The Space Race: A Giant Leap for Mankind
By Jack Ripley | February 1, 2024
Project Mercury Astronaut Walter Schirra
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.
Walter Schirra was one of Project Mercury's brave astronauts who flew into orbit. He went on to orbit the Earth a total of six times during the Mercury program. In fact, he was one of the first Americans to fly into space, and he was on the first Mercury mission. In addition, he flew on the Gemini missions and on Apollo 7 in July of 1969. This was the first successful crewed spaceflight during the Apollo program, and it repeated the goals of the failed Apollo 1 mission
Before exploring space, NASA pilots prepared for the experience by flying high-altitude aircrafts
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.
Ham The Chimpanzee Was Launched Into Space Three Months Before The First American Man
One of the earliest goals of the Space Race was to be the first nation to send a man into space. However, there were many challenges that had to be tackled before this could happen. In fact, scientists didn't even know if it was possible to eat in outer space. There were many other potential issues that doctors believed could arise due to the zero-gravity environment of space. However, the only way to determine how space would affect the body was through testing.
Scientists performed a wide range of medical experiments to test how the body would be likely to respond to spaceflight, but the only way to know how the body was likely to respond was to send our closest relatives (chimps) into space. One of these chimps is pictured here, and his name was Ham. After the spaceflight, he lived until 1983 and died at 26 years old.
Neil Armstrong stands in front of the X-15 rocket plane in 1959
Neil Armstrong was one of the first Americans to fly an experimental aircraft known as the X-15, which was designed to reach the boundary of space. This aircraft was created through a collaboration between the Air Force and NASA. In fact, this early rocket-powered aircraft could reach altitudes that exceed the lower boundary of space (approximately 62 miles). This test aircraft was capable of reaching speeds of more than Mach 5 or more than 5 times the speed of sound. Pilots that exceeded an altitude of 50 miles with the aircraft received astronaut wings.
These early test flights provided important data about the physics of spaceflight, which played a critical role in ensuring that astronauts were able to safely travel to a high enough altitude to achieve an orbit. The first X-15 flight to reach the boundary of outer space was on May 12, 1960. Neil Armstrong flew several X-15 flights, including one where he reached an altitude of approximately 140,000 feet.
Mercury Astronauts Underwent Desert Survival Training
One of the most challenging parts of spaceflight is the return to Earth. In fact, astronauts face a wide range of potential hazards on their return, including touching down in a remote area. In the event that the astronauts did not land in an area where they could be easily reached by the recovery team, it was essential that they had wilderness survival skills.
Thus, prior to launch, astronauts underwent survival training that focused on the different environments that they could encounter after returning to Earth. In the case of the Mercury team, the astronauts are trained in the unforgiving desert environment of Nevada.
In 1962, John Glenn became the first American to complete a full orbit around the Earth during Project Mercury
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.
A Gemini capsule is tested in the Unitary Plan Wind Tunnel at Ames Research Center in California in 1962
Prior to launching the Gemini capsule, a model of the spacecraft was tested in wind tunnels at Ames Research Center in California. This helped to ensure that it was sufficiently aerodynamic before the launch.
In order for astronauts to reach space, they first have to travel through the Earth's thick atmosphere. Thus, rockets need to be affected by frictional forces as little as possible. The best way to determine the aerodynamic properties of a rocket design is through wind tunnel testing, which is pictured here.
The aerodynamic properties of the Apollo lander play an integral role in its return to Earth. Re-entering the atmosphere is one of the most critical parts of an astronaut's journey back home, so it's incredibly important to get this right.
Astronauts participate in tropical survival training near the Panama Canal in 1963
Prior to taking off, the astronauts received survival training in case they found themselves stranded somewhere dangerous. This helped to ensure that they would be able to await the recovery crew for an extended period of time if the splashdown didn't go exactly as planned.
The astronauts of the Apollo missions planned to splash down in the Earth's equatorial regions so they trained for survival in a tropical environment, hence all of the prep in Panama.
Gene Kranz in the Mission Control room at the Johnson Space Center in Houston in 1965
The mission control crew played an integral role in all of the Apollo missions, and Gene Kranz can be seen working at it here. Kranz was an American aerospace engineer, and his work played an integral role in ensuring that NASA used effective rocketry to get to the moon. He played a critical role in ensuring that the missions went as planned and communicated with the astronauts from mission control. He was one of the agency's most decorated flight directors.
Kranz played a crucial role in helping to bring the Apollo 13 astronauts home. If it weren't for the hard work and expertise of Kranz and other scientists at mission control, the astronauts almost certainly would not have been able to make it back to Earth. Mission control is always tasked with helping to solve many of the mission's most challenging problems. After the Apollo mission, Gene Kranz said:
You can not operate in this room unless you believe that you are Superman, and whatever happens, you're capable of solving the problem.
