Spaceflight: The Marine Astronauts features artifacts and imagery from U.S. Marine Corps astronauts who have made and continue to make significant contributions to the space program. This online version of the exhibition is divided into three sections and covers distinctive phases of the space program: To the Moon: 1961–1969; Building A Permanent Presence: 1970–2019; and New Ventures: Return to the Moon and Beyond: 2020–Today.
To the Moon: 1961–1969
The first years of American human spaceflight consisted of a series of increasingly difficult human and technical challenges. Flying solo, Project Mercury astronauts achieved suborbital flight in 1961 before Marine John Glenn became the first American to orbit the Earth on 20 February 1962.
The Mercury astronauts tested and proved their ability to work in zero gravity and return to Earth. Two-man Project Gemini crews built on these successes and developed the technologies and procedures to successfully send a man to the Moon and bring him safely back to Earth. The challenging lessons of the Mercury and Gemini programs led to the success of the Apollo Program, which landed the first astronauts on the Moon in 1969.
Individual Marines, through their commitment, accomplishments, and sacrifices have made significant contributions to the success of this historic era of spaceflight.
John Glenn aboard Friendship 7 by NASANational Museum of the Marine Corps
Colonel John H. Glenn, Jr.
John Glenn was the first American to fly an orbital mission in the Project Mercury Friendship 7 spacecraft on 20 February 1962. A Marine fighter pilot in WWII and in the Korean War, where he had three aerial victories as a USAF exchange pilot.
Glenn made the first supersonic transcontinental flight across the U.S., helped design cockpit layouts for the Apollo Program, was elected to the U.S. Senate from his home state of Ohio four times, and returned to space in 1998 at the age of 77.
“Zero G and I feel fine!” Colonel John H. Glenn, Jr.
During his orbit flight aboard Friendship 7, John Glenn became the first human to take color photographs of Earth using this Ansco Autoset camera. NASA mounted the camera upside down in its custom grip so that Glenn could use it while wearing his helmet. Also highlighted is Senator John Glenn’s personal model of Friendship 7, the Project Mercury space capsule in which he became the first American to orbit the Earth in 1962.
Colonel Leroy Gordon Cooper, Jr. (1963) by NASANational Museum of the Marine Corps
Colonel Leroy Gordon Cooper, Jr.
Prior to joining the USAF in 1949, Gordon “Gordo” Cooper enlisted in the Marine Corps, but WWII ended before he saw any combat. Cooper graduated from the USAF Experimental Flight Test School in 1957 as a test pilot and was selected as an astronaut in April 1959.
In May 1963, Cooper piloted his Project Mercury Faith 7 spacecraft, orbiting the Earth 22 times in just over 34 hours. Cooper became the first astronaut to make a second orbital flight, commanding the Gemini V spacecraft with pilot Charles “Pete” Conrad in August 1965.
Robot Recorder 36 35mm Camera--on loan from NASM (1963) by NASANational Museum of the Marine Corps
Robot Recorder 36 35mm Camera
Gordon Cooper used this Robot Recorder aboard the Faith 7 spacecraft. NASA modified the camera to make it easier for Cooper to use while wearing his pressure suit, adding an automatic film feed and three small red “feet” so the camera could be positioned against the spacecraft’s window.
“Well, I think, you know, when we got on the program, I practically had to pinch myself every day to think that I’m really here, because it was really an opportunity to really do some pioneering.” Colonel Leroy Gordon Cooper, Jr.
Marine Helicopter Transport Squadron (Light) 262 (1961-05-05) by NASANational Museum of the Marine Corps
Marine Helicopter Transport Squadron (Light) 262
Marine Corps helicopter crews assisted with the recovery of several Project Mercury capsules and astronauts. Marines flying Sikorsky UH-34D helicopters from Marine Helicopter Squadron (Light) 262 retrieved astronaut Alan Shepard and his Freedom 7 spacecraft on 5 May 1961.
Marine helicopter crews also recovered “Ham the Astrochimp,” the first chimpanzee to fly in space, on 3 January 1961 and astronaut Gus Grissom whose Liberty Bell 7 sank during the recovery effort on 21 July 1961.
A Sikorsky UH-34D helicopter flight crew from Marine Helicopter Transport Squadron (Light) 262 used this rescue harness sling and crook to recover Alan B. Shepard after his Freedom 7 spacecraft landed in the Atlantic Ocean on 5 May 1961.
Major Clifton Curtis Williams, Jr. by NASANational Museum of the Marine Corps
Major Clifton “C.C.” Williams
Major Clifton “C.C.” Williams was a Marine test pilot selected as part of the third class of astronauts in 1963 for Project Gemini. He died in a flying accident on 5 October 1967, when his NASA training aircraft suffered a mechanical failure.
Williams served as the backup pilot for the Gemini 10 mission and would have piloted the second Moon landing as part of Apollo 12. His replacement, Alan Bean, placed Williams’ Naval Aviator Wings and NASA astronaut pin on the Moon.
“I’d like to go on every flight. Of course, if you said which mission I would most like to have, I’d say the first lunar flight you make from the standpoint of personal satisfaction and accomplishment.” Major Clifton Curtis Williams, Jr.
Colonel Ronnie Walter Cunningham by NASANational Museum of the Marine Corps
Colonel Ronnie Walter Cunningham
Walter Cunningham was a Marine Corps aviator from 1953 to 1956, flew 54 missions as a night fighter pilot during the Korean War, and served in the USMC Reserve until 1976. Prior to joining NASA in 1963, Cunningham worked as a scientist at the Rand Corporation researching the Earth’s magnetosphere.
Cunningham piloted Apollo 7, an 11-day orbital mission that proved the Saturn spacecraft’s endurance for lunar missions in 1968. NASA later made him chief of the Skylab branch, where he was responsible for the Skylab space station, its launch vehicles, and 56 major experiments. Cunningham left NASA in 1971.
Apollo Communications Carrier Headset-on loan from NASM (1968) by NASANational Museum of the Marine Corps
Apollo Communications Carrier Headset
This communications headset was used on Apollo 7 by Marine astronaut Ronnie Walter “Walt” Cunningham in October 1968. The “Snoopy Cap” headset carried earphones and microphones in a compact cloth covering that resembled the head and ears of the cartoon character Snoopy.
“When we went to the Moon, it was not only just standing on a new plateau for all mankind. We changed the way everybody in the world thought of themselves.” Colonel Ronnie Walter Cunningham
Captain Fred W. Haise, Jr. (1970) by NASANational Museum of the Marine Corps
Captain Fred W. Haise, Jr.
Fred Haise completed his naval flight training in 1954 and served with Marine Fighter Squadrons 114 and 533 until leaving the service in 1956. Joining NASA in 1959, he conducted flight research on wingless lifting bodies and other test aircraft prior to becoming an astronaut in 1966.
Haise was a backup crewmember on the Apollo 8, 11, and 16 missions, and was part of the crew of the ill-fated Apollo 13 mission. He joined the space shuttle program and in 1977 flew five Approach and Landing Tests in the prototype Space Shuttle Enterprise to explore its flight characteristics during landing.
“My experience as a pilot in VMF-114 and VMF-533 reinforced the virtues of discipline and preparedness as well as flying experience that greatly supported my ability to work with a team to have a successful recovery on the Apollo 13 mission.” Captain Fred W. Haise, Jr.
The exhibition Spaceflight: The Marine Astronauts was developed by the National Museum of the Marine Corps. It is on exhibit at the Museum through January 2024.
Images used in this exhibition appear courtesy of NASA.