Collier’s Magazine publishes an extensive pictorial article with text by space pioneers Wernher von Braun and Willy Ley, and illustrations by Chesley Bonestell, positing a future with plane-like spacecraft making routine trips to orbiting space stations. The article suggests that the station could be a reality in ten years and “twice the cost of the atom bomb” if the public shows its support for space exploration. Though spaceplanes and stations are more than a decade away, the Collier’s article is a seminal moment in the space age.
The newly-formed NASA reveals a bold plan: Project Mercury will be an extensive program to create a vehicle capable of safely sending men into Earth orbit and returning them in one piece. The rigorous selection process to find the country’s first space pilots – astronauts – begins, focusing on combat pilots and especially test pilots with experience in flying unproven experimental aircraft (the Mercury spacecraft will definitely qualify for this description).
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 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.
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.
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.
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.
Weeks before an American astronaut first makes it to orbit, NASA unveils the design of the two Apollo spacecraft: a command/service module (large compared to the Mercury capsules Americans have already seen) and a completely un-aerodynamic lunar module whose unique shape, designed solely for landing on the moon, will never need to operate inside an atmosphere. Though further refinements in both designs are still to come, NASA has already decided on the basic shape of its crash lunar exploration program whose goal is to land a man on the moon before 1970.
The third manned Mercury flight, Friendship 7, puts John Glenn in orbit for nearly five hours, the first American astronaut to circle the Earth. The retro-rocket package on Glenn’s vehicle, Friendship 7, becomes an issue when a sensor indicates that the heat shield protecting the capsule’s interior from the intense heat of reentry has slipped. Intended to be cast off before reentry, the retro package is left on at the insistence of ground controllers, resulting in an unusually rough ride home after only three orbits.
The second American orbital flight is launched, with Scott Carpenter lifting off aboard Mercury 7 (nicknamed Aurora 7). Carpenter’s five-hour, three-orbit mission is almost a carbon copy of John Glenn’s orbital flight, the primary goal being to duplicate the flight and compare the two astronauts’ reports and reactions.
Andrian Nikolayev becomes the third Soviet cosmonaut to reach orbit. Aboard Vostok 3, Nikolayev remains in orbit for almost four days, long enough to become the first space traveler from Earth to have company while in orbit.
The Soviet Union launches Vostok 4 with Pavel Popovich aboard, while Andrian Nikolayev orbits overhead in Vostok 3. The two vehicles pass within four miles of one another, but with no precision maneuvering, rendezvous or docking equipment, there’s little practical engineering value in the tandem space flight, other than to prove that ground controllers can handle two simultaneous flights. Popovich returns to Earth after nearly three days.
Astronaut Wally Schirra is the third American to orbit Earth, aboard the Mercury 8 capsule (nicknamed Sigma 7). He remains in orbit for just over nine hours in the cramped quarters of the Mercury spacecraft before splashing down.
The final manned Mercury flight, Mercury 9 (nicknamed Faith 7) puts astronaut Gordon Cooper in orbit for over a day. Over the course of 34 hours, Cooper circles Earth 22 times, performing small-scale experiments and photography tasks. With Mercury astronaut Deke Slayton grounded due to health issues, only six of the Mercury seven have flown. Development of a two-seater descendant of the Mercury design (initially called “Big Mercury” but now known as Gemini) is well underway, along with the development of the Apollo spacecraft that will succeed Gemini and take men to the moon. Cooper is the last solo American space pilot until Mike Melvill flies the experimental SpaceShip One into suborbital space in the 21st century.
The Soviet Union launches the Vostok 5 mission to orbit Earth, carrying cosmonaut Valery Bykovsky aboard. He remains in orbit for over four days, traveling over 2,000,000 miles in Earth orbit. As he flies over the Soviet Union, a second Vostok capsule is launched in the USSR’s first bid to trump the United States by mounting the first manned space rendezvous.
While cosmonaut Valery Bykovsky orbits overhead about Vostok 5, Vostok 6 is launched from the Soviet Union, carrying the first female space traveler, cosmonaut Valentina Tereshkova. Spending nearly three days in orbit, Tereshkova’s Vostok capsule serves as a rendezvous target for Vostok 5, though without precision piloting ability, the two vehicles’ closest approach is no closer than within three miles, and neither Vostok is actually equipped for any kind of docking. Tereshkova’s flight is a political point scored for the Soviet Union, but only a brief victory for womankind: it will be two more decades before another woman flies in space. The glass ceiling remains firmly in orbit.
