The first living creature to reach space aboard an American rocket is Ham, a chimpanzee wired with electrodes and sensors to determine the effects of space travel on a higher primate whose body might react similarly to that of a human being. NASA sends Ham on the sixteen-minute suborbital Mercury 2 flight, ending in a splashdown in the Atlantic. Both Ham and his vehicle survive the flight despite numerous equipment glitches in both the Redstone rocket and the Mercury capsule itself (which actually blasts away from the Redstone via its launch abort system), which loses cabin pressure (fortunately, Ham has his own spacesuit to protect him) and then puts its primate pilot through a punishing 17G reentry. For his pioneering feat of spaceflight, Ham receives an apple, an orange, and paid retirement to the National Zoo.
The Soviet Union launches Venera 1, the first interplanetary space probe. Bound for Venus, Venera 1 returns measurements and observations taken during its three-month flight, but loses contact with ground controllers just as it makes its closest approach to Venus at a distance of 62,000 miles from the planet. It falls into an orbit around the sun after falling silent.
In the journal Science, Carl Sagan proposes an audacious scheme to alter the chemistry of the atmosphere of Venus, making it habitable for humans. His plan involves depositing algae colonies into the planet’s clouds to begin converting the planet’s carbon dioxide into breathable oxygen, and the idea is years ahead of its time (and will later prove to be impractical when more direct studies are made of the Venusian atmosphere).
The Soviet Union scores another technological victory, launching cosmonaut Yuri Gagarin aboard Vostok 1 into a single orbit of Earth lasting a little over 100 minutes. After that orbit, Gagarin’s Vostok return capsule carries him safely through the atmosphere; he then triggers an ejection seat which punches him out of the capsule, at which point he parachutes to the ground.
Alan B. Shepard, aboard the Freedom 7 Mercury capsule, becomes the first American in space when he is launched on a fifteen-minute suborbital flight from Cape Canaveral, splashing down in the Atlantic Ocean. The Mercury spacecraft offers its pilot more maneuverability than the Soviet Vostok vehicle, which is almost entirely controlled from the ground.
At a special joint session of Congress called to discuss “urgent national needs,” President John F. Kennedy sets a new goal for NASA (which has only just put a single American astronaut into space): “I believe that this nation should commit itself to achieving the goal, before this decade is out, of landing a man on the moon and returning him safely to the earth. No single space project in this period will be more impressive to mankind, or more important for the long-range exploration of space, and none will be so difficult or expensive to accomplish.” Kennedy requests that Congress pass space-related budgets totaling half a billion dollars for 1962 alone (encompassing not only the Apollo program, but nuclear rocket development, weather satellite development, and communication satellites).
Recent Jet Propulsion Laboratory hire Michael Minovitch submits the first of a series of papers and technical memorandums on the possibility of using carefully-calculated gravitational assist maneuvers to speed transit time between celestial bodies while requiring minimal engine/fuel use. Where most previous scientific thought concentrated on using engine burns (and a lot of fuel) to cancel the effects of a planet’s gravity, Minovitch demonstrated that gravity could be a big help with a carefully calculated trajectory. Though nearly every planetary mission since then has capitalized on Minovitch’s research, it was initially rejected by JPL. Minovitch’s calculations are later revisited by Caltech grad student Gary Flandro, who flags down a particular combination of Minovitch’s pre-computed trajectories for a “grand tour” of the outer solar system, a mission which will eventually be known – in a somewhat scaled-down, less grand form – as Voyager.
NASA and the United States Weather Bureau launch the third experimental TIROS weather satellite, TIROS-3. Further refinements to the basic TIROS satellite system are made, but one of the satellite’s two television cameras fails within days of going into service. TIROS-3 proves the future life-saving potential of weather satellites by giving Earthbound meteorologists advance warning of the formation and strengthening of Hurricane Esther well before it makes landfall on the east coast of the United States. TIROS-3 is operational for less than a year.
The second American in space is Virgil “Gus” Grissom, pilot of the Mercury 4 capsule Liberty Bell 7. Like Alan Shepard’s flight, Grissom’s launch reaches an altitute of 118 miles and splashes down 15 minutes later, but mechanical problems with the explosive bolts to release the capsule’s hatch allow water into the vehicle. Grissom has to bail out at sea, wearing a spacesuit that’s rapidly taking on water, while Liberty Bell 7 sinks to the bottom of the Atlantic. Grissom weathers repeated accusations that he manually blew the hatch and caused his vehicle to sink, a claim which is later disproven.
The Soviet Union launches its second manned spacecraft, Vostok 2, with cosmonaut Gherman Titov aboard. This mission sets a new space endurance record, with Titov spending just over one day in orbit, circling Earth 17 times in the process. Later accounts show that it’s not a pleasant day in orbit: Titov is reportedly the first sufferer of space sickness, vomiting in the cabin of his Vostok capsule.
NASA launches the Ranger 1 lunar probe, designed to test a new vehicle configuration to reach the moon, transmitting pictures back to Earth as it falls toward impact on the lunar surface. The Agena second stage rocket designed to push Ranger 1 into a much higher orbit to escape Earth’s gravity fails, and Ranger 1 falls back into Earth’s atmosphere, disintegrating eight days after launch. This is the first of a series of setbacks for the troubled Ranger program.
An unmanned Saturn I rocket is launched, the first practical demonstration of the multiple-engine design which has already been earmarked for future Apollo missions to the moon. Designed by expatriate German rocket engineer Werhner von Braun, the Saturn I is the first iteration of a family of heavy-lift rockets that will include the Saturn IB and the Saturn V; in this configuration, the Saturn I is the first stage of a Saturn V with no second stage.
NASA launches the Ranger 2 lunar probe, intended to travel the distance from Earth to the moon and collide with the lunar surface, taking pictures and transmitting them back to Earth up to the moment of impact. Much like its predecessor in the Ranger series earlier in the year, Ranger 2’s Agena second stage booster fails, leaving it stranded in a low Earth orbit. Ranger 2 disintegrates upon reentering Earth’s atmosphere two days later, another blow for a NASA program that can’t seem to score a success.
Prior to putting an astronaut in orbit, NASA launches a chimpanzee named Enos on a two-orbit Mercury flight to validate the survivability of the spacecraft for an extended flight. Enos is recalled to Earth when both his spacesuit and his Mercury capsule begins heating up unexpectedly, and attitude control is lost; after three hours and two orbits, Mercury 5 returns to Earth. While hauling the capsule from the ocean, recovery crews accidentally crack the window. Despite all this, Enos is safely returned home; he dies a year later from an illness not related to his orbital flight.