On April 12, 1961, the Soviets launched the first man into space. The American response comes less than four weeks later with the first flight of the "Mercury" project, the program initiated in order to mitigate the advantage acquired by the Soviets in human spaceflight.
On May 5, 1961, Commander Alan B. Shepard, a Navy officer, becomes the first American astronaut himself. Although Shepard was not in orbit around the Earth, he reached the height of 186 km with his capsule, a level more than enough to earn the astronaut "title" which, according to an assessment by NASA, corresponds to those who have exceeded the height of 80 km.
With her "Mercury 3", renamed "Freedom 7" and placed on top of a modified Redstone missile for this purpose, Shepard remained in flight 15 minutes and 22 seconds before landing in the Atlantic: a relatively short time, but enough to demonstrate that the man could manually control an spaceship in conditions of absence of weight.
Shepard's suborbital flight was repeated on July 21, 1961 by his colleague Virgil Grissom, a major of the aviation who with the capsule "Liberty Bell 7" reached the height of 190 km.
To arrive at the first orbital flight of the Mercury project, it was necessary to wait until the following year when, on February 20, 1962, the US they put their first astronaut in orbit. The spacecraft was the "Mercury 6", placed on an Atlas missile, properly modified.
The first American to fly in orbit was Lieutenant Colonel of the Marines, John Glenn. Glenn, with the "Friendship 7" capsule, remained in orbit for four hours fifty-five minitues, completing 3 orbits around the Earth before descending smoothly and reaching the mission's objective: to test the benefits of the "Mercury capsule. ", as an orbital spacecraft.
As had happened with Shepard, Glenn's orbital flight is repeated on May 24, 1962 by his colleague Scott Carpenter, who with the "Aurora 7" capsule carried out a practically identical mission.
On August 11, 1962, the Soviets returned to space with the "Vostok 3" piloted by Major Andrian Nikolaev, who the next day was hit in orbit by Colonel Pavel Popovic aboard the "Vostok 4". The two spaceships passed at a distance of 6 km. One of another. The "rendez-vous" was not possible because the "Vostok" (as also the "Mercury") did not have rocket engines and the control system necessary for the orbital meeting. However, the Soviet company was fully successful: Nikolaev made 64 orbits and Popovic 48, which naturally prompted the Americans to continue the "Mercury" program with great impetus.
On October 3, 1962, Navy commander Walter M. Schirra was put into orbit with the "Mercury-Atlas 8". Its mission was to demonstrate that the man and the "Mercury" capsule could work together for a longer period than the totalized in the preceding companies. Schirra did it by staying in space for 9 hours and 13 minutes, and doing 6 laps around the Earth. Very little compared to Nikolaev's 64 orbits, a difference partly covered with the last mission of the project, the "Mercury 9" when, on May 15, 1963, Major Gordon Cooper made 22 orbits while remaining in space thirty-two. Four hours and twenty minutes.
The battle for supremacy in space had barely begun and only six years later, with the first American descent on the Moon, it can be said that it ended in favor of the US. At least for now ...
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