Looking back on American human spaceflight history: Mercury, Gemini paved way for moonshot

Both programs set groundwork for historic 1969 moon landing

Known as the Mercury 7: Astronauts Lr Cdr M. Scott Carpenter U.S. Navy; Maj. L. Gordon Cooper, U.S. Air Force; Lt. Col. John H. Glenn, Jr., U.S. Marine Corps; Maj. Virgil I. Grissom, U.S. Air Force; Cdr. Walter M. Schirra, Jr., U.S. Navy; Cdr. Alan B. Shepard, Jr., U.S. Navy; and Maj. Donald (Deke) K. Slayton, U.S. Air Force. (Image: NASA) (WKMG 2020)

The first NASA astronaut launch from U.S. soil coming up in May has been a long time coming, but to understand the importance of the historic launch you need to look at how far human spaceflight has come since the first space explorer.

It’s well known, Russia beat the U.S. launching the first person into space but only by a few weeks increasing tensions between the two nations. Today, Russia and the U.S. are partners in space exploration.

Leading up to the May 27 launch of NASA astronauts Doug Hurley and Bob Behnken we’re taking a look back at milestones in U.S. human spaceflight that paved the way for future astronauts, starting with the Mercury and Gemini projects.

1958- 1963 Project Mercury

Liberty Bell 7 (July 21, 1961)During the Mercury-Redstone 4 mission, just the second-ever manned spaceflight in American history, astronaut Gus Grissom had a very narrow escape when his spacecraft, the Liberty Bell 7, began (NASA)

Seven astronauts were selected to become the first Americans in space through Project Mercury, however, only six would reach space throughout the course of this program.

The Mercury program used two rockets: Redstone for the suborbital and an Atlas for the four orbital flights. Each astronaut named his capsule and added the numeral 7 to denote the teamwork of the original astronauts.

This fast-moving program proved that humans “can function ably as a pilot-engineer-experimenter without undesirable reactions or deterioration of normal body functions for periods up to 34 hours of weightless flight,” according to NASA.

Before launching humans, NASA conducted a series of flight tests without crew including carrying a chimpanzee into space. Some of the test rockets were dubbed Little Joe and Big Joe and some test flights ended in spectacular explosions.

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May 5, 1961: First American in space

Astronaut Alan Shepard Jr. launched from what was then known as Cape Kennedy becoming the first American in space. His flight lasted a little over 15 minutes. About 2 months later on July 21, 1961 Astronaut Virgil I. Grissom would become the second American in space.

Shepard would go on to walk on the moon in 1971 during the Apollo program.

May 25, 1961: President John F. Kennedy unveils moonshot goal

Kennedy challenged the U.S. to land a man on the moon by the end of the decade, telling Congress “I believe 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 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.”

According to the NASA History Office, the space agency’s overall human spaceflight efforts were guided by Kennedy’s speech.

November 29, 1961: Chimp in space

A chimpanzee named Enos launched in the Mercury spacecraft on an Atlas rocket from Cape Canaveral Air Force Station.

According to NASA, the chimp withstood a peak of 7.6 Gs. However, due to a malfunction in orbit Enos was subjected to almost 80 electric shocks in orbit.

Feb. 20, 1962: First American to orbit Earth

President John F. Kennedy and Vice President Lyndon B. Johnson greet astronaut John Glenn. (Image: LBJ Presidential Library/NASA)

Less than a year after the second human spaceflight from the U.S., Astronaut John Glenn Jr. made history becoming the first American to orbit the Earth three times.

Following Glenn’s flight, Astronauts M. Scott Carpenter, Walter Schirra and Gordon Copper Jr. all followed with successful spaceflights.

1962- 1966 Gemini Project

Astronauts Virgil I. (Gus) Grissom (right) and John W. Young, prime crew for the first manned Gemini mission (GT-3), are shown inside a Gemini mission simulator at McDonnell Aircraft Corp., St. Louis, MO. (Image: NASA History Office) (WKMG 2020)

While the Mercury spacecraft could only carry one astronaut, Gemini was designed to fly the first two-person crew. According to the NASA History Office, the Gemini Project was “a bridge between the pioneering achievement of Project Mercury and the yet-to-be-realized lunar mission of Project Apollo.”

The Gemini capsule flew on a Titan II rocket, which was originally a missile.

Under the Mercury program, NASA learned astronauts could fly in space and survive short periods of time. Under Gemini, astronauts proved humans could survive outside the spacecraft conducting the first space walk, spending more than a week in space and dock and rendezvous with other spacecraft in orbit.

March 23, 1965: Then there were two

After two Gemini missions without crew, the first mission under the Gemini project with humans on board was commanded by Mercury astronaut Gus Grissom with astronaut John Young, a Naval aviator, as his fellow crew member.

June 3-7, 1965: First American spacewalk

During Gemini 4, astronaut Ed White II performed the first spacewalk by an American, a critical test to landing humans on the moon.

December 1965: Record spaceflight

During the flight of Gemini 6, astronauts Frank Borman and James Lovell set a record of 14 days in Earth-orbit. It would take five years for that record to be broken.

1965-1966: Space rendezvous and docking

In the span of less than a year, NASA would launch five additional Gemini missions designed to test orbital docking of a spacecraft and completing longer spacewalks. By November 1966, the program had successfully tested those capabilities crucial to the Apollo program.

Coming next, milestone of the Apollo Project including the historic moon landing. Check ClickOrlando.com/space for more on this series.