Ed White and James McDivitt pilot the Gemini 4 mission in 1965
Ed White and James McDivitt were the pilots of the Gemini 4 Mission, which was the second crewed American spaceflight. If you count previous X-15 flights that reached the boundary of space, it was the 10th manned mission into space. This mission lasted for a period of four days, 1 hour and 56 minutes. The crew completed 62 full orbits at an altitude of 89-156 nautical miles or 77-135 miles.
Ed White completed a successful and famous spacewalk during the mission. This spacewalk lasted for a period of 23 minutes. However, the hatch was opened for a period of 36 minutes. The crew attempted a rendezvous with the mission's spent Titan Rocket, which was not successful. While in space the astronauts performed experiments onboard the module and took photographs of the Earth below.
Ed White, out for his famous spacewalk. June 1965
Walking in space presents many novel challenges, which took NASA quite a while to tackle. In fact, early spacewalks were fraught with issues, which led the agency to make significant changes to how they were performed. This spacewalk was one of the first missions where astronauts traveled outside of the capsule. The lack of gravity makes it difficult to control your body's movements through space, and being outside of the pressurized cabin presents challenges and dangers.
Ttemperatures in outer space fluctuate rapidly between approximately 250 degrees above zero and 200 degrees below zero. This means that spacesuits need to be designed to provide sufficient protection from these extreme elements. The lack of air means that spacesuits need to be designed to be completely airtight. A small leak could lead to the suit being depressurized which would spell disaster for the astronaut.
After returning to Earth, White and McDivitt get a congratulatory call from President Lyndon B. Johnson
After their return to Earth, astronauts received a warm welcome home from the President of the United States. Crowds cheered in celebration of their arrival home in the US. These celebrations were televised and viewed by people across the country.
Millions of people tuned in to see the astronauts launch, complete their mission and return home, and their journey is remembered by every American.
Astronauts Thomas P. Stafford and Eugene A. Cernan sit in their Gemini spacecraft with the hatches open while awaiting the arrival of the recovery ship U.S.S. Wasp. June 6, 1966
After their arrival on Earth, astronauts who traveled to the moon had to await a recovery ship to bring them back to shore. That's because the only place that the lander could successfully touch down on the surface of Earth was the ocean, and the Apollo capsule was designed to float on the water. Due to the fact that astronauts had to wait for the recovery vessel to arrive, the astronauts for all of the Apollo missions underwent survival training for environments that they could encounter after their return home. Luckily, recovery crews were able to reach all of the Apollo astronauts relatively quickly, which prevented this situation from arising.
The crew of Apollo 1, just weeks before they were tragically killed when a fire erupted in their capsule during testing. It was one of NASA's most horrific accidents. 1967
Apollo 1 ended in a tragic launch pad fire that killed all members of the crew. The three men can be seen in this photograph, which was taken a mere weeks prior to the disaster. Precautions were taken in future missions to prevent similar disasters, but astronauts face significant risks with every mission.
Despite improved technology and new precautions to prevent disasters, traveling to space presents significant risks to all astronauts. However, as scientists continue to learn more about spaceflight, NASA continues to take steps to make interstellar travel safer for astronauts.
Walter Schirra commands the Apollo 7 mission in 1968
Apollo 7 was the first Apollo mission to orbit the Earth, and there was no one better at the helm than Walter Schirra. He flew on several missions with NASA, and he was one of the original seven astronauts who were part of Project Mercury. As with other missions into space, the astronauts of Apollo 7 faced one of a kind issues, which led to important lessons for future missions to space.
Prior to the mission, there were disagreements about whether or not the mission should launch at all. After the launch, disputes continued and presented significant issues for the crew. Fortunately, the mission ultimately went as planned, and the astronauts returned home safely.
William Anders captured the first "Earth-rise" ever to be seen by humans during the Apollo 8 mission, December 1968
While orbiting the moon, the astronauts of Apollo 8 saw a beautiful and incredible scene as the Earth rose over the horizon. According to Bill Anders during the Apollo 8 Mission:
We came all this way to explore the moon, and the most important thing is that we discovered the Earth.
If you're viewing the Earth from the moon it appears about four times the size of the moon in our skies. Due to the fact that the Earth is much more reflective than the moon it's significantly brighter in the lunar sky than the moon is in ours. In fact, the Earth reflects approximately 30%-35% of all light that hits it, but the moon only reflects around 14%.
The amount of light that the Earth reflects varies significantly due to cloud cover and other variables. If you're on the near side of the moon (the side that we can see), it's possible to see the Earth in the sky at any time. While the Apollo astronauts were not on the moon's surface during the lunar night, the next generation of astronauts may be, and they may be able to use the light of the Earth to perform their duties during this period of time.
