space dramatizes the experiences astronauts were expected to encounter, especially the experience of weightlessness. “How will man’s subconscious mind react,” the cartoon voice-over asks, “to his first experiences with space travel? Will he not suddenly be aware of his precarious situation trapped in a tiny metal box floating through the incomprehensible nothingness of space? We do not know.”


A still from Man in Space, 1954.

The idea of the astronaut evolved significantly in 1959, the year the Mercury astronauts were chosen. Crew-cut, Caucasian, and confident, most were veterans of World War II or Korea or both. They were all husbands and fathers. They embodied the contradictions embedded in the American masculine ideal: they were military men (rule followers, patriots) on the one hand and test pilots (steely-eyed maverick cowboys) on the other. Their names tripped off the tongue: Carpenter, Cooper, Glenn, Grissom, Schirra, Shepard, and Slayton. They were handsome and daring. Asked at their first press conference whether they would be willing to launch into space tomorrow, they all raised a hand. Some of them raised two. Even for those of us who hadn’t been born yet then, in many ways what we imagine when we say the word astronaut is still those seven men.

the_right_stuff_book_3Stories about astronauts are stories about risks. It is precisely the risks they take that make us admire them, that makes the wonders they encounter so wondrous. In a foreword to The Right Stuff, Tom Wolfe describes his motivation for writing the book: to understand what gave the astronauts the courage to undertake such daring missions. “What is it, I wondered, that makes a man willing to sit on top of an enormous Roman Candle … and wait for someone to light the fuse?” The answer, as Wolfe constructs it, is the so-called Right Stuff. He uses an extended analogy with the ancient concept of single-combat warfare—the strongest combatant from each army would fight each other one-on-one. By doing so, the single-combat warrior took the burdens of an entire war upon himself, risked death so none of his countrymen would have to. At the same time, the single-combat warriors were “revered and extolled, songs and poems were written about them, every reasonable comfort and honor was given them, and women and children and even grown men were moved to tears in their presence.” More than the best and the brightest, more than role models, the Mercury astronauts embodied the best we were capable of. Astronauts still do. They are our avatars for our dreams of spaceflight, for our dreams of escaping Earth.

Tom Wolfe defines the Right Stuff:

The world was divided into those who had it and those who did not. This quality, this it, was never named, however, nor was it talked about in any way.

As to just what this ineffable quality was . . . well, it obviously involved bravery. But it was not bravery in the simple sense of being willing to risk your life. . . . No, the idea here (in the all-enclosing fraternity) seemed to be that a man should have the ability to go up in a hurtling piece of machinery and put his hide on the line and then have the moxie, the reflexes, the experience, the coolness, to pull it back in the last yawning moment—and then to go up again the next day, and the next day, and every next day, even if the series should prove infinite.

Yet Wolfe describes a growing concern among the astronauts: they were accustomed to testing themselves and besting one another through their flying, but the Mercury capsule itself would require no piloting. We tend to forget from our vantage point in history that even as the astronauts were chosen there was still controversy over whether space travel should involve humans at all. Robotic spacecraft could send back scientific data at half the cost, pragmatists pointed out; public opinion on the issue was divided. In 1960, President Eisenhower refused NASA’s request to fund the first steps in the proposed Apollo program—a three-man spacecraft and a rocket powerful enough to get to the moon—because his Science Advisory Committee had informed him that the motives for a moon shot involving astronauts were “emotional compulsions.” If this seems like a laugh line now that we know Apollo was in fact funded and did in fact carry out its missions successfully, it’s useful to keep in mind that this analysis was also pretty accurate.

From_the_Earth_to_the_Moon_Jules_VerneThe debate over whether it’s important for humans to go to space is a debate about the dream lives of taxpayers. The scientists and engineers didn’t see the point of sending astronauts, but the people who romanticize spaceflight—the ones who want to see their science-fiction fantasies come true—felt in their geeky hearts that sending astronauts to space, seeing human protagonists for our stories of leaving Earth, was in fact the whole point. And those geeks won. Jules Verne’s From the Earth to the Moon was devoured, and loved, by Tsiolkovsky, Oberth, and Goddard, the three geniuses who developed rocketry more or less simultaneously and in isolation from one another; it was also read and loved in childhood by Wernher von Braun, who developed the rocket that actually achieved the goal. Viewed from more than a century on, the most outlandish bit of invention in Verne’s novel is the idea that a flight to the moon could be funded entirely by a subscription service—regular citizens all over the world voluntarily paying into the project with no hope of being paid back.

