Ep. 349: Mercury 7 and How the US Picked the First Astronauts

Before the Apollo Program, there was the Gemini Program, and before Gemini came the Mercury Program. 7 elite astronauts chosen from a pool of military test pilots. How did NASA choose these original 7 men?

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This episode is sponsored by:  Swinburne Astronomy Online, 8th Light

Show Notes

  • HeroX
  • Mercury — America’s First Astronauts — NASA
  • How the Mercury Astronauts were chosen — NASA
  • Designing the Perfect Astronaut — Amy Shira Teitel
  • Space Chimps
  • Book: Astronaut Wives Club
  • Alan Shepard biography
  • Alan Shepard: Complicated, Conflicted and the Consumate Astronaut — Universe Today
  • Gus Grissom bio
  • Remembering Gus Grissom, NASA’s Most Controversial Astronaut — DVice
  • John Glenn bio
  • John Glenn — LIFE photos
  • Scott Carpenter bio
  • Deke Slayton bio
  • Wally Schirra bio
  • Wally Schirra, Engineering Precision and a Disasterous Head Cold — PopSci
  • Gordon Cooper bio
  • “From the Earth to the Moon” videos
  • A Man on the Moon: The Voyages of the Apollo Astronauts” by Andrew Chaikin
  • Andrew Chaikin
  • “The Right Stuff” — book
  • “The Right Stuff” — movie
  • Transcript

    Transcription services provided by: GMR Transcription

    Female Speaker: This episode of Astronomy Cast is brought to you by Swinburne Astronomy Online, the world’s longest wanting online astronomy degree program. Visit astronomy.swin.edu.au for more information.

    Fraser Cain: Astronomy Cast episode 349, Mercury 7 astronauts.

    Welcome to Astronomy Cast, our weekly facts take journey through the cosmos; we’ll help you understand not only what we know but how we know what we know. My name is Fraser Cain, I’m a publisher in Universe Today and with me is Dr. Pamela Gay a professor at Southern Illinois University Edwardsville and director of Cosmos Quest. Hey Pam, how are you doing?

    Dr. Pamela Gay: I’m doing well, how are you doing today, Fraser?

    Fraser Cain: I’m doing really well and I’ve got a new job that I thought I would announce here publicly in Astronomy Cast and among all the other things to try and get some publicity. We get to shamelessly say from all things we do from time to time.

    Dr. Pamela Gay: We do. And this is an awesome project.

    Fraser Cain: This is a pretty awesome job, yes!

    So I have joined a company called HeroX and HeroX is a offshoot of the XPRIZE so we’ve talked about the XPRIZE before this is the… prize created by Peter Diamandis off of the award over $10 Million to the first private spacecraft that reached 100 Kilometers altitude twice because one by scale composite and then they’ve gone to create another XPRIZE like the Tricorder XPRIZE and the Lunar XPRIZE which I know you were doing some work with. So what HeroX is, it is sort of kick-starter meets XPRIZE.

    And so the question is, can we take the work that we with the XPRIZE and put it on the internet and let anybody come up with an XPRIZE style challenge an incentive challenge, can anybody raise the funds and pledge money together to create a prize and then can anybody come together and compete to win the challenge? And if it’s possible then we’re gonna figure out how to do it. And so I’m the new development manager for HeroX and so I’m the person who is gonna be sort of creating the features the functionality of the platform and try to figure out how to make this go.

    So if you are a fan of me, please I beg you come help me out. Come and help me, I was facing some challenges I’ll figure out some ideas like the XPRIZE like the Tricorder XPRIZE, like the Lunar XPRIZE, what are some ideas that would benefit humanity or just make everyone’s life a little easier? And we’ll see if we can turn these into challenges and try and get them funded so that’s where we’re good. So it’s herox.com.

    And now back toward to our show. That’s a tall order, I mean, Peter Diamandis, I’m a huge fan of Peter Diamandis and the XPRIZE and all the folks that are working on this so it’s kind of a dream-come-true to work on this project.

    Dr. Pamela Gay: I’d like to see this succeed so please go support what he’s doing.

    Fraser Cain: That would be awesome.

