Allen Varney, writer and game designer


A "Blast From the Past" column from Tuff Stuff Collect! magazine:


by Allen Varney

[Published in Tuff Stuff Collect! magazine, November 1996.]

If you were born after October 5, 1957 -- the launch of Soviet satellite Sputnik I -- then you're a child of the Space Age. I'm one. I watched Apollo bring the Moon to our living rooms in prime time, and I got up before dawn to see the latest cable-TV snapshots of other worlds sent back by robot vikings and voyagers. But I'm just a hair too young to remember their most famous forerunners, the first American astronauts: the Mercury seven.

Scott Carpenter, Gordon Cooper, John Glenn, Gus Grissom, Wally Schirra, Alan Shepard, Deke Slayton: Today we can barely imagine their once-staggering popularity. For five frozen years of the Cold War (1959-63) these pilots were American heroes. The biggest since Charles Lindbergh! The best since anyone! NASA's Mercury program meant America was catching up in the Space Race -- that the Soviets, who were setting all the records in space exploration then, wouldn't take the high ground without a fight. And our astronauts were just the fighters who could win. Brave, talented, clean-cut, virtuous family men, they seemed like living icons of God, Flag, and Family. Life magazine promulgated this image in exclusive photo features, as did TV newscasts and windblown political speeches. Praise for these saintly heroes appeared in NASA historian James M. Grimwood's This New Ocean: A History of Project Mercury, Robert Silverberg's First American in Space, and many other boring books.

Almost two decades later, first in Apollo astronaut Walter Cunningham's The All-American Boys (1977), then in Tom Wolfe's bestseller The Right Stuff (1979), a truer and more compelling story emerged. Most Mercury astronauts, it turns out, were like other top-notch military test pilots: reckless, foul-mouthed, irreligious, hard-drinking womanizers with gargantuan egos. (Wolfe called it "the Pilot Ego -- ego didn't come any bigger!") Only John Glenn matched the All-American Astronaut image, and most of the others thought him a prig.

More to the point, the Mercury astronauts, all of them elite pilots, never got to do much. Each one slipped into a cramped capsule ("You don't ride in it, you wear it," went the joke), went up, punched a few buttons, and came back down, automatically. NASA had trained chimpanzees to do it. Only Cooper actually did any piloting, because his capsule's automated systems failed. Of course, it took great courage to ride atop a rocket loaded with explosive liquid oxygen. But given that their tremendous skills went unused, it's curious that the Mercury astronauts became so famous.

Yet they were immeasurably famous, far more so than any later astronaut. People looked at them and broke into tears. The heroes hobnobbed with JFK and Jackie at the White House. Glenn and Cooper each addressed a joint session of Congress, and friends, only one honor beats that: a set of 55 trading cards from Topps.

The 1963 "Astronauts" set features NASA color photos, not always well reproduced, along with worshipful captions. The backs are odd 3-D science-fictional drawings of rocketships dodging asteroids, astronauts playing baseball on the Moon, and the like. A set runs $200-275; single cards are $2-6, and the checklist (#55) can bring $10-20. The same series was also issued inside Popsicles by the Joe Lowe Corporation. The Williamson Candy Company brought out seven photo-cards of the Mercury astronauts in O'Henry multi-bar packages; these run about $4 apiece today, but finding them all can be difficult. More recently, great photos from Project Mercury appeared in the two 110-card "Space Shots" series from Space Ventures (1990-91).

Tom Wolfe believes the Mercury astronauts' fame represented a revival of the ancient practice of single combat, where the finest soldiers of opposing armies would battle in place of the entire force. I prefer a simpler explanation: People treated the astronauts the way we treat star athletes. While they win contests, we love them; afterward, we retire them to the history books. Like athletes, they got trading cards. Today collectors can treasure these as souvenirs of a big, big race.