The Mercury Seven were so deluged with media requests for their time that they signed contracts with Life magazine for the exclusive right to their personal stories. Life paid them half a million dollars, a great deal of money for astronauts who were still living on military salaries, and gave them the added benefit of letting the astronauts and their managers at NASA control the story that reached the public. The Life contract did as much to cultivate and burnish the image of what it means to be an astronaut as anything else NASA did. One of the reporters for Life later admitted:

I knew, of course, about some very shaky marriages, some womanizing, some drinking and never reported it. The guys wouldn’t have let me, and neither would NASA. It was common knowledge that several marriages hung together only because the men were afraid NASA would disapprove of divorce and take them off flights.

As Wolfe describes it, the risks of single-combat warfare earned the astronauts certain privileges (“every reasonable comfort and honor”), and drinking and womanizing were among them. The historian Margaret Weitekamp writes, “Such macho excesses did not worry NASA decision makers. The space agency viewed this particular kind of manhood as part and parcel of the talents NASA needed.”

tumblr_mhjvhogvay1qbz9meo1_500I read The Right Stuff for the first time while I was researching my first novel. When I went back to the book, I found a note in the margin, in my own handwriting, that I didn’t remember writing: “A man is the opposite of a woman, and he is also the opposite of a monkey.” It was in a chapter about the astronauts’ medical testing at the Lovelace Clinic in Arizona. A monkey was going to make the first flight, attacking the definition of astronauts from one side; simultaneously, the definition was being attacked from the other side by women pilots who were demanding to know why they couldn’t be included in the space program.

A strange precedent had been set in the early days of the airplane— promoters had encouraged women to learn to fly and to do so publicly, with the idea that seeing a woman in lipstick and heels climb into a cockpit and fly away would encourage the public to think of aviation as easy and safe. As a result, there was an unexpectedly high number of very qualified women pilots around the time the Mercury astronauts were chosen, and some of the women wanted to go to space. A small group organized themselves to approach NASA.

The women were experienced pilots. Many of them had broken records; some had broken the sound barrier. Their efforts to get NASA to recognize them as potential astronaut candidates were met with evasion. When the women managed to gain access to the same rigorous physical and psychological testing the Mercury Seven had gone through at the Lovelace Clinic, thirteen of them passed. Some of the women beat records set by the men. These women managed to create enough pressure that a congressional hearing was held to address the question of women joining the astronaut corps. In July 1962, only a few months after his triumphant orbital flight, John Glenn testified at the hearing and argued against the inclusion of women in space with a remarkable piece of circular logic:

I think this gets back to the way our social order is organized really. It is just a fact. The men go off and fight the wars and fly the airplanes and come back and help design and build and test them. The fact that women are not in this field is a fact of our social order. It may be undesirable.

Margaret Weitekamp notes that Glenn’s assertion of essentialism (“it is just a fact”) is at odds with his attempt to justify and explain these roles—not to mention his willful ignorance of the women testifying at the same hearing who did, in fact, “fly the airplanes.”


The “Thirty-Five New Guys,” 1978.

The new class of astronauts introduced in 1978, soon dubbed the Thirty-Five New Guys, was the largest astronaut class ever chosen and was profoundly different from the classes that had come before. The TFNGs were introduced at a press conference at Johnson, and their uniqueness as a class was apparent from the moment we set eyes on them. With larger crews of up to seven on each flight, the shuttle did not require that all astronauts be able to fly the spacecraft, removing the official barrier that had kept women out of the astronaut corps. Some of the new astronauts were doctors or scientists, some were women, and some were African American. One was Asian American. Two were Jewish. NASA had never had a policy against minority astronauts (just as it had not had a policy specifically prohibiting female astronauts), but the group of military test pilots from which potential astronauts had been drawn had included almost no minorities.