The Apollo 11 crew — Neil Armstrong, Michael Collins, and Buzz Aldrin — smile for the cameras in 1969
The three men in this photograph were the first humans to set foot on another world, and the crew is pictured here after they returned to Earth. The crew traveled to the moon over a period of three days, and the journey was like no other. As they saw the Earth from space, they marveled at how remarkably insignificant the blue "marble" of the Earth looked in the blackness of space. As Neil Armstrong said, their first steps on the moon represented a mere step for them and a giant leap for mankind.
Former President Lyndon B. Johnson and Vice President Spiro Agnew join the crowds to see the launch of Apollo 11 in 1969
The 1969 Apollo launch was viewed by millions of people around the world, including President Lyndon B. Johnson and Vice President Spiro Agnew. All of the astronauts who traveled to the moon received a warm welcome from the President after their arrival back on Earth.
The trip that the astronauts took to the moon represented a significant milestone in American history and a giant leap forward in the technological advancement of mankind.
Buzz Aldrin gears up as Apollo 11 approaches the Moon
Prior to landing on the moon, the astronauts had to ensure that they were prepared to walk on the lunar surface. In this image, you can see Buzz Aldrin putting on his spacesuit prior to landing. The spacesuits that the astronauts wore to the moon were designed to ensure that they remained protected from the harsh lunar environment at all times.
While they were on the surface of the moon, astronauts performed a wide range of experiments, including measuring the solar wind, setting up a system of mirrors that were used by scientists on Earth to measure the distance between the Earth and the moon, collecting lunar rocks for examination and taking samples of the lunar soil to return to Earth.
One of the first "bootprints" on the Moon, made by Buzz Aldrin during the Apollo 11 mission. July 20, 1969
Is this the giant leap for mankind that Neil Armstrong was talking about? This footprint will likely remain on the surface of the moon for thousands of years to come. That's because, unlike on Earth, the forces of erosion are minimal.
The moon does not have a significant atmosphere. There is no wind or water erosion there, which means that marks in the lunar soil can last for millennia. However, that doesn't mean that the site where the Apollo crews landed on the moon has remained unchanged over the years. In fact, the sun's radiation is far more intense on the moon due to its lack of an atmosphere. Thus, the flag's colors are presumed to have faded. In addition, micrometeoroids and solar radiation have likely led to the flag becoming tattered and worn over time despite the moon's lack of an atmosphere.
Buzz Aldrin walks on the surface of the Moon during the Apollo 11 mission
Walking on the moon is an experience that's unlike any that one can have on the surface of the Earth, and Buzz Aldrin is one of only a handful of people who have experienced it. The moon's limited gravity makes it possible to jump a lot higher and further than you can on Earth. Due to the fact that the moon's gravity is approximately 16% of the gravity on Earth, jumping off of a height equivalent to a second-story roof would feel similar to jumping off of a table on Earth.
Each step comes with a bit of a bounce that it doesn't have here on Earth. This made walking on the moon a fundamentally unique experience compared to anything that astronauts experienced before their journey. The combination of this unique feeling and the incredible, alien and breathtaking views of the lunar surface made the voyage an awe-inspiring and fundamentally life-changing experience for the astronauts onboard the Apollo missions.
The Crew of Apollo 11 Underwent a 21-day Quarantine After Returning To Earth
After the Apollo astronauts returned to Earth, they were quarantined for a period of 21 days. If microbial life did exist on the moon and was harmful to humans, this quarantine period would help to prevent it from spreading to others. However, there is no life of any kind on the airless, intensely irradiated surface of the moon. Some of the world's hardiest microbes, tardigrades, may be able to survive for an unknown length of time in the airless environment of space. As far as we know they do not occur naturally beyond Earth and cannot live for long periods of time in this environment.
The quarantine period also helped to ensure that the astronauts did not experience any unexpected medical effects of the space environment on the human body. While NASA had performed a careful evaluation of the impact of zero-gravity environments on the body, research is still being done today on the myriad ways that this environment impacts astronauts.
The Apollo 11 astronauts don sombreros and ponchos during a parade in Mexico City
The crew of Apollo 11 can be seen celebrating at a parade in Mexico City in this photograph, and the returning astronauts received a warm welcome after arriving back on Earth wherever they went. Not only was footage of their famous journey broadcast all over the world, but the crewmen became household names worldwide. Large crowds gathered to celebrate their arrival back home in the US.