    Female Speaker: This episode of Astronomy Cast is brought to you by 8th Light [inaudible] [00:03:28] 8th Light is an audial software development company, they craft beautiful applications that are durable and reliable. 8th Light provides discipline software leadership on demand and shares it’s expertise to make your project better. For more information visit it online at www.8flight.com. Just remember, that’s www dot, the digit eight, t, h, l, i, g, h, t, .com [inaudible].

    8th Light, software is their craft.

    Fraser Cain: Right, so before the Apollo program there was a Gemini program and before the Gemini team, the Mercury Program. Seven elite astronauts chosen from a pool of military test pilots so, how did NASA choose his original seven men? And so I guess this is a continuation of our numerology selection in which we look at things that have numbers in them.

    Dr. Pamela Gay: That is true.

    Fraser Cain: So then, who were the Mercury 7?

    Dr. Pamela Gay: The Mercury 7 were test pilots. Initially there’ve been a NASA plan to do open competition for the first astronauts but the President Dwight D. Eisenhower came out and said, no, it’s not just anybody we want, we want the best, we want tests pilots. Amusingly they didn’t want Chuck Yeager but that’s a different story that we’re not going into today.

    And so… the first place you look when you want test pilots back then was the military. And so they looked at the military which is full of tall manly-man who fly space – not spacecraft, fly aircraft to doing amazing things and they realized, the Mercury spacecraft is kind of tiny, so then they add, okay you need to be a test pilot, you need to be under 5 foot 11and you need to weigh less than 189 pounds so that suddenly changes your demographic because if you think about it, 5’ 11’’ and 189 pounds is pretty thin.

    Fraser Cain: I’m out.

    Dr. Pamela Gay: And are you taller than 5’ 11’’?

    Fraser Cain: Yeah, 6’ 8’’

    Dr. Pamela Gay: So I … it was – and now we’re down to tiny test pilots and so then they said: okay have to be under the age 40 which gets us out again…

    Fraser Cain: Out!

    Dr. Pamela Gay: You have to have a bachelor’s degree or equivalent, so that one wasn’t quite so bad given everything –

    Fraser Cain: [crosstalk] Also out.

    Dr. Pamela Gay: Well… Okay, fine. You weren’t allowed to be an astronaut.

    Fraser Cain: [crosstalk] Correct.

    Dr. Pamela Gay: 1500 hours flight time and qualified to fly jets.

    Fraser Cain: Finally! Something I can do.

    Dr. Pamela Gay: Yes. So they put out an advertisement and got hundreds and hundreds of applicants, which kind of leaves you going, how do we deal with this? This is a lot of people.

    So then they start searching military records because it wasn’t just the application that mattered. So you have to have a coherent application but then they looked at what was your service, where did you serve, how did you serve and I’m kind of intrigued that they tried really hard to grab people from all the services. So even the marines which wasn’t known for its test pilots had five candidates, you had 47 coming in from the navy, 58 coming in from the air force, 69 of these came to Washington D. C. And they brought them in two groups, or at least they planned to bring them in two groups, except the first group was so good that… they kind of stopped. So then they tortured them.

    Fraser Cain: I’m intrigued. How did they torture them?

    Dr. Pamela Gay: So, back then we had no idea what the human body would experience with… wait, listen this, we didn’t know if people would be able to swallow in space. We … we didn’t know anything basically. We knew that people were going to be experiencing high G forces – and so they did everything from spinning them in centrifuges to doing a cold extreme tasks by plunging their feet into ice water.

    They emptied them out into rather horrible medical ways using a grandmother torture device of enemas and Castor oil and so… they did all sorts of stuff and this was on top of the how-athletic-are-you? Let’s stick you on a treadmill forever and do oxygen readings and let’s tilt you and leave you slanted for a long period of time and see how you respond to that. So test, after test, after test, after test.

    Fraser Cain: It must have sucked. Like all of those blood tests – blood tests like every couple of days and with the other stuff they had to do… No thank you. I’m out!

    Dr. Pamela Gay: And if you look at the timing for this, a lot of these were man who flew in World War two, who they’ve been-there-done-that hadn’t always seen the best of conditions and what really got me was looking at all the reasons that people originally got weaned out, six somehow snuck in and turned out to be too tall, so that’s the. Oh! I didn’t know I was that height problem, that one’s fairly dignified at least. But then 33 just failed to be able to pass all of the exams so this was rigorous, grueling, physiological testing that took place and of those that survived then four were like, I’m done I’m out of here, drop the mic, walk out of the room and just weren’t going to keep going.

