NASA Gave the Mercury 7 Astronauts This Impossible Choice

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The Right Stuff Mercury 7 astronauts
The Mercury 7 astronauts were one tough group of operators. (National Geographic Channel)

NASA did a lot to create the special operator myths when it created the Mercury 7 astronaut program in 1958. The new National Geographic series “The Right Stuff” (streaming now on Disney+) tracks that program -- and the challenges faced by the men tasked with getting America into space.

We applaud anyone who’s got the drive, determination and fearlessness required to be a special operator, but it’s not like those talents come without their own share of personal baggage.

There was an extra layer of challenge for these astronauts. These hard-charging test pilots, men who’d made their career by mastering the most dangerous experimental aircraft in the world, didn’t actually have much to do as the “pilots” of spacecraft controlled by computers on the ground.

Still, every one of the seven original astronauts was determined to be the first American in space and trained ferociously to be the man that NASA selected for the honor.

In episode five of the series, the men learn their fate. How the first-man-in-space selection gets made is somehow even more tortuous than the competition that preceded it. We’ve got an advance clip of that moment.

After years of playing angles to impress the bosses, the brass asks the astronauts a surprising question: “If you couldn’t make the trip yourself, which of your peers would you choose?” Each man is given an index card and asked to write down the name.

Now, mere mortals might just answer the question as asked, writing the name of the astronaut they admired most. The process would then produce a consensus and the best man for the job would emerge.

That’s not how operators work. When you’re in it to win it, you’ve got to look at the strategy that best gets you where you want to be. Wouldn’t your first impulse be to write the name of the astronaut least qualified for the mission to give yourself a better chance to rise to the top?

And then, you realize: What if everyone else plays the same angle? Then the prize goes to someone who least deserves it. So now you’re looking around the room and ask yourself: How are the other six going to play this game and what other name written on this index card gives me the best chance to win?

A reader who passed their statistics class can probably give us an exact read on the number of different outcomes in this scenario. Dozens, for sure. Hundreds? More?

Of course, the easiest thing is to answer the question as asked for the good of the space program and the United States of America. Would you be able to do that? What about the Mercury 7 astronauts?

History has taught us who wins here (spoiler: Alan Shepard) but how that selection gets made is the heart of the Mercury 7 story. You’ll have to watch the show to find out how each man plays the game.

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