By Gery L. Deer
Deer In Headlines
In 1958 the National Aeronautics and Space Administration (NASA) was commissioned to getAmericainto the space race and beat the Russians to the moon. President Kennedy had set a public deadline of landing a man on the moon by the end of the 1960’s but no one even knew if it could be done. To make it happen, NASA had to invent new technology and learn new skills previously conceived of only in the pages of comic books.
To get things started, NASA established Project Mercury and seven test pilots were chosen from various branches of the armed services to be the first American astronauts. Sitting in tiny capsules atop converted ballistic missiles, these brave men learned how to break the bonds of gravity, achieve orbit, navigate and then return safely back to earth.
On February 20, 1962, Colonel John H. Glenn, Jr., a Marine Corps fighter pilot fromCambridge,Ohio, blasted off fromCape Canaveralto become the first American to orbit the earth. Only the second Mercury flight, Glenn’s Friendship 7 capsule and splashed down safely in the ocean after completing three orbits. The mission lasted only 4 hours, 53 minutes and 23 seconds but it was long enough to allow the United States to catch up to the Soviets.
Glenn’s mission was considered a great success especially considering it happed less than a year after Mercury astronaut Alan Shepard flew the firstU.S.space shot aboard his Mercury capsule, Freedom 7. Shepard and Glenn had paved the way for the future of theU.S.space program, and within a few years, Project Mercury had achieved all its objectives.
The next series of missions, Project Gemini, allowed the astronauts to leave the relative safety of the capsule and the new two-person spacecraft that was more maneuverable than the Mercury craft. The Gemini vehicles were also used to develop docking and rendezvous technology, vital to the lunar landings.
By 1967, however, NASA had hit yet another growth spurt. Project Apollo replaced Gemini and, along with a few of the original Mercury 7 astronauts, nine new pilots were selected. Things were moving at a feverish pace and NASA was making good time to fulfill Kennedy’s promise but that achievement did not come without a price.
Each and every mission had multiple objectives ranging from simple tests of new equipment to advanced flight evaluations. Whatever the purpose, procedures were established in order to minimize danger. Ultimately, however, space flight was dangerous and these men were test pilots and sometimes things didn’t go as planned.
In January of 1967, Apollo 1 Command Pilot Virgil “Gus” Grissom, Senior Pilot Edward H. White and Pilot Roger B. Chaffee died in a fire during a ground test of the command module capsule atCape Canaveral. The accident forced several design and safety procedure changes and delayed manned Apollo flights for nearly two years.
When the first manned Apollo mission launched in October of 1968, many in Washington felt the Apollo 1 accident was caused by haste and carelessness and pushed for the program to be shut down before more money and lives were lost. Work continued, however and today Neil Armstrong’s immortal words from the Sea of Tranquilitystill resonate across the generations.
Between 1969 and 1972, there were six successful moon landings. In 1973, NASA launched America’s first space station, “Skylab,” and by 1977, the first space shuttle, Enterprise, was ready for flight control and landing tests. The space shuttles were retired in 2011 after three decades of service.
None of these later accomplishments would have been possible without the bravery and fortitude of those first 7 space pioneers. Ironically, John Glenn was one of the first astronauts to leave the space program (to pursue a career in politics) but he is also the only Mercury astronaut to return to space after retiring.
In 1998, Glenn flew as a payload specialist aboard the Space Shuttle Discovery at the age of 76 – the oldest human ever to fly in space. Here’s to John Glenn on the 50th Anniversary of America’s first orbital flight.