Early space missions


Throughout history, humans have gazed up at the night sky and wondered what was out there. Almost every culture around the globe created stories about the celestial objects, and some even incorporated them into their religious beliefs.

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Visiting anything outside of the Earth was completely dependent upon the technologies that we developed. Both the USSR and the U.S. began a “space race” in the early 1960s that was designed to see who could get to the moon first.

This was more than just a race, it was also the deciding factor if a totalitarian government of the USSR would claim the moon as their possession or if the U.S. arrived first, allowing no ownership by any country.

The first real space missions began with satellite orbiters and then progressed to the early days of the Mercury and Apollo missions. Both the Russians and the Americans had a series of test flights into the outer atmosphere that involved sending various animals including chimpanzees and a dog, to see what the effects of space flight and low gravity would be on living creatures.

In 1961 Yuri Gagarin, a Russian cosmonaut, was the first person in space and this led to the eventual multiple moon landings and walks by the U.S.

We weren’t satisfied with the missions to the moon and set our sights on investigating other planets, asteroids, and even comets.


Project Mercury:

For the U.S., Project Mercury was the biggest step to putting astronauts in space. This was a NASA program that lasted from 1961 through 1963 and included six spaceflights, with two of the reaching space and returning safely to Earth. These were referred to as “suborbital flights.” The other four spaceflights went into orbit and then circled the Earth.

Unlike what we know of spacecraft today, the early Mercury crafts were small capsules with barely enough room for a single astronaut. During the entire flight, the astronaut was required to remain in his seat.

Project Mercury made use of two types of rockets to get the capsules into space. The first two Mercury flights that had an astronaut onboard used a Redstone rocket. The four Mercury flights that had astronauts onboard used an Atlas rocket. Both of these rocket types were originally designed for the U.S. military as missiles.

NASA chose the name of “Mercury” after the mythological Roman god that traveled fast. Each of the astronauts named their particular spacecraft. Alan Shepard included the number “7” in the name he chose for the Mercury capsule, because it was the seventh one that had been constructed.

Other astronauts also included the number “7” as a way to honor the seven astronauts that were selected for the Mercury project.

Choosing the astronauts that were going to be sent into space was a priority. NASA was only in its sixth month of existence when it was tasked with selecting the astronauts in 1959.

The requirements to be an astronaut involved having military experience, having so many hours of flight time as a pilot, a specific weight and height maximum and minimum, and being in excellent physical and mental health. At that time, only men met these qualifications.

Alan Shepard was selected for the first Mercury flight and he became the first American in space. It was only a fifteen minute flight before it returned to Earth, but he flew it in the capsule that was named “Freedom 7.” Years later, Shepard was also selected as a commander for the Apollo 14 mission and he had the opportunity to walk on the moon.

The second astronaut to pilot in the Mercury Project was Gus Grissom. He named his capsule the “Liberty Bell 7.” In 1962 John Glenn became the first American astronaut to orbit the earth in his capsule “Friendship 7.”

Scott Carpenter was the second American astronaut to orbit the Earth and he named his spacecraft the “Aurora 7.”  The fifth Mercury flight was commanded by astronaut Wally Schirra on the “Sigma 7.”

Gordon Cooper had the distinction of flying the last Mercury mission and he circled Earth for 34 hours in the “Faith 7” capsule. One additional astronaut had been chosen, Deke Slayton, but a health problem kept him from flying in the Mercury mission. He did fly into space in 1975 during the Apollo-Soyuz Test Project.

NASA required a lot of testing of the Mercury capsules and the rockets to make sure that they were safe. They did many test flights that didn’t have people onboard and those tests helped them to identify and fix problems.

The first Atlas rocket that was launched with a Mercury capsule onboard explored, and the first Mercury-Redstone rocket that was launch lifted four inches off of the ground and then fell back. These kinds of tests let NASA learn how to make the rockets safer.

