History of Modern Space Flight
Project Mercury began in 1958 and was America's first manned space program. Between 1961 and 1963 there were six manned space flights. The goals of the program were to orbit a manned spacecraft around Earth; investigate man's ability to function in space; and recover both man and spacecraft safely. This program resulted in the first American in space and the first American to orbit the Earth. On May 5, 1961, Alan B. Shepard became the first American to fly in space aboard his ship Freedom 7 (MA-3). The mission lasted only 15 minutes and reached an altitude of 116.5 miles. The success of this mission prompted President Kennedy to announce the goal of placing a man on the moon before the end of the decade. Nine months later, aboard Friendship 7 (MA-6), John Glenn became the first American to orbit the Earth. This accomplishment was undermined by the fact that the Soviets had succeeded nearly one year earlier to orbit a man around the Earth. On April 12, 1961, Yuri Gagarin became the first person ever in space. He orbited the Earth once during his 108 minute flight and reached a maximum altitude of 203 miles. John Glenn's historic flight lasted 4 hours and 55 minutes. He orbited the Earth 3 times and reached a maximum altitude of 162.5 miles.
Project Gemini was begun in January 1962. It was designed to extend the existing manned space flight program by launching a two-man craft. This fact gave Project Gemini (which is the name of the Zodiac containing the twin stars Castor and Pollux) it's name since there were two astronauts launched each time. There were a total of 2 unmanned and 10 manned launches. The goals of the program were to subject humans and equipment to up to two weeks in space; dock with orbiting vehicles; and land at a pre-selected point. This was the next logical step toward landing men on the moon. The goals were met and the project was considered a success.
Gemini IV, launched on June 3, 1965, included America's first extravehicular activity (EVA) or space walk. Edward White spent 22 minutes outside the spacecraft. Imagine what it must have been like to float alone so far above the earth. Gemini VII, which lasted nearly 14 days, was intended to text whether humans could live in space for 2 weeks. Neil Armstrong, the first man on the moon, did other cool stuff before that. He was aboard the extremely short Gemini VIII mission which lasted less than 11 hours. During that time they achieved the first docking with another space vehicle. A malfunction caused them to abort the mission and carry out the first emergency landing of a manned U.S. space mission. If they had failed, we would remember the name of another astronaut for walking on the moon. The second man on the moon, Buzz Aldrin, showed up earlier on Gemini XII and set an EVA record of 5 hours and 30 minutes.
The Apollo program began in 1963 with the expressed goal of landing a man on the moon. During its nine years, six missions (Apollo 11, 12, 14, 15, 16, and 17) landed a total of twelve men on the moon. Early missions were to test equipment and did not land on the moon. Apollo 7 and 9 were earth orbiting and Apollo 8 and 10 orbited the moon. The historic Apollo 8 mission was the first to take humans to the moon and back. Apollo 10 was a practice run for landing on the moon but did not actually touch down.
The Apollo 11 spacecraft was launched on July 16, 1969 atop the very powerful Saturn V rocket. It took three days to reach the moon. One of the greatest moments in human history came on July 20, 1969, when Neil Alden Armstrong became the first human to walk on the moon. As he stepped from the lunar module, the Eagle, he spoke the now famous words, “One small step for a man, one giant leap for mankind.” The other astronauts on board were Edwin E. "Buzz" Aldrin Jr. (the second man on the moon who nobody remembers) and Michael Collins (who stayed in orbit and did not land on the moon). They spent only 21 hours, 38 minutes, and 21 seconds on the moon's surface with only 2 hours 31 minutes outside the lunar module. They brought back rocks and soil (which is dirt) and left a flag and a plaque which said:
HERE MEN FROM THE PLANET EARTH
A great movie was made about the dramatic Apollo 13 mission. An explosion in an oxygen tank nearly resulted in the deaths of the three astronauts. They orbited the moon but did not land. Commander Jim Lovell also wrote a book about the experience. For more great information about the Apollo program check out Apollo the Moon and The Apollo Program both sponsored by National Air and Space Museum.
Space Shuttle Program
The Space Shuttle program began with the launch of STS-1 on April 12, 1981. Space Shuttle Columbia spent only two days in space as it tested everything out and returned safely to Earth. This began the first reusable spacecraft program. No other flying machine (airplane, helicopter, or rocket ) is able to serve as a home for pilots, carry cargo, fly in space or in our atmosphere, maneuver around in orbit, land on a runway, and be ready to do it all over again in just a few weeks.
The seventh space shuttle mission (STS-7) in 1983 included America's first woman astronaut, Sally Ride. However, she was not the first woman in space. That honor also goes to a Soviet astronaut, Valentina Tereshkova, who orbited the earth 48 times in 1963.
On January 28, 1986, the Space Shuttle Challenger (STS-51) Launched with the first teacher, Christa McAuliffe. Tragically, the shuttle exploded only 73 seconds after liftoff. The tragedy resulted in the suspension of the program for over 2 and 1/2 years. The second and most recent shuttle disaster occurred on February 1, 2003 when the shuttle Columbia broke up only 16 minutes from home.
Kids today have grown up with the Space Shuttle program. We are so used to hearing about the shuttle launches that they seem ordinary. Only the tragedies of Challenger and Columbia remind us that space travel is not easy. Because we don't remember a time without space flight, we have lost our appreciation and sense of wonder. Still, nothing is more amazing than every time humans break away from the Earth and travel in space. As far as we know, we are the only living, thinking creatures in the universe to do this. Never forget, space flight is COOL!
The first use of the term "space station" was by Romanian Hermann Oberth who, in 1923, used it to describe a wheel like structure in space that would act as a launching site for further human missions to the moon or Mars. In 1952 Dr. Werner von Braun envisioned a space station that was 250 feet in diameter and would orbit more than 1000 miles above the planet earth. It would also spin to create a sense of gravity.
In 1971 the Soviets launched the world's first space station - Salyut 1. It was followed in 1973 by Skylab, a larger US space station that hosted three crews and then was abandoned. In 1986, the Soviets put the Mir Space Station in orbit which was the most successful space station until it was abandonded and burned up in the atmosphere on March 22, 2001. It traveled around the earth more than 85,000 times and was home to astronauts from Russia and the United States.
The International Space Station is a large human inhabited satellite orbiting more than 250 miles above the earth. On clear nights it can be seen with the naked eye. The first two parts of the International Space Station were launched in 1998 and it is still under construction. It is able to support life and crews have been living there since 2000. The first crew consisted of one American and two Russian astronauts. It is a global partnership between 16 countries, but the United States and Russia are providing most of the equipment and parts. When it is finished it will have about as much internal space as a 747 jumbo jet. An international crew of up to seven astronauts will live aboard it for three to six months at a time.
Photos: All photos courtesy NASA Gallery (not copyrighted)