    In the second round of testing they did of these poor individuals, eight more people didn’t make it through all the exams and… so after all the exams were over they had 18 people to interview to basically do the media test, the education test, the IQ test and then from those 18, weaned it down to seven man, six of whom eventually flew into space on the Gemini program and all of them were genius level IQ, all of them were eagle scouts which I find the most amusing and they were drawn from all of the different militaries.

    So they started out with one chimp and seven humans ready to fly into space and the chimp and six humans were able to actually go up during Mercury the last human eventually flew during the Apollo Soyuz mission and most of them flew more than once but I think that I’m jumping ahead of the story.

    Fraser Cain: So, who then were these people?

    Dr. Pamela Gay: So they were a variety of different military man, as I said, they were drawn from all the different militaries so we had three air force pilots, Gus Garrisom, Cooper, Dicky Slake, there were three navy pilots, Alan Shepard, Carl Carpenter, Schirra, there’s one marine co-pilot, John Glenn, it’s kind of awesome given how few marines started out in the testing that one marine made it all the way through and I think that says something for marines.

    And so these different man then, proceeded to start training and this was something were their wives were front and centered, they were front and centered, they ended up signing an agreement with Life magazine to have their life totally followed and they realized what they were in for but they also realized the opportunity they were being given and so they pulled together, the wives supporting each other, they split all of the money for the media opportunities…

    They took care of each other for all the years of all of the missions and unfortunately we’re at the point today were the only one left alive to still tell the stories is John Glenn but for a lot of years, many of these man rose through the different ranks of NASA and in cases like John Glenn even, though the US Government.

    Fraser Cain: Gus Grissom off course lost his life during the Apollo 1 fire –

    Dr. Pamela Gay: [Crosstalk] right.

    Fraser Cain: But the rest went on to move through the … from the Mercury program many man went to the Gemini program and then into the Apollo program, right?

    Dr. Pamela Gay: Yes. So Alan Shepard’s the one we all think about in terms of first American in space – this in an interesting series, the project Mercury because while it had a whole lot of American fists it didn’t do anything that hadn’t already been done. So we were still chasing on the hills with the Soviet Union at this point. So… off course Ham the chimp who was a project Mercury crew member, wasn’t exactly one of the Mercury 7 but he did fly on the Mercury and there were seven crewed Mercury missions just one of them was crewed by a chimpanzee.

    Fraser Cain: It was chimp crewed.

    Dr. Pamela Gay: Yes, one was chimp crewed so we start with Ham the chimp who was trained to move leavers in space because there was a whole lot of concern that the poor fellow and poor humans latter just wouldn’t be able to think, to act, to do any… – we had no idea what we were getting into. So he launched on what was called MR2 on January the 31st 1961, it was a sub-orbital flight and he happily moved his leavers and his timing, wow! He was going around the planet was only slightly slower, just a second to so then was when he was on the ground. Well, if the chip can deal with the chaos of sub-orbital flight and stuff his tasks, it’s pretty easy to imagine that an American military man who can fly tests plains will be able to handle his controls.

    So we went from Ham the chimp to Alan Shepard’s he went up … first launch for him was… unfortunately his first launch and last launch for many-many years. Alan Shepard … a lot of people know the story of how he was waiting for lunch, waiting for lunch and before lunch he drank a whole lot of coffee, drank way too much coffee and… they haven’t though through the fact that he was going to get loaded up and might not just kind of immediately take off and they didn’t and so he eventually he got permission to relief himself of all of that coffee in his space suit.

    And one of the legends that’s floating around which isn’t true is that the reason he got grounded from for so many years was because the urine in his space suit when he hit cero G got into his ears and caused ear problems that then grounded him. While I haven’t heard anyone crack the notion that he did get pee in his ears.

    The real reason why he got grounded was, he had a condition called Meniere’s decease, which is an ear disorder but it’s not something that gets necessarily caused by peeing in your ears. So he got grounded from the rest of the Mercury flights, he was chief astronaut throughout the Gemini years and they finally cleared him again to launch during the Apollo missions and he was the commandant of the Apollo 14 crew.

