July this year will mark the 50th anniversary of the Apollo 11 landing on the Moon, the first space mission to put a human being on our only natural satellite. But 60 years ago this week, the first step took place that would lead to that historic step, ten years later.
On April 9 in 1959, the newly-established National Aeronautics and Space Administration (NASA) introduced its first astronauts, seven men chosen from a pool of 508 test pilots that were subjected to a grueling process to try to earn their place in history by rocketing into Earth orbit. After they were introduced to the press, they became instant celebrities.
They were known as the Mercury 7, and though the project encountered setbacks, and the USSR succeeded in getting the first man into orbit in April of 1961, Alan Shephard and John Glenn weren’t far behind.
Project Mercury lasted five years, and gave way to Project Gemini, NASA’s second manned space mission, designed to develop space travel techniques in preparation for the Apollo Mission, which landed human beings on the surface of the Moon in July, 1969.
But let’s look at the choice of names for these missions, especially given that it starts with the trickster god Mercury; moves on to the region of the zodiac over which he has dominion, Gemini; and reaches its peak with Apollo, the ancient god of prophecy. In Greek mythology, Mercury stole the cattle of Apollo, but then gave his lyre in exchange for the cows, ending up with the caduceus in the bargain, the snake-entwined staff by which the trickster god is known.
In Homer’s “Iliad”, Apollo warns Diomedes to give way, and not aspire to be the equal of gods. “The immortals are not made of the same stuff as men that walk on the ground!”
Hear this week’s episode on Interlochen Public Radio at this link.
And how does NASA decide on its mission names? Here’s a quick overview from a 2015 Smithsonian Magazine article: What’s in a name?
May you know beautifully starry skies,