October 4, 1957, Russia launched the first earth orbiting satellite called sputnik. Sputnik was a shiny metal sphere containing a radio transmitter. The space race had begun!

One month later the Russians launched a dog into earth orbit. So far the United States had not launched a satellite into orbit. The Russians were clearly ahead of the United States in the exploration of space.

Even though the United States had been working on a program to launch a satellite into earth orbit since 1955, then President Dwight Eisenhower gave approval for a second team of scientists, headed by Wernher Von Braun, to pursue the development of a rocket capable of launching a satellite.

Wernher Von Braun had to launch a satellite with existing rockets as early as 1954, using a rocket called the Jupiter-C. This idea was not accepted because the Jupiter-C rocket was an upgraded version of the military Redstone rocket which was originally designed to deliver weapons. So a new rocket called Vanguard was chosen based on political grounds to be the rocket chosen to launch the first United States satellite.

On December 6, 1957, the first Vanguard rocket lifted off from the launch pad and immediately fell back to earth erupting in a ball of fire.

With the failure of Vanguard, the Jupiter-C was called into action. On January 31, 1958, a Jupiter-C rocket carrying the satellite named Explorer 1 was successfully launched into earth orbit. The United States was now in the space race.

The team of scientists under the direction of Wernher Von Braun began design on a rocket called Saturn which would eventually take U.S. astronauts on a journey to the moon and back.

In the interim, existing rockets such as Redstone, Atlas, and Titan, would be used to carry United States spacecraft into space. In 1958, President Eisenhower formed a civilian space agency called NASA (National Aeronautical and Space Administration), which was formerly called NACA (National Advisory Committee for Aeronautics). Project Mercury was started with the goal of launching a man into space. Seven military test pilots were selected to be the first United States Astronauts.

On April 12, 1961, the Russians achieved another first in the exploration of space. Cosmonaut Yuri Gagarin was launched into earth orbit in a spacecraft called Vostok for a 108 minute flight that made one complete orbit of the earth before re-entering the earth’s atmosphere and returning Yuri Gagarin to earth. It was not known until years later that Gagarin actually ejected from the Vostok spacecraft and parachuted to earth and did not actually land inside the spacecraft. Russian spacecraft landed on land, while U.S. spacecraft landed in the ocean.


May 5, 1961, America launched Alan Shepard in a mercury spacecraft named Freedom 7 atop a Redstone rocket. Although the Redstone rocket did not have enough thrust to place Alan Shepard and his Mercury spacecraft into earth orbit, the Mercury spacecraft did reach space thus making astronaut Alan Shepard the first American in space. His flight only lasted approximately 15 minutes but was extremely valuable in testing Mercury spacecraft systems and procedures.

Shepard’s flight was followed by an identical mission flown by astronaut Virgil “Gus” Grissom. The flight went perfectly. However after splashdown, a mechanical malfunction caused the spacecraft hatch, which was fitted with explosive bolts for easy and quick removal, to blow open before the recovery helicopter had securely latched on. The spacecraft quickly filled with water and astronaut Grissom climbed out of the spacecraft into the ocean. The spacecraft was too heavy now that it was full of water and had to be released by the helicopter where it sunk to the bottom of the ocean. Astronaut Grissom was picked up out of the water and brought to the recovery ship.

Clearly we had a lot to learn about spaceflight and we have not even sent an astronaut into orbit.

The following references give detailed information of all the manned space flight:

U.S. Space Log
From Mercury to First Moon Landing

Glenn in the Mercury capsule Friendship 7
(The exterior replica is available from us.)
Check out the size of spacecraft

Check out how they looked