Rhea Seddon, 1978

The women astronauts were a late-seventies dream of second-wave feminism with their graduate degrees in science and engineering, their feathered hair and lip gloss. Rhea Seddon even looked a little like my mother, with her blonde flip and her petite frame. My mother had been one of the first women to graduate from her law school; Rhea Seddon was a surgeon and would be one of the first women to go to space. The role of astronaut, the role that defined masculinity like none other, was now open to young women, young mothers, even. To some people this meant an important barrier had fallen. To others, it meant that space travel was no longer exciting. Weitekamp: “the very presence of women in orbit would indicate that space no longer remained a battlefield for international prestige.” Wernher von Braun, asked about female astronauts in the sixties, had joked that the men in charge were “reserving 110 pounds of payload for recreational equipment.”

This is the odd thing about the shuttle era: it wasn’t only that the ranks of astronauts were infiltrated by women, nonwhites, nonmilitary, and nonpilots. It wasn’t only that the astronauts were now numerous and anonymous. More than that, the vehicle itself changed the nature of what it meant to fly in it. A vehicle that can only go to low-Earth orbit, can come back safely to land on a runway, exactly as you and I do at our local unexciting airports, diminishes, for some, the entire meaning of spaceflight. Stories about astronauts are stories about risk. So if we imagine the risks to have changed, the astronauts had to have changed as well.

Viewed another way: of all the American astronauts in the history of NASA, fifty-five were accepted into the corps during the Mercury/Gemini/Apollo “heroic” era, and 266 were accepted during the shuttle era. Yet if you can name any of them off the top of your head, they are probably heroic-era astronauts, with the possible exception of Sally Ride, the first American woman in space.


I didn’t have much of a relationship with the Mercury astronauts at first. Even as I started writing my Challenger book, I found the shuttle astronauts more accessible, more human, more like people I knew. Part of this appeal was that some of the shuttle astronauts were women, but also that they did things like juggle and do somersaults, clowned around in weightlessness. They seemed to have a sense of humor about it all. They took the time to enjoy it. The Mercury astronauts were all military pilots, laconic and square-jawed. They’d been given a tough job to do and they did it with machine-like precision. They brooked no goofing off.

9781555977092It wasn’t until I was well into my research, well past the Right Stuff stage and into individual accounts, that I started to see the Mercury Seven as individuals and thus started to love them. Gus Grissom was the one I understood first, with his engineering degree and his hangdog expression always recognizable among the others. John Glenn, of course, has a boyish bow-tie appeal and a charismatic kind of intelligence. Gordo Cooper, Scott Carpenter, Deke Slayton. One by one I started to be able to pick them out and started to call them by their first names. Soon I know the Gemini and Apollo astronauts as well. Neil Armstrong has a goofy sincerity. Gene Cernan has a tough visage right out of a spaghetti western. Michael Collins lends a folksy, humorous light touch to the most serious or technical of discussions. Alan Bean exudes gratitude for his adventures more than the others and has a huggable grandpa quality. And so on. I understand that I don’t actually know these men at all, that the simple caricatures I have made of them in my head are not the same as actual human beings. But still it’s irresistible to indulge in this kind of hero worship, because this is precisely their job.

When I think back on how those first six women astronauts looked to me as a child, I remember a fierce admiration that’s hard to describe. It has a lot to do with the possibilities of competent femininity. This was only a few years after Star Wars came out, after all, and infected a generation of girls with the role model of Princess Leia. In that scene when we first see her, when her spaceship is being boarded by storm troopers, she steps out of the shadows warily, holding a blaster muzzle-up beside her head. Baby-faced, with that strange sleek hairdo picking up red alarm lights, her face in a serious glower. Her lip gloss is perfect. She is beautiful, and she is ready to commit violence in pursuit of values larger than herself. I saw that again when the women astronauts were introduced. I remember the first time I saw them, in some footage on the evening news, all of them leaning against a fence. They looked fantastic.

Margaret Lazarus Dean, excerpt from Leaving Orbit: Notes from the Last Days of American Spaceflight. Copyright © 2015 by Margaret Lazarus Dean. Reproduced with the permission of Graywolf Press, Minneapolis, Minnesota,

Margaret Lazarus Dean is the author of The Time It Takes to Fall. She is a recipient of fellowships from the NEA and Tennessee Arts Commission and is an associate professor of English a the University of Tennessee and lives in Knoxville.