The Beginnings of the Space Race

On October 4, 1957, the world was greeted by the beeping sound of Sputnik 1. This little satellite was the first object to be successfully launched into earth orbit. As it streaked overhead, Americans marveled at the site and cringed in their hearts. Tremendous fear gripped our military leaders over the significance of Sputnik. If the Soviets could put a satellite into space, then certainly they could put nuclear missiles up there and aim them at our nation. Unless we got into the race, we were doomed to be left behind and play a diplomatic negotiating game with less than good cards. During the final year of WWII and shortly afterward, disgruntled German scientists and engineers left their homeland to work for either the US or the USSR, helping each country advance their work in the field of rocketry. One of Germany's most brilliant scientist/engineers was Werner Von Braun, and he was tasked with the job of getting us into the race and beating the Russians. The first attempts at rocket launches in America were failures, with the rockets exploding or falling at launch.

October 4, 2007 was the 50th Anniversary of Sputnik 1. To learn more click on the link, Sputnik is 50.

The result of the Sputnik satellite launch was an immediate sense of need by the Americans to catch the Russians. So, on October 1, 1958, the National Aeronautics and Space Administration was founded. NASA celebrated its 50th Anniversary on October 1, 2008. Check out the really great link to the NASA is 50 website. Lots of really great pictures.




The name of the first US satellite was Explorer I, launched in 1958, and it discovered a dense belt of radiation surrounding the Earth. Today we call this magnetic field the Van Allen Belt. One of the Sputnik satellites, Sputnik IV, crashed in West Bend, Wisconsin, and the pieces were recovered by my uncle and later given to the Smithsonian Museum. Most of the main body of the satellite lies 16 miles off the west shore of Lake Michigan, but has never been recovered. To learn more about the Sputnik program, click on the image to your left.

The Mercury Missions

The names of the original Mercury 7 astronauts are: Alan Shepard, Gus Grissom, Deke Slayton, John Glenn, Gordon Cooper, Wally Shirra, Scott Carpenter. These were the chosen seven men who flew in extremely tiny spacecraft, and they are shown in their spacesuits in the image to your left. This group underwent rigorous training. They were dropped off in remote places and learned survival techniques. They were spun around in giant machines to experience excessive gravitational forces. Ironically, there were far less G's experienced in launch and reentry than believed, and the spinning on earth made them nauseous, while in space the weightless feeling kept them from getting upset stomachs. Great attention and notoriety were given to these Mercury 7, and it was with great anticipation that American awaited the first man in space. The entire Mercury History is available by click on the link within this sentence.








America was upstaged by the Soviets in April 12, 1961 when TASS announced the successful launch and landing of Yuri Gagarin. Instead of Alan Shepard being the first in space, that distinction was left to Yuri, who "flew" aboard Vostok I, which is pictured below, alongside a nice portrait of this famous Soviet Cosmonaut. Yuri flew in space for 108 minutes and was the first man to not only fly in space, he was the first to orbit the Earth.

*Of extra interest here is the US recovery plan for returning space craft. All US missions returned to the ocean while the Russians landed on their home soil, partly because they have so little shoreline available to them except up north at Minsk, partly because they though ground-landings were safer instead of sinking to the ocean's bottom, but more probably so they could keep their program secret from US naval and airforce pilots. The US design teams feared crash landings on solid ground, but the impact on water from high altitudes and at high speeds is just as deadly as hitting a solid surface due to the surface tension of water, and the additional danger of sinking into the ocean before recovery navy divers could assist was always real. In fact, Gus Grissom’s Mercury space craft sank to the ocean bottom after an emergency exit on his part, and was just recovered in July, 1999.

The Russian’s landed on the ground and due to the intense competition to win the space race, Yuri Gagarin’s inaugural flight was praised for flawless, and "seamless triumph" by the TASS news agency. Score 2-0 for Communism. In reality, Yuri was spinning wildly out of control during much of the flight and nearly died upon crashing back to the earth. This information was so carefully guarded that is was not publicly released until 1997. Yuri parachuted to the ground, saved his life, and the Soviets lied about their mission's success. In order for any altitude or distance record to be regarded as official, the pilot MUST land with the aircraft. Thus, Yuri should have been disqualified were if not for the Soviet program leader's ability to keep secrets. With so little ability to control the tiny space capsules, it is no wonder that many test pilots refused to join the astronaut corps, most noticeably Chuck Yeager, who arguably was the best pilot in American aviation history and the subject of the movie, "The Right Stuff." You can read more about General Yeager here too.

Alan Shepard was the first US man in space, launching May 6, 1961, but like Yuri, he only went park way around the earth. Below is a diagram of the Mercury spacecraft. Notice how small the interior was ... barely enough room for an astronaut to squeeze inside.

Alan Shepard is shown here next to the tiny capsule which he rode on his famous journey park way around the world, and yes ... all the way to its conclusion with splashdown in the ocean. After his return, President Kennedy announced our official entry in the Space Race. Below are pictures of Alan during his flight, and during his rescue. Sadly, Alan Shepard passed away in July, 1999.





John Glenn flew in February 20, 1962, and was the first American to orbit the earth, doing so three times, at a speed of 90 minutes per lap. He is shown to your left entering the spacecraft. Notice how they basically stuffed him into the tiny Mercury capsule. Atop the capsule was a tower. In the event of an emergency during the launch sequence, the astronaut was to somehow extricate himself from the capsule, through the tiny door, and then crawl up to the tower from where he could zip-line to safety. Absolutely no one seemed concerned about the details of safety precautions for the conquest of the Moon ahead of our dreaded Communist enemies was far more important than the minor concerns of dangers on top of a rocket. That all changed in 1967 with Apollo 1, but you will learn about that ill-fated mission later.



Meanwhile, I was in grade school, listening to the flight on the loud speaker system attached to the wall. Upon reentry he noticed pieces of his craft in the flames surrounding his window, and we listened in fear that his heat shield was failing. After a tense 3 minutes of radio blackout, John’s voice announced he was safely nearing he water and all of us in my third grade class cheered. The US government was so concerned about the image of NASA and these pilots that they never let John Glenn fly in space again, hoping his "poster boy" good looks could be used to promote NASA to a skeptical American public. From his seat in the US Senate, John Glenn repeatedly implored NASA to let him return to space, and his wishes were granted as much for the science of zero gravity’s effects on the elderly as for gratitude for years of public promotion of NASA. He made a dramatic flight aboard the shuttle in October, 1998 at the age of 77. I had the wonderful experience of meeting Senator Glenn at an Intel Science Scholarship Banquet in Washington, DC. in the spring of 2001. His launch aboard Friendship 7 and during the flight are shown below. Since we watch the movie "The Right Stuff" in class, and since it features John Glenn and his wife Annie, I have provided a link to his family background.

Please move forward to Project Gemini or back to Space Race Introduction, the Syllabus, or the Home page.

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