It began with Sputnik. When the Soviet Union launched the first satellite, Sputnik One, on October 4, 1957, the space race was on. Since this was the height of the Cold War, the United States was concerned. They quickly formed NASA, the National Aeronautics and Space Administration, and quickly made plans for both manned and un-manned launches. Soviet Cosmonaut Yuri Gagarin made history as the first human being in space, quickly followed just a month later by U.S. Astronaut Alan Shepard’s historic suborbital flight in May of 1961.
To be fair, however, the first primate in space title goes to chimpanzee Ham, who aboard a Mercury Redstone rocket made a safe journey and splashdown re-entry in late January of 1961. Prior to this, the first animal in space was Laika, the Soviet dog who was asked to make the ultimate sacrifice, death, as she will forever be the first Earth creature to leave the planet.
Laika’s early journey was in November of 1957. Dubbed “Muttnik” and greeted by protest worldwide, Laika’s sad mission, although memorialized by the USSR, raised ethical questions about space missions in general. This was true even as around the world military concerns were more focused upon the formidable missile power for potential launch of hydrogen bomb warheads that the Soviets had mastered.
In the early days of NASA, a firm resolve was set. The famous speech by John F. Kennedy announced a plan to send a man to the moon, and return him safely before the decade of the 1960s was gone. Kennedy did not live to see the results of his famous and inspiring goals, but he is best remembered for this ambition by world history. Without the threat of the Cold War, it is doubtful such a feat would ever have occurred in such a brief time.The world was captivated.
The first American missions were the Mercury missions.These were followed by the Gemini programs, which saw astronauts Gus Grissom and John Young testing the limits of their endurance in perfecting docking and rendezvous maneuvers which would be needed for a lunar mission. In June of 1965, astronaut Ed White became the first man to walk in space.
The NASA space program was not without great sacrifice. In 1967, both Gus Grissom and Ed White were killed in a flash fire at the Kennedy launch pad in Florida while a launch test was run.They became the first fatalities upon the Apollo One mission. Even as the nation mourned the loss of these heroes, more plans were pushed forward. The U.S. continued to launch satellites and prepare for ever-bolder missions.
Finally, in July of 1969 Apollo 11 Astronaut Neil Armstrong was watched in blurry images broadcast around the riveted world when he stepped from the Apollo 11 lunar lander to be the first human being to step upon another extraterrestrial body. Remaining in the Lunar module was astronaut Buzz Aldrin. Aldrin would have a chance to be second man on the moon, but Michael Collins, in the orbiting command module, would not. Just as heroically (but not quite as famously) Collins performed all the necessary work to return the spacecraft back to Earth. “A giant leap for mankind” became the catch phrase of the decade, if not the century.
More missions followed, but none were quite so dramatic or moving, even unto the present day. Apollo 13, in April of 1970, was a mission that against all odds managed to return to Earth even after the command module was incapacitated, aborting the lunar landing mission. That the astronauts returned safely was enough success for grateful Americans. The first working space station, Skylab, was launched in 1973 and was used in subsequent missions. In 1975, a joint mission allowed the Soviets and NASA to work together in a hopeful moment of harmony between the rival nations with the Apollo and Soyuz test program.
Space missions were now being planned for a vehicle that could be launched and returned to Earth, so the space shuttle missions of the 1980s soon became reality. Meanwhile, many unmanned historical missions produced valuable data and amazing new knowledge with the Pioneer, LandSat, Voyager and SeaSat missions. Data about the home planet, as well as distant worlds, began to materialize, filling volumes of exploration and research libraries. The unmanned missions were never as well-received, but they continue to provide long-term knowledge which could potentially change everything known about the solar system and beyond.
Sally Ride became the first American woman in space in 1983. Her vehicle for launch was the Challenger Space Shuttle, which later became known as a cautionary icon for improving missions and restraint of hasty over-reach, especially in public relations. The Space Shuttle Challenger, launched in January 1986 on the historic “Teacher in space mission” exploded just 73 seconds after takeoff, instantly killing astronaut heroes: Dick Scobee, Judith Resnik, Ronald McNair, Ellison Onizuka, Michael Smith, Gregory Jarvis and carefully selected teacher in space Christa McAuliffe. Once again the world mourned, but all agreed that the dream should stay alive. As then President Ronald Reagan said of the Challenger Seven: "The future belongs to the brave.”
It would not be until early February of 2003 that another courageous crew, this time of the Columbia Space Shuttle, would die upon re-entry after another otherwise successful launch and mission. The shuttle missions lost support after this, but for the very dedicated professionals, and for the grateful world which has witnessed an entirely changed and technologically advanced level of civilization, no frontier has closed. The first photographs of distant Earth from the Apollo missions have become a powerful symbol of shared humanity and a fragile planet.
Unmanned missions became routine, and scarcely noticed, among them the Cassini, Pathfinder, Helios and other missions to the stars. No one yet knows the ultimate discoveries of these many explorations, but the space programs which now are internationally sponsored and greatly detailed promise knowledge of new frontiers humankind cannot even begin to imagine.