of spaceflight and its conquest are as old as humankind itself. These
dreams were transformed into reality on April 12, 1961, when 27-year-old
Flight Major Yuri Alexeyevich Gagarin of the Soviet Union became the first
human to venture into space.
the “Columbus of the Cosmos” by the Soviets, Gagarin's single orbit of the
Earth in his Vostok 1 spacecraft made him an international hero of epic
proportions, the Lindbergh of his generation. Tragically, he never flew in
space again. He was killed in a crash of a MIG-15 jet aircraft near Moscow
Gagarin's achievement was soon matched, to a lesser extent, by American
Alan B. Shepard, Jr., who became the first American to travel into space
on May 5, 1961. On that day he was launched atop a Redstone rocket on a
15-minute sub-orbital flight in a Mercury capsule dubbed Freedom 7.
Astronaut Virgil “Gus” Grissom repeated Shepard's mission with another
15-minute sub-orbital flight on July 21, 1961, which ended with Grissom
being rescued from drowning after the hatch to his Liberty Bell 7
spacecraft unexpectedly blew off after splashdown.
and Grissom were members of the first team of American astronauts, an
elite group of test pilots forever known as the “Mercury Seven,” that also
included John Glenn, Malcolm Scott Carpenter, Walter Schirra, Leroy Gordon
Cooper and Donald “Deke” Slayton. The early astronaut selection criteria
specifically excluded women, even those qualified as expert aviators, a
situation not remedied until 1978.
Astronaut John H. Glenn Jr., became the first American to orbit the Earth
after being launched on an Atlas rocket on February 20, 1962. Glenn
circled the globe three times in his Friendship 7 spacecraft and returned
to a hero's welcome. His feat was duplicated or exceeded in missions flown
by Carpenter, Schirra, and Cooper over the next 15 months.
Soviet Union followed up Gagarin's historic flight with a number of
“firsts” in direct response to Soviet leader Nikita Khrushchev's incessant
demands for more space “spectaculars.” Gherman Titov became the first
human to spend an entire day in orbit in Vostok 2 on August 6, 1961,
followed by the first tandem spaceflight by Andrian Nikolayev and Pavel
Popovich in Vostoks 3 and 4 in August 1962.
civilian parachutist, Valentina Tereshkova, became the first woman to fly
in space aboard Vostok 6, launched June 16, 1963. Although five women were
selected as “cosmonaut” candidates (the Russian term for space travellers)
in 1962, Tereshkova's three days in space were the last for a Soviet woman
until Svetlana Savitskaya was launched aboard Soyuz T-7 in 1982 on a
mission to the Salyut 7 space station. (Savitskaya also became the first
woman to walk in space during that mission).
18, 1965, cosmonaut Alexei Leonov stepped out of an airlock on his
two-person Voskhod 2 spacecraft (with commander Pavel Belayev at the
controls) to become the first human to “walk” in space, floating for 12
minutes outside the spacecraft. A national hero, Leonov went on to command
Soyuz-19 as part of the 1975 joint U.S./U.S.S.R. Apollo-Soyuz Test
days after Leonov's spacewalk, the United States launched a modified Titan
II missile with its first two-passenger spacecraft, Gemini III, on a
three-orbit mission piloted by astronauts Grissom and John Young. On June
3, 1965, the Gemini 4 mission with astronauts James McDivitt and Edward
White duplicated Leonov's feat when White became the first American to
walk in space, floating freely for 21 minutes while manoeuvring with a
handheld propulsion unit.
American series of Gemini missions continued to rack-up successes. Gemini
7, piloted by Frank Borman and James Lovell, set a flight duration mission
of 14 days in orbit in December 1965 and achieved the first true space
rendezvous with Gemini 6, flown by Schirra and Thomas Stafford. Gemini 8,
with David Scott and Neil Armstrong, accomplished the first docking in
space, linking-up with an un-crewed Agena target vehicle and, unexpectedly,
also made the first emergency landing after the spacecraft began to tumble
Gemini missions were an unqualified triumph and the United States believed
it was ready to take the final steps toward the Moon. These plans were
tragically halted on January 27, 1967, when astronauts Grissom, Edward
White, and Roger Chaffee were killed while conducting a routine ground
test of their new Apollo 1 command and service modules. A spark from an
exposed wire ignited a firestorm in the pure oxygen atmosphere of the
sealed spacecraft and all three astronauts asphyxiated within seconds.
Following Chief Designer Sergei Korolev's untimely death in 1966, the
Soviet Union valiantly attempted to regain the momentum in the “space
race” while the United States was regrouping after the Apollo 1 tragedy.