    So he got to go back and forth from launching May 5th 1861 on Freedom 7, 15 minutes sub-orbital where he spent a whole lot longer waiting to latch, then came down, took care of the other guys, he was that leader through the Gemini years and then eventually finally got to fly again. So he … unfortunately he has passed away, he died in 1998 at the age of 74. I personally find it greatly amusing that he lived up the rest of his life in Pebble Beach which always makes me think of “I dream of Jannie” so you do have the astronauts down there and he’s another New Englander like I am, he is originally from Derry, New Hampshire and these early astronauts they did kind of come from all over the United States.

    Fraser Cain: So that was the – but that was a response to… I guess, to Yeager gone and they didn’t actually … he didn’t get a chance to actually orbit, it was a sub-orbital flight, it was … it was a ballistic trajectory that he took so it was still a little while before the Americans finally got someone to fully orbit the… earth like that, even Grissom didn’t do it after Shepard.

    Dr. Pamela Gay: They were still launching on red stone missiles. And I use the word missile on purpose. They called them rockets, they were missiles. So these weren’t designed to go around the planet, these were designed to take out the Russians and so Gus Grissom went up on Liberty Bell 7 in July of 1961 basically trying to do a quick turnaround, show what we’re capable of but while he went a little bit further, it was still a sub-orbital flight and just basically went up and down range and backed down and rescued out of the ocean –

    Fraser Cain: [Inaudible] [00:18:01] so the surprising thing about that mission and as you say, rescued out of the ocean was his spacecraft the hatch blew open and water filled up and it sank and we actually just recovered it, by we I mean NASA, just a few years ago.

    Dr. Pamela Gay: And it was … the recovery was paid for privately and I think one of the reasons that people paid to recover it is, Gus Grissom career really got punished by rumormongers after that who claimed that he panicked and he blew the door and… there were people who said there was no evidence of why the door would have blown on its own and… these aren’t exactly cheap space crafts, this is why so many of them landed in museums afterwards,

    And… even after we rescued it there was no clear evidence of why the hatch blew so this is on of those mysteries that’s just gonna keep going, and going, and going, but he did get to go up again during the Gemini Mission when Alan Shepard got grounded, Gus Grissom got swapped in to replace him on Gemini 3 so this time he got to do a multiple person launch and since he was one of the tiniest astronauts it was actually convenient to throw him on the itty-bitty little tiny Gemini spacecraft so there was that but then, unfortunately he died during the Apollo 1 testing so he didn’t even get to launch again and that was just a horrific story that perhaps needs to be an episode of its own.

    Fraser Cain: Well, I mean there’s this is unfortunate clustering of disasters that happen all around the same time, there’s Apollo 1, there’s the Challenger and the Columbia and they all happen within… roughly the same [inaudible] [00:20:14]

    Dr. Pamela Gay: [Crosstalk] Days. January.

    Fraser Cain: Early February … early January or early February so – right so the next up is Glenn, John Glenn and he went all the way around the earth finally and I guess that’s because they upgraded his … his rocket.

    Dr. Pamela Gay: [Crosstalk] He did!

    Fraser Cain: [Crosstalk] [inaudible] [00:20:31] rocket.

    Dr. Pamela Gay: [Crosstalk] Yes, yes he finally got a real, complete, out less rocket to launch on. I feel comfortable calling it a rocket, it was not designed to bomb the Soviets and… so he took off, he orbited the planet, he came back down and then because he was really… kind of one of the most talkative, most outgoing of these early astronauts he didn’t end up flying again but he did end up – well, at least not in the early missions –

    Fraser Cain: [Crosstalk] on the space early man.

    Dr. Pamela Gay: [Crosstalk] many, many, many, many years later he went up in ’98 when he was a congressman but he took more of a back-seat role and became a spokesperson for the astronaut core, retired and went into politics and was senator from Ohio for many years.

    I actually got to meet him when he was still a senator back in 1996 and that was pretty awesome, that’s one of my highlights but he – that was just kind of cool, he got to circle the globe, came back down safe and sadly after that people kind of stopped remembering that these are still all firsts in terms of what was able to happen, so you have Scott Carpenter who again, was someone who only got to go up once, he went up on the Aurora 7 these early Mercury missions had seven this, seven that –

    Fraser Cain: That’s was because there was seven astronauts, right? They put that number at the end just to celebrate the team.

