Mercury Museum -- Hall Of Fame Honors 7 Who Blazed A Trail In Space

TITUSVILLE, Fla. - In the beginning, there were seven.

They were the original astronauts, the ones who led America into space in the early 1960s. At that time, going into space was still a great unknown, so the Mercury Seven, as they were called, were real pioneers.

Now, at the place where they made history, a museum has opened to highlight the astronauts' role in the space program. Called the U.S. Astronaut Hall of Fame, the new facility features exhibits from the space program and tells the stories of each of the seven Mercury astronauts.

Mercury was the name of the one-man, closet-sized capsules in which America's first men in space rode. Only six manned Mercury flights were made before the astronauts moved on to the next stages, the Gemini and Apollo missions. Some space is devoted to the exploits of the astronauts who followed the Mercury Seven, but there are plans and room to add more displays.

The Hall of Fame shares a large new building with the Florida branch of the U.S. Space Camp at the entrance to Kennedy Space Center. This camp offers youngsters a chance to spend five days learning about space flight.

In its half of the structure, the Space Camp has a full-sized replica of a space shuttle cabin area, mockups of mission control consoles, a device that can simulate the one-sixth gravity of the moon, multi-axis trainers, a simulated lunar rover and other space-related facilities.

Each of the six living Mercury astronauts contributed several dozen items of memorabilia to the museum. Betty Grissom, widow of the seventh astronaut, donated the Congressional Space Medal of Honor and other items relating to her late husband, Gus, who was the first man to fly in space twice. Grissom was burned to death in 1967 along with Edward H. White II and Roger B. Chaffee when they were trapped in an Apollo training capsule that caught fire.

The first American to go into space, Alan Shepard, was also the only Mercury astronaut to go to the moon. You can see the checklist he had strapped to his arm when he made his moon walk.

You also can see the gloves John Glenn wore when he became the first American to orbit the Earth, the headphones used by Malcolm Scott Carpenter when his capsule was lost briefly by the tracking stations, the leather jacket worn by Deke Slayton.

Other men who contributed significantly to the space program are recognized with photos and short biographies - among them Chris Kraft, the Mercury flight director, and Wernher von Braun, who successfully launched America's first satellite into space and designed the boosters that sent men to the moon.

Museum visitors enter a tunnel with displays relating to early space efforts - the world's first satellite, Sputnik, launched by the Soviet Union in 1957; America's first satellite, Explorer I, launched in 1958 after the highly touted Vanguard exploded on the pad in an embarrassing failure; the first manned Mercury flight on May 5, 1961, less than a month after the Soviet Union's Yuri Gagarin became the first man into space; the pledge by President John F. Kennedy to put a man on the moon by the end of the 1960s.

In a large gift shop, space-struck visitors can purchase such things an astronaut dinner ($4.99 for chicken, rice, peas, peaches and ice cream, all freeze-dried and packed in a plastic envelope), model rocket engines and launch posters.

Down the road seven miles is Spaceport USA, where dozens of rockets and hundreds of spaceflight artifacts are on view. From there, visitors can board buses for a tour of the launching facilities at Kennedy Space Center.


U.S. Astronaut Hall of Fame, 6225 Vectorspace Blvd., Titusville, Fla. 32780, Information: 1-407-269-6100, 9 a.m.-6 p.m. daily. Admission: $4.95 adults, $2.95 children 3-12.

U.S. Space Camp Florida: Accepts children in grades 4-7 for five-day courses. Information: 1-407-267-3184, 8 a.m.-6 p.m. daily. For Space Camp registration information and brochures: 1-800-63-SPACE.