On April 23, 1967, cosmonaut Vladimir Komarov was launched on the first
test flight of the new Soyuz spacecraft but encountered serious control
problems after reaching orbit. A return to Earth was ordered immediately,
but the Soyuz 1 descent module was still tumbling when its parachute
deployed and Komarov was killed instantly when his craft plummeted into
almost 19-month flight hiatus, the American push for the Moon resumed. On
October 11, 1968, a Saturn 1B rocket launched Apollo 7 with astronauts
Schirra, Donn Eisele and Walter Cunningham on a mission to test the
redesigned Apollo command and service modules in low Earth orbit.
first crewed flight of the mighty Saturn V moon rocket lifted-off on
December 21, 1968, with the Apollo 8 spacecraft carrying astronauts Frank
Borman, James Lovell and William Anders on a three-day journey to the
Moon. Borman, Lovell and Anders became the first humans to travel beyond
the influence of Earth's gravity and view the Moon up-close and, on
Christmas Eve 1968, the three men read from the Book of Genesis while
broadcasting live television images of the lunar surface to a worldwide
milestone was achieved on July 16, 1969, when Apollo 11 lifted off on the
first expedition to explore another celestial body. After a three-day
journey, astronauts Neil A. Armstrong and Edwin “Buzz” Aldrin in their
lunar module Eagle undocked from the command and service module Columbia,
piloted by Michael Collins, and descended to the lunar surface. On July
20, 1969, Armstrong planted the first human footprint on the Moon,
declaring for posterity, “That's one small step for (a) man, one giant
leap for mankind,” meeting the deadline established by President John
Kennedy for setting foot on the Moon.
1969 to 1972, five more Apollo missions successfully landed on the Moon.
One intermediate mission, Apollo 13, suffered a catastrophic explosion
during its journey to the Moon on April 13, 1970, but its three
astronauts, James Lovell, Fred W. Haise and John L. Swigert safely
returned to Earth through the heroic efforts of their ground support team
at Mission Control in Houston. In all, 12 American astronauts left their
footprints in the lunar soil during Project Apollo, a unique fraternity of
explorers comprised of: Armstrong, Aldrin, Charles “Pete” Conrad, Alan L.
Bean, Alan B. Shepard, Edgar D. Mitchell, David R. Scott, James B. Irwin,
John W. Young, Charles M. Duke, Eugene A. Cernan and Harrison H. Schmitt.
the success of Apollo 11, the Soviets turned their attention away from the
Moon, to focus on the establishment of permanent Earth-orbiting space
stations. In June 1971, Soyuz 11, with cosmonauts Georgi Dobrovolsky,
Vladislav Volkov, and Viktor Patsayev aboard, was launched on a mission to
dock with the Salyut 1 space station. After establishing a new endurance
record of 23 days in orbit working on the space station, the Soyuz 11
spacecraft separated from the station and re-entered Earth's atmosphere on
June 30, 1971. During its descent, a pressure valve in the descent module
inexplicably opened and the air supply in the cabin vented into space,
suffocating the three cosmonauts who were not wearing pressure suits.
12, 1981, the United States launched the world's first reusable
spacecraft, the Space Shuttle Columbia, piloted by John W. Young and
Robert Crippen. Designed to make space travel “routine,” the Space Shuttle
was designed to haul satellites and cargo into Earth orbit and permit
non-pilot passengers the opportunity to fly in space.
maturing of the Shuttle program opened the doors of spaceflight to a wide
range of individuals, particularly scientists. Dr. Sally K. Ride, a
physicist, became the first American woman astronaut during a six-day
flight on the Shuttle Challenger on the STS-7 mission in June 1983. On the
subsequent flight of the Challenger,Dr. Guion “Guy” Bluford, Jr., a
fighter pilot and aerospace engineer, became the first African-American
astronaut to fly in space on the STS-8 mission, launched on August 30,
catastrophic explosion of the Shuttle Challenger on January 28, 1986,
slowed the integration of non-astronauts into the mainstream of space
travel, but notable milestones still occur. Colonel Eileen M. Collins was
the first woman to command a space mission on the STS-93 flight of Shuttle
Columbia in 1999, a mission that deployed the Chandra X-Ray Observatory.
Mercury astronaut turned U.S. senator, John H. Glenn, became the oldest
person to fly in space at age 77 on the STS-95 mission of Shuttle
Discovery in 1998, establishing a space record unlikely to be broken soon.
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