The Beginnings of the Space Race
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.
names of the original Mercury 7 astronauts are: Alan
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 Grissoms
Mercury space craft sank to the ocean bottom after an emergency exit on his
part, and was just recovered in July, 1999.
The Russians landed on the ground and due to the intense competition
to win the space race, Yuri Gagarins 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.
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.
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, Johns 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 gravitys
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
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