    Dr. Pamela Gay: Yes and what was awesome about Carpenter’s he went on to do oceanic research so even though all of these men were hired because they were excellent test pilots he was someone who went on to have a separate career were he kept the science front and center and that’s kind of awesome. Who was – he spent five hours in space, kind of cool.

    Fraser Cain: Now, one thing that’s wow with Carpenter is he replaced Dick Slaten who had to step out [inaudible] [00:22:57]

    Dr. Pamela Gay: [Crosstalk] that was one of the great sorrows is Dick Slaten somehow they missed that he had a heart murmur so with all the testing and everything else they did it wasn’t until a part way through the program that they caught on: oh, no this guy has a heart murmur, we don’t know how rigorous base is gonna be…

    So they grounded him for the entire day of what’s left of the Mercury program, grounded him for the entirety of the Gemini program, grounded him for a part of the Apollo program that went to the moon and was sexy and exciting and while he did a lot of good work he was one of the NASA directors for the astronaut core it wasn’t until the Apollo Soyuz missions, the docking missions between the Apollo spacecraft and the Soyuz spacecraft that he finally got to go into space so he retired in ’82 and worked for commercial space agency until passed away and so we’re hitting the point where they’re all slowly disappearing and so he died at age 69 in 1993.

    Fraser Cain: Next up, Sigma 7 with – sure.

    Dr. Pamela Gay: So we have Walter Schirra whose last name I have to admit that I struggle through number. So he … his flight is sometimes classified as the one that went the most the way it was supposed to which I find fascinating way to describe a mission. So he went up, he was in space for nine hours and 13 minutes and 11 seconds and he ate and he drank and he orbited, and he orbited some more and he came back and [inaudible] [00:24:56]

    Fraser Cain: But this is where they were starting to… work on these incremental detriments, right? The first one with Shepard and Garrisom 15 minutes they didn’t do a full orbit, then for Glenn and Carpenter, they were up for three orbits, they were out there for hours and then with Schirra, he was there for nine hours and he did six full orbits of the earth and then after that, with Cooper it was 22 orbits and –

    Dr. Pamela Gay: [Crosstalk] so, sure … I’m sure – kind of awesome career even if he does have the name no one remembers, he got to go back up during Gemini 6, he was assigned to command an Apollo mission… unfortunately because of… the catastrophe with Apollo 1 he ended up getting promoted to the first man flight Apollo 7 and that was just chaos with a lot of his career but he did end up going up with Apollo 7 and Schirra was the one and only one to fly Mercury and Gemini and Apollo so that’s kind of neat.

    Fraser Cain: And so that was the last … the last mission was Cooper’s and he, I think he was the last surviving astronaut of that group as well, right?

    Dr. Pamela Gay: Well, John Glenn’s still alive.

    Fraser Cain: John Glenn yeah, off course. [inaudible] [00:26:18] he passed away In 2004

    Dr. Pamela Gay: [Crosstalk] and … no, Schirra died in 2007.

    Fraser Cain: No, I was talking about Cooper, Gordon Cooper.

    Dr. Pamela Gay: Oh right, right! So skipping ahead to Gordon Cooper so he flew up on Faith 7 which was main 1963 so he was into the second year of launching Americans into space, he was on just another let’s go up, let’s orbit the planet but he’s known as the first human to sleep in space and even at 34 hours it’s just –

    Fraser Cain: [Crosstalk] there’s no way, I’d be to jazzed. There’s no way I’d be sleeping…

    Dr. Pamela Gay: Heck! We do hang-out-athons that long so he is the person who is responsible for the phrase “Spam in a can” referring to being trapped in one of these things and… he again … he was of Gemini 5 he commanded Gemini 5 and from then he went on to corporate world. He did end up dying of heart failure and he developed Parkinson’s disease so it’s kind of… how human these people were even though we tag them up as super-heroes, these were just people who had amazing brains and amazing flight skills but they were still human. Unfortunately for better or worse, Gordon Cooper is also known for his UFO experiences but I think I’m gonna kind of brush by and pass that one maybe.

    Fraser Cain: Right. So those were the… those were the men and chimp.

    Dr. Pamela Gay: [Crosstalk] those were the crewed.

