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How NASA selected the first astronauts (and why no convicts have walked on the Moon)

In a notion almost completely lost to history, there was a time before NASA picked the first seven astronauts where it had some controversial ideas about who should go to space.

How NASA selected the first astronauts (and why no convicts have walked on the Moon)
[Source Photo: Flickr user Clemens Vasters]

This is the third in an exclusive series of 50 articles, one published each day until July 20, exploring the 50th anniversary of the first-ever Moon landing. You can check out 50 Days to the Moon here every day. 

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In the earliest days of planning to send people into space, NASA was worried that no one would want to go.

So the agency had an idea: Ask prison inmates to volunteer to be the first astronauts.

It may be the space agency’s single-most wrongheaded idea in its history, and it isn’t mentioned anywhere in the official documents about early astronaut selection, or the histories of manned spaceflight. There’s not a whisper of it in Tom Wolfe’s The Right Stuff, the rollicking insider account of the selection of those early astronauts.

But the story comes from an authoritative source: Warren J. North, a senior NASA official who helped select the first U.S. astronauts, the so-called “Mercury 7,” and went on to be chief of NASA’s flight crew operations.

In 1958, in the early planning stages for the manned U.S. space program–the one-person Mercury flights–NASA considered what would happen if no one wanted to be an astronaut.

“The Mercury project was a wild undertaking at first because the Atlas rockets and the ICBMs [intercontinental ballistic missiles] were not designed for manned flights,” North said. They were, in fact, missiles designed to deliver atomic bombs.

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“We had thoughts of asking prisons for volunteers,” said North. “The designers of these rockets never believed a man would ever be sitting on top and consequently did not build in safety measures as they would have with an airplane.”

Then, said North, NASA “considered recruiting steeplejacks [jockeys], who were used to risks.” At the time, no one even knew if human brains would work in space.

North–himself an experienced World War II instructor pilot–told the story in a speech he gave in Chicago in March 1963, and it made the front page of the Chicago Tribune, with the headline: “’58 Plan Told for Convicts as Spacemen,” by Tribune reporter Ronald Kotulak.

It was an authentic space-age scoop, at a moment when Americans were eager for any tidbit about astronauts and spaceflight. But in the era before the internet, not one other newspaper picked up on the Tribune‘s story–then or since. And someone from NASA must have had a chat with North, because there’s no evidence he ever repeated that great anecdote again in public, including in his NASA oral history interview, which runs 8,000 words.

One reason the story, and the speech, disappeared is the low-profile venue where North was speaking that day in March 1963: At a dinner meeting of the Industrial Relations Association of Chicago. Attendance: about 60.

In the end, of course, NASA made every effort to make sure those early nuclear-missile-launching rockets were safe for human beings. As flying spaceships turned out to be incredibly demanding, NASA went in completely the opposite direction of recruiting convicts: selecting the first astronauts from the ranks of the most highly qualified military pilots. Upon the introduction of the Mercury 7, Time magazine reported that the IQs of those first seven NASA astronauts “range from 135 to 147–the genius level.” North went through their training with them.

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On the eve of Apollo 11’s first Moon landing, North wrote a piece for the New York Times headlined, “Astronauts Training at the PhD Level.” In fact, three of the 12 astronauts who would walk on the Moon had their PhDs before flying there–one from Harvard, two from MIT.

No convicted felons have walked on the Moon.


Charles Fishman, who has written for Fast Company since its inception, has spent the last four years researching and writing One Giant Leap, a book about how it took 400,000 people, 20,000 companies, and one federal government to get 27 people to the Moon. (You can pre-order it here.)

For each of the next 50 days, we’ll be posting a new story from Fishman–one you’ve likely never heard before–about the first effort to get to the Moon that illuminates both the historical effort and the current ones. New posts will appear here daily as well as be distributed via Fast Company’s social media. (Follow along at #50DaysToTheMoon).

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About the author

Charles Fishman, an award-winning Fast Company contributor, is the author of One Giant Leap: The Impossible Mission that Flew Us to the Moon. His exclusive 50-part series, 50 Days to the Moon, will appear here between June 1 and July 20.

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