The Apollo 12 lunar Extravehicular Activity (EVA) crew members, Pete Conrad and Al Bean, conduct a simulation of the lunar surface activity planned for their mission at a training session held at the Kennedy Space Center. October 6, 1969
The crew of each Apollo mission to the moon trained for walking on its surface prior to the voyage. That's because walking on it is much different than walking on the surface of the Earth. The gravity is only one-sixth of what we feel every day, and this means that your step has much more bounce to it on the surface of the moon.
This low gravity also has a major impact on other things. For instance, astronauts actually hit a golf ball on the moon, which traveled for approximately a mile. This was filmed by the astronauts on the surface, and the footage was played by television stations all over the world. The astronauts performed other activities, such as throwing a javelin. The javelin in question actually traveled a similar distance and has been photographed in a crater next to the golf ball that they hit.
As you might be able to guess, moving around in a spacesuit also presents challenges. The suits are fairly stiff, which tends to limit limb mobility.
Disaster almost struck NASA during Apollo 13's failed mission in 1970. Mission Control Celebrates The Crew's Safe Return To Earth
Mission control played a critical role in bringing the Apollo 13 astronauts back to Earth. The flight crew wouldn't have been able to return if it weren't for the hard work and expertise of NASA mission control. An oxygen tank ruptured onboard the module, which threatened to depressurize the cabin. This would have led to certain death for the crew. Luckily, they were able to quickly redirect their course back to Earth and return home with help from mission control. The astronauts spent a total of 5 days, 22 hours and 54 minutes in space during this mission.
This harrowing mission has been the subject of many documentaries as well as the Ron Howard joint, "Apollo 13," which became a cable classic in the 1990s.
The Apollo 13 astronauts step aboard the U.S.S. Iwo Jima after successfully splashing down in the South Pacific
The harrowing mission of Apollo 13 thankfully didn't end in disaster, and the astronauts can be seen here after boarding the USS Iwo Jima. The astronauts splashed down in the South Pacific Ocean, and they traveled on the ship to Honolulu. After their arrival back on Earth, there were celebrations of their return across America.
While the astronauts of Apollo 13 were not able to land on the moon, they came quite close to its surface. They came within 137 nautical miles of it as they orbited around it a single time. They did this in order to use the moon's gravity to slingshot them back to Earth, which is easily one of the coolest things that anyone has ever done.
Edgar Mitchell photographs Alan Shepard holding the American flag on the Moon's surface during the Apollo 14 mission. February 1971
An American flag was sent with each Apollo Mission to the moon, and you can see Edgar Mitchell with Apollo 14's flag here. While the flag is likely still on the moon, its condition is unknown and likely has deteriorated significantly due to the harsh conditions of space. As with other artifacts left behind on the moon, they are likely to remain there forever.
The rover's tracks lead away from the lunar module during the Apollo 14 mission
The astronauts to the moon traveled across the surface with a rover, which had a top speed of approximately 8 miles an hour. This is equivalent to a relatively slow pace on a bicycle, and it allowed them to cover more distance on the lunar surface than they could on foot. The lunar rover allowed the astronauts to explore the landscape, take samples from multiple locations on the lunar surface and take photographs. This rover was designed to carry a payload of approximately 970 pounds.
The astronauts collected numerous samples during their trip across the lunar surface on the rover. The first trip on the rover lasted for a period of approximately four hours, and a total of 93 pounds of rock samples were gathered. These samples were returned to Earth and studied by geologists, which helped to lead to a new understanding of the moon.
However, the Apollo 14 Rover was not as fast as the rover that was used during the Apollo 17 mission, which had a top speed of approximately 11 miles per hour. As a result, it didn't cover as much distance as the rover used in this mission.
Apollo 16 lifts off in April 1972
Apollo 16 launched from a Falcon rocket, which can be seen taking off here. However, a picture cannot begin to describe the scene on the ground as the rocket was taking off. In fact, the rocket produced a whopping 136 decibels even at a distance of one mile from the launch pad. Due to the fact that the takeoff of the rocket is extremely loud, bystanders watching the launch were advised to wear ear protection.
The rocket was visible over a large area. In fact, amateur astronomers were able to view it in transit to the moon throughout its journey. Apollo 16 traveled to the moon over a period of three days and landed in the Descartes Highland region to the west of Mare Nectaris and the crater Alphonsus.
Apollo 17 astronaut Harrison H. Schmitt plants a flag on the Moon in December 1972
Apollo 17 was the last mission to the Moon (for now). As with the other Apollo missions, the astronauts brought a flag, which was planted on the surface. This flag is likely to remain on the moon indefinitely. Though, it likely doesn't look quite the same as when it was planted due to the effects of the environment of space. Most likely, the flag has mostly or completely faded, and it likely is significantly tattered due to the effects of solar radiation and micrometeoroid impacts.