    Fraser Cain: The crewed [inaudible] [00:27:53] was actually a whole bunch more on man once and a lot of those classic blocked exploding rockets they’re calming back down, that’ll happen. I think one number sort of that jumped out of me this quite amazing was, the budget was $1.73 Billion in inflation adjusted dollars, so that’s today money which is kind of … which is kind of amazing they did all that.

    Dr. Pamela Gay: [Crosstalk] that’s less than the cost [inaudible] [00:28:23] I think?

    Fraser Cain: And involved the work of two million people so… unless I’m getting the numbers wrong but it just show us that it was a time when NASA was very agile and could get these missions going and get step by step advancements moving from to sending into space so –

    Dr. Pamela Gay: Yeah…

    Fraser Cain: Now, reference material. I think there’s really wonderful-wonderful reference material that people can go if they wanna follow the story a little further, there’s sort of two things that I love and maybe are some other so the one is “From the earth to the moon” which is based on the Andy Chaikin series book and then they made this TV show called “From the earth to the moon” and it was directed and produced by Tom Hanks and it was on HBO and they’re great, they cover sort of –

    Dr. Pamela Gay: [Crosstalk] Yes, mini-series.

    Fraser Cain: And so they come in, I think, one episode or two episodes with the Mercury folks and then now onto the Geminis and onto Apollos, just wonderful. And there’s the actual book itself which “From the earth to the moon” and then the other one off course, is the right stuff which is also a movie and that cover’s them.

    Dr. Pamela Gay: And it goes into the whole thing that we skipped over the whole, why isn’t Chuck Yeager in one of these?

    Fraser Cain: Yeah, but it into the personalities of the astronauts and just covers it with humor and wit and really great so either the movie or the book definitely pick those up.

    Dr. Pamela Gay: [Crosstalk] or both!

    Fraser Cain: Both yeah, but if you wanna get a full understanding of that time, if you read “From the earth to the moon” and right stuff you’ll have a really good understanding of it.

    Dr. Pamela Gay: And its really easy to compare what they looked for then to what they look for today because now they’re looking at interdisciplinary degrees, fluency in Russian, you need to be medical trained, you need to be flight trained, you need … and they’ve just upped the anti-so much you no longer need to be a military test pilot but in some ways I think that was easier because at least you knew were the bar was.

    Fraser Cain: I don’t know if I could be an astronaut now… probably, because they’ve let regular [inaudible] [00:30:31] come on board if they have some specific skill they need so … so maybe they need a podCaster for their next mission.

    Dr. Pamela Gay: [Crosstalk] Mission specialists.

    Fraser Cain: All right well, thank you very much, Pamela and we’ll see you next week.

    Dr. Pamela Gay: Sounds great, I’ll see you next week.

    Male Speaker: Thanks for listening to Astronomy Cast, a non-profit resource provided by Astrosphere New Media Association, Fraser Cain and Dr. Pamela Gay. You can find show notes and transcripts for every episode at astronomyCast.com. You can e-mail us at info@astronomyCast.com, tweet us at astronomyCast, like us on Facebook or circle us on Google plus. We record our show live on Google Plus every Monday at 12 p.m. Pacific, 3 p.m. Eastern or 2000 Greenwich Mean Time. If you missed the live event you can always catch up over at cosmoquest.org. If you enjoy Astronomy Cast, why not give us a donation? It helps us pay for transcripts and shown-ups, just click the donate link on the website. All donations are tax deductible for you US residents. You can support the show for free too, write a review or recommend us to your friends, every little bit helps. Click support the show on the web site to see some suggestions. To subscribe to the show point your podcatcher software at astronomycast.com/podcast.xml or subscribe directly from my tapes. Our music is provided by Travis Serrel and the show is edited by Preston Gibson.

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    2 Responses to Ep. 349: Mercury 7 and How the US Picked the First Astronauts

    1. Jim Tomaka July 19, 2014 at 4:24 pm #

      You forgot about ENOS, the first chimp to orbit the Earth in a Mercury capsule (MA-5) on November 29, 1961. It was essentially a dry-run of John Glenn’s flight in Feb 1962.

    2. Amy April 26, 2016 at 6:48 pm #

      There was a documentary called “Moonshot” that came out in ’93 (2 VHS set) right before Deke Slayton passed away, and it was narrated by him with the other Mercury men giving interviews (but mostly Shepard) and it was fascinating, touching on a lot of things that were either glossed over here or omitted. Wonderful documentary

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