Selection of the First Scientist-Astronauts

As the Office of Manned Space Flight began to consider post-Apollo possibilities in 1963-1964, science-oriented missions - lunar exploration and earth-orbital missions of many days' duration - appeared to be the most acceptable of a very few alternatives. The principal theme of George Mueller's expositions to Congress was the continued use of Apollo's rockets, spacecraft, and launch facilities to conduct scientific and technological investigations on the moon and in space - to produce a return on the nation's investment in manned space flight. Mueller's proposals were criticized as unimaginative and not conducive to the advancement of space technology, but none of NASA's top managers was willing to advocate bolder programs under the budgetary restraints that were becoming apparent in 1964.39

For any serious scientific work the crews in the spacecraft would have to include some scientists trained as astronauts rather than astronauts trained as scientific observers; and early in 1964 selection of scientists for the astronaut program began. MSC officials and representatives of the National Academy of Sciences met in February to draft a plan for recruitment and selection. Agreement was reached that the Academy would define the scientific qualifications desirable in the candidates while MSC would specify the physical and psychological requirements. On April 16 Homer Newell formally asked Harry Hess, chairman of the Space Science Board, to draw up a statement of the scientific qualifications for a scientist-astronaut.40 In Mid-October, Headquarters announced that it would accept applications from scientists who wanted to become astronauts. The primary requirement was a doctorate in medicine, engineering, or one of the natural sciences. No applicant had to be a qualified pilot; those accepted by the Space Science Board and by NASA would be assigned to the Air Force for a year of flying training.41

Any doubt that scientists were interested in space flight was dispelled by the response: more than a thousand hopefuls sent in their applications. An ad hoc committee of the Space Science Board (chaired in Hess's absence by Eugene Shoemaker) rigorously scrutinized about 400 of those who passed NASA's preliminary screening, finally sending only 16 names to NASA for final evaluation.42 MSC had hoped for a larger group to choose from; Slayton's selection board had much less information on the applicants' physical condition and psychological makeup than they had for military applicants, and the choices were consequently harder to make.43 The Space Science Board, however, was evidently determined to pick only the most promising scientists. Shoemaker later recalled that the committee had been disappointed in the overall quality of the applications that came in. Not many of the scientists who applied came up to the rather high standards they set.44 Whatever the reasons for this, NASA was able to pick only 6 scientist-astronauts instead of 10 or more, as it had initially planned.

On June 27, 1965, NASA announced the names of its first scientist-astronaut candidates: two physicians, Duane M. Graveline and Lt. Cmdr. Joseph P. Kerwin, MC, USN, and four Ph.D. scientists, F. Curtis Michel, Edward G. Gibson, Owen K. Garriott, and Harrison H. Schmitt (who was generally known by his nickname, "Jack").45 Kerwin was a flight surgeon stationed at Cecil Naval Air Station in Florida; Graveline, a former Air Force flight surgeon, was working in the medical program at MSC. Gibson, a senior research scientist at the Applied Research Laboratories of Philco's Aeronutronics Division in San Diego, California, and Garriott, associate professor of physics at Stanford University, were both engineers engaged in research in solar and atmospheric physics. Michel was an assistant professor of physics at Rice University in Houston conducting research in the interaction of the solar wind with the earth's atmosphere. Schmitt, the lone geologist in the group, was working with Eugene Shoemaker at the Geological Survey's Astrogeology Branch. The only qualified pilots in the group were Michel, a former Air Force pilot, and Kerwin, a naval aviator. The other four were sent to Williams Air Force Base in Arizona to begin 55 weeks of flying training.46 Within a few weeks Graveline resigned from the program, citing "personal reasons" for his actions.47

39. See W. David Compton and Charles D. Benson, Living and Working in Space: A History of Skylab, NASA SP-4208 (Washington, 1983) pp. 12-14, 19-20; also House, Subcommittee on Manned Space Flight of the Committee on Science and Astronautics, 1965 NASA Authorization, hearings on H.R. 9641, 88/2, pt. 2, pp. 446-48, 587-609, and Arnold S. Levine, Managing NASA in the Apollo Era, NASA SP-4102 (Washington, 1982) , pp. 239-47.

40. Homer E. Newell to W. N. Hess, Apr. 16, 1964.

41. "NASA to Select Scientist-Astronauts for Future Missions," NASA Release 64-248, Oct. 19, 1964.

42. Homer E. Newell, Beyond the Atmosphere: Early Years of Space Science, NASA SP-4211 (Washington, 1980), p. 209.

43. Slayton interview, Oct. 15, 1984.

44. Eugene M. Shoemaker interview, Mar. 17, 1984. According to Jack Schmitt, who worked with Shoemaker before and after he was selected as an astronaut, the committee set the standards too high. He recalled telling Shoemaker that they should have picked more scientists, "because we need[ed] more visibility down here." Shoemaker argued that the Academy did not want to risk choosing people who would not work out as astronauts, so the committee applied very strict standards. H. H. Schmitt interview, July 6, 1984.

45. MSC News Release 65-63, June 29, 1965.

46. "NASA Picks 6 Scientist-Astronauts To Make Field Trips to the Moon," Washington Post, June 27, 1965.

47. Associated Press, "Dr. Graveline Quits Project as Astronaut," Chicago Tribune, Aug. 19, 1965. Graveline's wife sued him for divorce shortly after he was selected. While no documentation has been found to confirm it, the general impression among the astronauts was that divorce was considered incompatible with the established image of the astronaut, apart from the fact that involvement in a divorce case might create psychological problems that would impair the trainee's (or pilot's) efficiency.

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