There were three non-human “astronauts” that helped in the Mercury mission. These included Sam, a rhesus monkey, and two chimpanzees named Enos and Ham. Sam and Ham both flew suborbital flights. Sam flew on a rocket called “Little Joe,” and Ham flew on a Redstone rocket.

Enos was on an Atlas rocket and made two orbits around the Earth. All of the three were critical in the testing of the rockets and the spacecraft and since they made it home safely, NASA knew that it would be safe for human astronauts.

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Project Mercury was the beginning of the U.S. space program that had the intention of sending humans into space. NASA learned a lot of information from this program including how to create a safe rocket and the way to operate spacecraft while in orbit. All of the lessons learned from the Mercury project were used as a platform for the later space programs.

Gemini Program:

Once the Mercury Project was completed, NASA had the next program ready to go. The Gemini spacecraft were designed so that two astronauts could fit into the capsule, and the program helped NASA prepare for the up and coming Apollo missions to the moon.

There were ten crews involved in the Gemini program, each involved a two-man astronaut crew that flew from 1965 and 1966. The spacecraft looked a lot like the Mercury capsule on the outside except that it was bigger and had more technology on the inside. There was little room for the astronauts to move around. While the Mercury capsule could only change the way that it faced in its orbit, Gemini could make changes to the orbit that it was in.

NASA chose the name Gemini after the constellation Gemini. It is Latin for “twins,” and was appropriate because each of the capsule would carry two astronauts. They also used a new rocket, the Titan II.

This was a two-stage rocket that was originally designed as a missile. The NASA changes made to the rocket so that it could carry the capsule and the people safely. NASA did a test without humans on it just to make sure that it would work without a problem.

The Gemini missions were designed to accomplish specific goals. The information, testing, and changes were used to adapt and create the future Apollo missions. The first flight was the Gemini 3, which was also called Gemini-Titan 3 or GT-3.

In this flight they tested the new vehicle out completely. The Gemini 4 was the next flight and included the first U.S. spacewalk. Gemini 5 remained in orbit for over a week. Gemini 6A and 7 were both in space at the same time and the two crafts met each other while they were both in orbit. Gemini 7 was in space for two weeks, and Gemini 8 connected with a spacecraft that was unmanned while in orbit.

After all of these tests were done, they launch Gemini 9 to see what kind of ways that the craft could fly near another spacecraft, and the astronauts also accomplished a spacewalk. Gemini 10 tested the ability to connect with another spacecraft while in orbit and then use its engines to move both of them.

Gemini 11 was the mission that set the record at the time for flying higher than any of the other NASA missions. The final mission was Gemini 12 and in this mission they resolved some of the issues that they had found from previous spacewalks.

The Gemini Program was important to improve on performance, navigation, and orbiting abilities in preparation for the Apollo missions. They tested how astronauts handled being in space for longer periods of time and learned to connect and move two spacecraft together. Trips to the moon would require that they had perfected all of these things.

The Apollo Program:

This was the program that was the most advanced space program to date at that time. NASA designed the program that ended up sending eleven spaceflights and allowing astronauts to walk on the moon. The Apollo program began in 1969 and had the last moon landing in 1972.

The first four Apollo flights were testing flights for the equipment that was being used. Six of the other seven Apollo flights landed on the moon. 1968 was the year for the first Apollo flight and the moon landing took place on 1969.

There were 12 astronauts that walked on the moon and conducted scientific experiments as well as studying the moon’s surface and getting sample rocks that they brought back with them. This entire project involved an incredible amount of successes in a very short amount of time.

The Apollo program had completely new spacecraft that was designed by NASA. They created the Apollo Command Module which was a capsule that had enough room for three astronauts.

The reason for the three astronauts is that in the trips to the moon, one astronaut would remain in orbit while two others would be on the moon’s surface. The crew had about as much room in the module as they would in a car.

The Lunar Module (LM) was the craft that would land on the moon. It was included as part of the spacecraft, then take two astronauts to the surface of the moon and bring them back into orbit. NASA used two rocket types for the Apollo program. The first flights used the smaller rocket known as the Saturn I (1) B rocket.

