July 8, 2011 is scheduled to be the launch date of the final Space Shuttle Mission. This will mark the end of the first Space Race that took place as a manifestation of the Cold Wat between the US and the Soviet Union.
The Space Race began during the mid 1950’s. Both nations had produced Atomic Weapons, and were developing Intercontinental Ballistic Missiles as part of their delivery systems. It was thought that placing artificial satellites in orbit was a peaceful way of demonstrating the superiority of each side’s Missile program. The Soviets won the initial round with the launch of Sputnik 1 on Oct 4, 1957.
The Soviets were also first to launch a man, Yuri Gagarin, into orbit, on Apr 12, 1961. The US was off to a slow start, but in the important arena of Manned Space Flight the US soon displayed dominance. Mission radio broadcasts as well as network news reports from America’s manned Space Flight program are presented in Old Time Radio Space Missions Collection.
The Mercury Program was dramatized in Tom Wolfe’s novel The Right Stuff and the movie of the same name. There were 20 unmanned Mercury flights, two sub-orbital manned flights, the first American in space was Alan Shepard aboard Freedom 7; and four orbital flights.
Mercury lead to the Gemini program. Gemini was a larger and more sophisticated space craft than Mercury, intended to carry two astronauts for longer periods of time, The ten manned Gemini flights demonstrated that men and equipment had the endurance for an extended space flight necessary to reach the moon, that space craft could rendezvous and dock in orbit, that precise re-entry and splashdown was possible, and astronauts could do there job during extended periods of zero-gravity, including EVA (Extra Vehicular Activity, “Space-walks”).
Apollo was chartered by President Kennedy after his 1961 call for the Nation to land a man on the moon. The Apollo program built on the lessons of Mercury and especially Gemini. The program suffered two major setbacks; the first was the tragic lose of the crew of Apollo 1 in a launch pad fire. Apollo 11 successfully landed men on the moon on July 20, 1969. five more Apollo missions would successfully land men on the moon. The second major setback for the program was an explosion aboard Apollo 13 which partially disabled the Command Module. Using the Lunar Excursion Module as a “Lifeboat” the crew was able to make its return to earth, but only with a combination of the skills and determination of the flight crew and flight controllers and engineers on the ground.
Read more about the US History of Space Missions…