April 9, 1959: NASA selects the “Mercury Seven”.
Two years after the Soviet Union launched the world’s first artificial satellite, Sputnik 1, and the Space Race along with it, NASA chose from an elite pool of candidates America’s first astronauts, now members of a group known collectively as “the Mercury Seven”. The competition between the two nations during the early years of the Space Race moved at breakneck speed - Sputnik was launched in late 1957; the United States launched Explorer 1 three months later in January of 1958; NASA was formed five months after that; and by the end of the year the agency had set up Project Mercury and begun the search process for its first astronauts.
This search process was, initially, fairly general. Candidates had to be male, under six feet and 180 pounds (size was critical in performing human spaceflight), a bachelor’s decree, and flight experience and qualifications. 110 applicants met all these qualifications, and dozens were further eliminated through strenuous physical and mental tests until eighteen remained, and of those eighteen seven men from three branches of the U.S. military were selected to form “Astronaut Group 1”. These seven men were regarded by the public (to whom they were introduced on April 9, 1959) as valiant explorers, models of American values, and the faces of anti-Communism in space.
The seven members of the Mercury Seven were:
- Alan Shepard, the first American to travel into space (and presumably the first to play golf on the surface of the moon, as well)
- Gus Grissom, commander of the first manned Gemini mission, Gemini 3; Grissom was also one of three men to die in the Apollo 1 fire
- Malcolm Carpenter, the second American to orbit the Earth
- John Glenn, the first American to orbit the Earth
- Wally Schirra, the only one of the seven to fly in Mercury, Gemini, and Apollo missions
- Gordon Cooper, pilot of the final manned Mercury mission
- Deke Slayton, pilot of the American crew of the joint US-Soviet Apollo-Soyuz Test Project
February 7, 1984: Bruce McCandless and Robert L. Stewart perform the first ever untethered space walk.
On February 3, the Space Shuttle Challenger lifted off from Cape Canaveral carrying five men, including two Mission Specialists who would test NASA’s new Manned Maneuvering Unit, an Astronaut Propulsion Unit that would allow them to perform “spacewalks” without the use of any cables. The two astronauts, with the help of the MMU, would be able to travel farther from their spacecraft and for longer periods of time than any previous spacewalks. The article that appeared in the New York Times detailing the event described it as “a spectacle of bravery and beauty”.
The first spacewalk ever performed was conducted by cosmonaut Alexey Leonov, who remained outside (but within fifty meters of) his spacecraft for around twelve minutes.The first American to perform a spacewalk was Ed White, who spent twenty-one minutes outside his spacecraft, and he did not venture far from his craft either. McCandless’ and Stewarts’ spacewalk, which took place on the fourth day post launch, lasted nearly six hours, and they traveled over 300 feet away from their orbiter without ever losing sight of it. When Bruce McCandless left the craft, it was orbiting over Florida, from where the shuttle had launched (at the sight, McCandless remarked: “It really is beautiful”.); when he returned, he was floating (actually traveling at over 17,000 miles an hour) over Africa. The photograph of McCandless floating free and untethered in space has since become one of the most widely-distributed, well-known images of the American space program. Of the MMU itself, McCandless and Stewart reported that, for the most part, the device had functioned flawlessly, although its use was discontinued after 1984.
November 3, 1957: Sputnik 2 is launched.
Designed and built in around four weeks, this Soviet satellite was the second ever launched. Sputnik 2 was notably also carrying Laika, a dog (a stray picked up off the streets of Moscow) who would become the first animal to go into orbit. She was called “Muttnik” by the American press (the United States had yet to launch its first satellite), and she was the first of several dogs used by the Soviet space program to test the effects of spaceflight on living things.
Because the technology needed to return a satellite from orbit had not yet been developed, it was a foregone conclusion that Laika would die sometime during spaceflight. It was not known exactly how it happened until after the fall of the Soviet Union, however. Initially, it had been reported that Laika had been euthanized or that she had died from oxygen starvation, but it was revealed in 2002 that Laika had probably not survived more than a few hours in space and that she had died from overheating and stress. After over 160 days in orbit and over 2,000 orbits, Sputnik 2 returned to Earth, carrying Laika’s remains with it.
October 4, 1957: The Soviet Union launches Sputnik 1.
Sputnik 1 (“Satellite” or “Companion” 1) was mankind’s first artificial satellite; its successful launch from the Site No. 1 launchpad in Kazakhstan ushered in a new age of rapid technological advancement. If the beginning of the Space Race can be pinpointed to one particular moment, the launch of Sputnik would be the most likely candidate. Although Sputnik itself was only a simple satellite, it set off a number of events in the United States, including the founding of NASA in July of 1958 and the founding of DARPA (Defense Advanced Research Projects Agency); in addition, funding for education (with an emphasis in the sciences and mathematics) increased dramatically.
The actual satellite weighed around 184 lb. It was approximately the size of a beach ball, and it was composed primarily of an alloy of aluminum, titanium, and magnesium. Surprisingly, its launch caused more of a stir in the United States than in the Soviet Union, where newspapers (initially) barely commented or waited until after gauging the world’s reaction to comment.
Sputnik remained in orbit until January of 1958; that month, the United States launched its own first satellite - Explorer 1.
July 20, 1969: Apollo 11 lands on the moon.
That’s one small step for man… one giant leap for mankind.
The Apollo 11 Launch - July 16, 1969.
We choose to go to the moon. We choose to go to the moon in this decade and do the other things, not because they are easy, but because they are hard… because that challenge is one that we are willing to accept, one we are unwilling to postpone, and one which we intend to win, and the others, too.
- John F. Kennedy, September 1962.