SAN JOSE, April 9, 2014 — On April 10, 1959, the American people were introduced to seven clean-cut, exceptionally smart and healthy young men who would go down in history as seven of the most famous people in the United States during the 1960s. These young men were announced by the newly formed National Aeronautics and Space Administration as the chosen few who had passed the rigorous tests to become tbe first astronauts, or literally “star sailors.” Contrary to popular belief, it was President Dwight D. Eisenhower, not John F. Kennedy, who initiated the American foray into space exploration.
President Eisenhower’s vision was that NASA should be a civilian agency and not a part of the U.S. military, which was ironic to some extent due to the former general’s long military career. But, Eisenhower felt that the future of the aerospace explorations and research would be better suited as separate from the military and focused upon peaceful applications of scientific exploration in space. NASA became a government agency as established through the National Aeronautics and Space Act that passed on July 29, 1958, and took the place of NASA’s predecessor called the National Advisory Committee for Aeronautics dating back to 1946.
NASA officially began operations on October 1, 1958, but was always hastening to catch up to the Soviet Union’s feats in space research. Almost one year before, on October 4, 1957, the U.S.S.R. launched the first orbital satellite, deemed the “Sputnik.” Americans were startled by the Soviet Union’s advancement in space exploration, as one month later, they launched Sputnik 2. That proved to be quite significant because the Soviets had put a dog in a small metal cabin and launched it into space. The dog’s name was “Laika” and had been picked up off the streets in Moscow before it became one of the most famous dogs in history. Sadly, Laika’s ride was fatal.
Although, it could be viewed from the perspective that the Soviet Union Satellite Project had found a unique way to deal with stray dogs running around Russian city streets, Soviet scientists seriously wanted to see whether a living creature could survive the forces exerted upon it during the launch (specifically the stress at the time of acceleration and weightlessness). And despite the controversy over the predictable fate of Laika, the Soviet scientists were not much concerned about whether the dog lived or not. Their chief concerns focused upon how a living creature was affected by the launch into space – it would influence their later decisions on sending human beings into space. Actually, the Soviet Union had no plans of recovering Laika’s tiny capsule after the flight was completed.
The Soviet scientists were primarily concerned with being able to receive the information from the sensors monitoring the dog that was relayed from space to their control facility. Yet, while shooting a dog into space was one major level of accomplishment, the hope was always that a human would be able to withstand the physical and mental demands of being projected into space. Certainly, the U.S. scientists and the original seven American astronauts hoped that one of the original seven would be the first human to fly into space. Unfortunately, that never happened because a 27 year-old Russian cosmonaut named Yuri Gagarin had the distinction of becoming the first human in space as well as the first man to fully orbit the earth.
The Soviets again demonstrated that they were a few steps ahead of the U.S. in the space race when on April 12, 1961, 27 year-old Soviet Army Lt. Yuri Gagarin was launched into space and his space craft made one orbit around the earth, which took only 1 hour and 48 minutes. The Americans were so close, but could only watch. The first American astronaut to enter space was Alan Shephard, Jr. He was the first of the Mercury Project’s seven astronauts to fly up beyond the atmosphere; however, he went up for a little over 15 minutes and came back down, and returned safely to splash down in the ocean. But, the space program seemed substantial enough to capture and hold the attention of the American public.
Shephard’s successful flight was also substantial enough for President Kennedy to challenge the members of a joint session of Congress to the goal “…of landing a man on the moon and returning him safely to the Earth…” With Kennedy’s speech to Congress, he not only asked the elected representatives of Congress for the money (it would cost billions), the president put the choice of whether America should enter the space race into the hands of the citizens. The rest became a very vibrant part of history as the Mercury Project became the foundation for the Gemini Project as well as the more famous, Apollo Project, which eventually fulfilled the vision of sending a man to the moon and bringing him safely home again.
The original seven were the pioneers of this incredible endeavor. Alan Shephard was followed by Virgil “Gus” Grissom in June of 1961, as Grissom would also go up and come back down without any orbit. And then, with the U.S. still struggling to catch up to the Soviet space program, which had successfully launched a second cosmonaut in August of 1961 who had orbited the earth over 17 times, NASA was successful in enabling astronaut John Glenn to orbit the earth three times on February 20, 1962. Glenn’s achievement was delayed repeatedly by technical issues or weather, but he finally got the green light for his mission in his “Friendship 7” spacecraft. Three more of the seven followed Glenn’s foundation of orbiting the planet: Scott Carpenter, Wally Schirra, and Gordon Cooper.
It was Gordon Cooper’s 22 orbit mission which occurred in May of 1963 that established the American record for the number of orbits, as well as the longest span of time in space (almost a full day), but it also brought the Mercury Project to a successful conclusion. However, through the work of these courageous astronauts, NASA learned a great amount about the stresses upon humans as they flew through space. Yet, it also showed how much more they needed to do before sending a person to the moon. Upon the foundation established by the Mercury Seven astronauts, NASA made plans for Project Gemini, which was the intermediate stage of preparation for President Kennedy’s challenge. The final phase involving the trip to the moon was Project Apollo.
This initial phase of manned spaceflight seems so dwarfed now by the missions to the moon by the Apollo astronauts. However, without the foundation of courage and dedication to go where no one had ventured before, the later exploratory efforts would have likely taken longer and would have left the U.S. in a weak position of leadership for the nations of the Free World. Beyond this, this effort to move forward into the unknown was a cooperative effort of so many talented individuals throughout the U.S. and throughout the world. Such a peaceful and constructive effort shows how powerful and successful people can be when working in concert to accomplish a noble goal.