The Space Race: A Giant Leap for Mankind

By Jack Ripley | March 29, 2024

In 1962, John Glenn became the first American to complete a full orbit around the Earth during Project Mercury

After World War II, tensions rose between the US and the Soviet Union, which led to a nuclear arms race. This led to the two superpowers investing a lot of time and energy into the development of rocket technology, and this led to the Space Race, which began when the Soviet Union launched Sputnik. This satellite was launched in 1957, and it sent a radio signal back to Earth that could be detected around the world. The United States launched Explorer 1 approximately a year after the launch of Sputnik, making shockwaves as well as important contributions to science.

Before the world knew what hit it, the two nations engaged in a race to put a man in space. The Space Race ultimately led to the US sending a man to the moon, and there were several manned missions to the lunar surface between 1969 and 1972. These missions to the cosmos allowed humanity to learn a tremendous amount about outer space and our nearest celestial neighbor, the moon. Strap in as we take a look at how the Space Race paved the way for the world we live in today.


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John Glenn was the first American to orbit the Earth, taking his spin around the globe in 1962. This famous spaceflight represented a major step forward in the American space program, and it took place approximately one year after the first American traveled to space. John Glenn orbited the Earth at an altitude of 100-162 miles, and he spent four hours and 56 minutes in space.

Glenn circled the Earth three times during this famous mission, and the capsule traveled at speeds of more than 17,000 miles per hour. Millions of Americans tuned in to the broadcast of this voyage and grew inspired by the infinite possibilities that space travel promised.

Before exploring space, NASA pilots prepared for the experience by flying high-altitude aircrafts

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NASA on The Commons/Flickr

NASA began to prepare for spaceflight by flying aircraft to high altitudes, such as the B-52. These flights would simulate some of the conditions that pilots would encounter during spaceflight, such as strong G-forces. However, the altitudes that these planes flew at were still well within Earth's atmosphere.

In addition, pilots often had to carry supplemental oxygen on these extraordinary test flights. Some examples of aircraft that were used for these test flights were B-52s, the X-15, SR-71s and the XB-70 Valkyrie.