NASA Spaceflight Programs
|In 40 years of space travel and exploration, many changes have been made in the craft used to explore space,
but also the reasons for space exploration have changed. At first, a goal was to get a human being into orbit.
The next milestone was getting a man on the moon, followed by actually living in outer space.
For each of these achievements and goals, a NASA project was created. The following pages tell you something about each of these projects.
The goal of this first spaceflight project was to send people into space and in orbit of the Earth.
The project was launched on October 7, 1958, about a year after the Soviet Union successfully launched the Sputnik.
Engineers immediatly started to think about what kind of spacecraft design to use.
The design had to be able to withstand extreme temperatures (extreme cold in space and extreme heat during reentry),
the vacuum of space and space radiation.
At the same time, a group of 110 military pilots were subjected to various tests and the best 7 pilots were selected
to pilot the spacecraft. Six manned flights were made in total, each of these flights was piloted by one of the 7 selected pilots.
One pilot wasn't able to make a flight because of a heart condition. Noteworthy flights are the first Mercury flight (Freedom 7),
manned by Alan Shepard, who became the first American in space, and the third Mercury Flight (Friendship 7), manned by John Glenn,
who became the first American ever to achieve an orbit around Earth.
After Shepard's first flight, president John F. Kennedy announced a new goal for NASA spaceflight programs:
reaching the moon by the end of the decade. This new goal eventually led to the Gemini and Apollo projects.
When Gemini was announced, Apollo was already well underway.
The primary objective for Gemini was to demonstrate space rendezvous and docking procedures,
which would be used in the Apollo program. Another objective was to determin wether human beings could survive for
prolonged periods of time in space. In the Gemini project, 10 manned flights were made, by 16 different pilots. Hightlights were:
- The Gemini IV mission in which Edward White made the first space-walk ever.
- Gemini VI, which demonstrated orbital rendez-vous was possible.
- Gemini VIII, in which Neil Armstrong did the first orbital docking ever.
The goal of the Apollo project was reaching a new frontier: the moon.
This was successfully achieved: there were 2 flights to test Apollo equipment, 2 lunar orbit flights and 6 lunar landings.
Only one mission failed in reaching its goal: the infamous Apollo 13.
The first goal was achieved by Apollo 8, which managed to leave Earth's orbit and travel to the moon.
Neil Armstrong made his famous "Giant leap for mankind" in the famous Apollo 11 mission and he spent 2.5 hours on the moon's surface,
fulfilling another goal of the Apollo project. During Apollo 13's flight from Earth to the moon, one of their oxygen tanks exploded,
making a lunar landing impossible. The only solution was to fly around the moon and return to Earth.
The safe return of the Apollo 13 crew proved NASA was able to handle such a major crisis well. Apollo 14 through 17 were all successful
lunar landings and a lot of lunar research was done. All in all, Apollo was a very successful project.
More info on Apollo on our Apollo page
Listen to Armstrongs historic words
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Skylab was America's first experimental space station. The goals of this project were to prove that man could live in space
for prolonged periods of time and to do various scientific experiments as well as stellar observations.
After the unmanned launch of skylab, in which some parts of the station were damaged,
the first crew was launched to perform extensive repairs to the station. They lived on board for 28 days,
doing experiments and further fixing the station. The second and third crews continued conducting experiments and stayed on board,
the second crew for 59 days, the third for 84 days.
For years, a "space race" had been going on between the two major spaceflight nations: America and the Soviet Union.
In 1975, a unique mission took place, in which the American Apollo 18 and the Soviet Soyuz 19 rendezvoused and docked in Earth's orbit.
They stayed docked for 44 hours, in which the astronauts exchanged flags and gifts and conducted experiments together.
The highlight of this mission was the hand-shake throug both ships' airlocks, which created a sense of "goodwill".
Space Shuttle Project
Before the Space Shuttle, launching cargo into orbit and beyond was a one-way ticket.
It was possible to launch sattelites into orbit but they could not return.
The Space Shuttle revolutionized spaceflight in various ways: most importantly, the launch vehicle was now reusable.
This required some scientific advances, such as better heatshields and reusable rockets.
Also, crews now included not only pilots but also Mission Specialists whose task was not to control the shuttle,
but to conduct experiments in space. So far, over 90 Space Shuttle missions have taken place, almost all of them successful.
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