Construction commences on NASA’s massive Vehicle Assembly Building (originally named the Vertical Assembly Building), where the giant Saturn V rockets for Apollo lunar missions will be constructed, tested, and then rolled out to the launch pad atop huge mobile crawlers. Covering eight acres of land on Merritt Island, Florida, the building must withstand Florida’s notorious hurricane seasons (and protect any rockets under construction within) as well as the shockwaves of Saturn V rocket launches taking place only three miles away; special ventilation and humidity control systems have to be built as well, as the interior space is so voluminous that the building has its own internal weather! The VAB will later transition to the assembly of the Space Shuttle launch system elements and the Space Launch System boosters for the 21st century Orion program.
The Air Force announces the Manned Orbiting Laboratory project, a joint venture with NASA to orbit a space station using modified Gemini capsules to launch specially selected Air Force crews for month-long stays in orbit. What isn’t revealed – but isn’t too hard to figure out – is that MOL’s mission is largely military, including orbital reconaissance: the station will essentially be a manned spy satellite. The Soviet Union responds by beginning to draw up plans for its own manned military space station, Almaz.
The Soviet Union launches the first of its next-generation manned spacecraft, the roomier Voskhod 1 capsule. Cosmonauts Dr. Boris Yegorov, Dr. Konstantin Feoktistov and Vladimir Komarov become the first three-man crew in space, though they find that the larger vehicle is still cramped for a crew of that size; the tight fit makes no allowances for spacesuits, which also makes the Voskhod 1 crew the first “shirtsleeves” space flight. Voskhod 1 spends just over one day in orbit before reentering the atmosphere; for the first time, the crew lands inside the capsule, rather than ejecting and parachuting down after reentry.
Voskhod 2 is launched by the Soviet Union, this time with only a two-man crew for a very specific mission. Cosmonauts Pavel Belyaev and Alexei Leonov orbit Earth for 28 hours, but during one orbit an airlock is extended from the side of their Voskhod capsule and Leonov squeezes through the airlock tunnel in a spacesuit, becoming the first human being to exit his spacecraft in flight. He spends 10 minutes walking in space, but this Soviet space first nearly ends badly; Leonov’s suit “inflates” as a result of pressurization, making it extremely difficult to enter the vehicle again (and nearly overexerting him in the process of getting back inside). A guidance system malfunction forces Belyaev to manually control the vehicle during reentry and descent, but Voskhod 2’s crew capsule lands over 700 miles away from Moscow in a remote wilderness in the dead of winter, and the cosmonauts wait hours for a recovery team to rescue them via helicopter.
The first two-man American space crew lifts off in the first manned flight of NASA’s Gemini program. With a larger, more maneuverable spacecraft designed for longer stays in space, Gemini is intended to be a stepping stone on the path to the first lunar landing, allowing astronauts to practice rendezvous, docking, and orbital changes. Aboard the Gemini capsule are Mercury veteran Gus Grissom and rookie John Young; the capsule is unofficially nicknamed “Molly Brown” (a reference to Grissom’s sunken Mercury capsule). The flight lasts barely five hours and includes the first-ever orbital attitude changed made by a manned spacecraft.
NASA’s massive Vehicle Assembly Building is completed at the spaceport rapidly taking shape on Cape Canaveral ahead of the Apollo lunar missions. Topped off at a total cost of $117,000,000, the VAB is where Saturn V rockets are assembled for the Apollo moonshots, and the huge, eight-acre building will later transition to the assembly of the Space Shuttle launch system elements and the Space Launch System boosters for the 21st century Orion program.
The second manned Gemini flight, Gemini 4, lifts off with Jim McDivitt and Ed White aboard for a four-day mission. Four hours into the flight, White becomes the first American spacewalker, controlling his movement with a handheld device with small jets allowing him to change his own orientation, though he is tethered to the Gemini capsule at all times. This is the first NASA flight overseen from the new Manned Space Center constructed in Houston, Texas, and the first to be broadcast live worldwide.