Space Ships and Astronauts: History of Manned Space Flight Part 1

About the history of the United States manned space flights, NASA, the Apollo space ships, and the astronauts.


Within months, the newly organized National Aeronautics and Space Administration took over operations already begun on a 3-stage program whose goal, as set earlier by President Kennedy, was placing a man on the moon and returning him to earth safely within 10 years. The 1st phase, the Mercury program, was upstaged when the Russian Yuri Gagarin completed a full orbit of the earth on April 12, 1961, in the Vostok 1.

But worldwide coverage spotlighted Alan Shepard on the 1st U.S. trip 302 mi. downrange into the Atlantic in the Freedom 7 on May 5, 1961. Five more Mercury flights, each one attempting a new maneuver or longer orbit time, included John Glenn's 1st orbital flight on February 20, 1962, and the final Mercury mission, a 22-orbit flight by Gordon Cooper on May 15-16, 1963. By then, the Russian cosmonaut Nikolayev had flown a 64-orbit mission in Vostok 3 and the only woman cosmonaut, Valentina Tereshkova, was preparing for her 48-orbit mission in June.

The Mercury and Vostok flights convinced scientists that human beings could operate their ships in a weightless environment, could conduct useful observations in space, and could come home again to tell the tale.

The next manned programs, the U.S. Gemini and the Russian Voskhod flights, proved that humans could maneuver a spaceship and dock with another vehicle and that persons could walk and work in the vacuum of space. These tasks would be necessary for landing on and leaving the moon's surface and returning to the mother ship.

Then, at Christmastime in 1968, a manned craft circled the moon. The 1st Apollo crew expressed the awe felt when looking back from deep space to the beauty of earth. For the 1st time men saw the planet as a whole and realized what they had left; how beautiful, fragile, and lonely is earth, hanging in the void. Their limited words frustrated them, but their emotion was transmitted.

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