It was still huge, being as tall as a 22-story building. The Saturn I had two “stages” or parts. The first stage would fly the craft up and when it ran out of fuel it would drop away and then get burned up in the atmosphere of Earth.

Meanwhile, the second stage continued to push the spacecraft toward space. Other Apollo flights used the Saturn V (5) rocket which was a more powerful three-stage rocket. It stood as tall as a 36-story building.

The first mission to the moon that was a spacecraft that carried astronauts was the Apollo 8. It was in orbit around the moon in 1968 on Christmas Eve. It didn’t land on the moon, but had the goal of just orbiting and then returning to Earth. The crew was Frank Borman, Bill Anders, and Jim Lovell.

It took until Apollo 11 in 1969 for the first moon landing to be scheduled. The crew of the Apollo 11 was Neil Armstrong, Michael Collins, and Buzz Aldrin. Michael Collins remained on the spacecraft orbiting the moon and on July 20th, Armstrong and Aldrin walked on the moon’s surface.

Neil Armstrong was the first person to set foot on the moon and made his iconic statement: “That’s one small step for (a) man; one giant leap for mankind.”

On the last three Apollo missions, the astronauts used a lunar rover that they brought with them to drive over the moon’s surface and explore. The rovers were created so that they could be folded up and they fit into the Lunar Module’s storage area. All of the lunar rovers were left on the moon and remain there today.

The Apollo mission was important because it finalized the requirement that President John F. Kennedy had set in 1961. He gave NASA the challenge to put humans in space, walk on the moon, and return them safely to Earth. The success of the Apollo missions made it easier to explore other worlds.

Apollo-Soyuz Test Project:

After the success of the Apollo 11 project with astronauts having repetitively visited and walked on the moon, the U.S. and Russia established the first international partnership in space.

On July 15, 1975 the Apollo-Soyuz Test Project involved an Apollo spacecraft that had a three-man crew that flew into space and two days later docked with the Russian Soyuz spacecraft that had a two-man crew.

The goal of this mission was to test the compatibility of the two types of systems, accomplish a rendezvous, and the do a successful docking. This was needed in the case of an international space rescue. This test project took nine days and changed the U.S. and the Soviets from being former rivals to the point of working together.

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Both crews remained attached for two days and accomplished joint activities and experiments. The success of this mission led to future international partnerships including the International Space Station of today.


Skylab was the first and original space station by the U.S. and it operated in space, orbiting for six years. Three groups of three-man crews lived onboard Skylab for 28, 56, and then 84 days. The astronauts onboard conducted around 270 experiments in life sciences and biomedical, Earth observations, solar astronomy, and materials processing.

Some of the most important tasks that they did was in observing how the astronauts thrived in both physical and psychological conditions of long-duration space living.

Skylab eventually ended as a project and was allowed to have a decayed orbit, re-entering the atmosphere and breaking up to be scattered over the Indian Ocean and out in low-inhabited areas of Western Australia.

Interesting Information:

  • The Apollo 13 flight was one of the most dangerous, with things going so wrong that the astronauts had to manually create their own resolutions to the problems that arose. It almost didn’t make it back from space. A movie was made about the astronauts and the dangers that they faced.
  • Rockets need to take off close to the equator. One of the reasons for this is that the Earth spins on an axis that runs through both the north and south pole, giving them very little of Earth’s rotational force. The equator has the most gravitational force and this gives rockets an extra bit of speed that they need to get into orbit.
  • While there isn’t anything in space to help to “push” rockets, there is Newton’s Third Law. This says that for every action there is an equal and opposite reaction, so this means that the propellant force of the rocket that starts the process continues it forward with the same force.
  • Space sickness is something that some of the astronauts experienced. This is due to the fact that on Earth we have the ability to keep our balance due to gravity and analyze our surroundings with our ears and eyes. In space, astronauts lose their ability to use their ear receptors and it can make them dizzy.