In the past few decades mankind has begun one of the greatest adventures in the history of the human race--the exploration of space. By coupling a new technology and an old tradition of exploration, men have orbited the earth, landed on the moon, and sent unmanned probes to the planets. This yearning to escape the confining bonds of the earth's gravity and atmosphere is an ancient dream of man. As early as the 2nd century A. D., the Greek writer Lucian of Samosata wrote of an imaginary journey to the moon. In 1865 Jules Verne published the classic account of a moon voyage in which earthlings are propelled to the moon by a giant cannon.
While some men were dreaming and writing about travel to the moon, others such as Johannes Kepler, Galileo Galilei, and Isaac Newton were laying scientific groundwork in the areas of mathematics, physics, and astronomy that would permit the actual deed to be achieved. By the early 20th century Samuel Pierpont Langley and the Wright brothers were experimenting with the actual mechanics of heavier-than-air flight. The Wright brothers were the first to succeed when on December 17, 1903, they carried out "the first [flight] in the history of the world in which a machine carrying a man had raised itself by its own power into the air in full flight, had sailed without reduction in speed, and finally landed at a point as high as that from which it started" (NPS, Butowsky 1980).
After the 1903 flight the development of the airplane proceeded rapidly. In 1915 Congress established the National Advisory Committee for Aeronautics (NACA) "to supervise and direct the scientific study of the problems of flight, with a view to their practical solution" (NASA, Anderson 1981a). Knowledge of aeronautical science and aviation technology increased dramatically under NACA guidance as witnessed by such achievements as the nonstop flight of Charles Lindbergh from New York to Paris in 1927.
NACA remained a small agency until World War II. During that war the United States faced the possibility of German-developed aircraft that could fly at speeds in excess of 400 miles an hour and at heights above 40,000 feet. To support Allied war efforts and compete with German technology, the United States initiated experiments that eventually led to the development of the X-1, the craft that exceeded the speed of sound on October 14, 1947. Within a decade after the end of the war, American jet-powered and rocket-powered aircraft had explored the upper limits of the atmosphere, flying at an altitude of 80,000 to 90,000 feet.
The next logical step was spaceflight. However, unlike the airplane, which could be powered by a reciprocating or a jet engine using atmospheric oxygen for its operation, a craft that would fly above the atmosphere required the development of rockets that would carry everything needed for propulsion and operate independently from the environment.
American efforts in rocketry had been advanced in the early 20th century by Robert H. Goddard, a pioneer in the field. Working in the 1920s and 1930s, Goddard compiled an impressive record of achievements. He carried out the first recorded launching of a liquid-propelled rocket (1926), adapted the gyroscope to guide rockets, installed movable deflector vanes in a rocket exhaust nozzle scope to guide rockets, patented a design for a multistage rocket, developed fuel pumps for liquid fuel motors, experimented with self-cooling and variable thrust motors, and developed automatic parachute deployment for recovering instrumented rockets.
Although Goddard's achievements were considerable, he was not alone. During the same period interest in rocketry and space exploration developed in Europe and especially in Germany. Societies of rocket theorists and experimenters were established all over the continent. The most important of these societies, the German Society for Space Travel, conducted many rocket tests during the 1930s. By 1933 all German rocket experimentation was put under the control of the military, and progress advanced at a rapid rate. The Germans established vast research and testing facilities at Peenemuende and by 1943 developed a large rocket, the famous V-2, capable of flying over 200 miles with a speed of 3,500 miles per hour. This was the rocket used to bombard Allied targets late in the war.
In 1945 the United States Army captured an underground factory in the Harz Mountains that contained 100 partially assembled V-2 rockets. These rockets and about 125 German rocket specialists, including Wernher von Braun, were sent to America to continue rocket research work for the Army.
From 1946 to 1951 more than 65 V-2 rockets were fired at the Army's White Sands proving ground in New Mexico. The rockets carried monkeys aloft on four occasions. One V-2, coupled with a WAC-Corporal rocket, achieved an altitude record of 255 miles in February 1949. In July 1950 another V-2/WAC-Corporal combination was launched from Cape Canaveral, Florida, the Air Force's newly activated long-range proving ground.
As experiments continued, the supply of V-2 rockets available for research was rapidly disappearing and new rockets were needed. In June 1950 the Army moved its team of 130 German rocket scientists and engineers from Fort Bliss at El Paso to the Army's Redstone Arsenal at Huntsville, Alabama, along with 800 military and General Electric employees. This team developed the Redstone rocket. In the next five years 36 Redstone rockets were fired at Cape Canaveral to test structure, engine performance, and guidance, control, and tracking systems. During the same period the Air Force was developing a separate rocket, the Atlas, which was designed to be America's first intercontinental ballistic missile.
While America was developing the Redstone and Atlas rockets, the Russians were working on rockets of their own. On August 26, 1957, Tass, the Soviet news agency, announced the successful launch of an intercontinental multistage ballistic rocket. This success was followed on October 4, 1957, by the launching of the world's first artificial space satellite, Sputnik 1.
In response to the Soviet achievement, the United States sought the immediate launch of an American satellite. The first launch attempt, in December 1957, failed; the second, completed by the Army test group headed by Wernher von Braun on January 31, 1958, was successful. The first U.S. satellite, Explorer 1, returned useful data from space.
By 1958 many influential members of Congress and the Executive branch had come to support the concept of a new national space program. In April the administration submitted a bill calling for the establishment of a national aeronautics and space agency, and on July 29 President Eisenhower signed the bill into law (PL 85-568, the National Aeronautics and Space Act). On October 1 the National Aeronautics and Space Administration was officially established, and most of the nation's diverse programs and interests in space exploration were consolidated under its control. One of NASA's major responsibilities was the development and accomplishment of a program to put a man in orbit. In December the agency established Project Mercury, and in April 1959 it selected the first seven astronauts for the manned space program.
During 1959 and 1960 the American space program continued to grow both in terms of money and priority. However, in April 1961 the U.S. was again upstaged when Soviet cosmonaut Yuri Gagarin rode Vostock 1 into an orbit around the earth. The Soviet achievement shook Americans as had the satellite launch four years earlier. Alan Shepard's 15-minute suborbital flight less than a month later seemed minor in comparison. Recognizing the impact of the Gagarin flight, on May 25, 1961, President John F. Kennedy proposed before Congress that the United States commit itself to a manned landing on the moon before the end of the decade. President Kennedy had correctly assessed the mood of the American people. Support was widespread. The decision to land a man on the moon was endorsed by Congress virtually without dissent.
The American program to put a man in space and land on the moon now proceeded rapidly. The program was organized into three phases: Projects Mercury, Gemini, and Apollo. Project Mercury, the manned space program that had been initiated in 1958, was executed in less than five years. The primary objectives of the project were to place a manned spacecraft in orbital flight around the earth, to investigate man's performance capabilities in a weightless environment and his ability to function in space, and to safely recover both man and spacecraft. Six missions were successfully completed under Project Mercury, including the first U.S. orbital flight by John Glenn in 1962, and the program laid a sound foundation for the technology of manned spaceflight.
Begun in 1964, Project Gemini was the intermediate step toward achieving a manned lunar landing, bridging the gap between the short-duration Mercury flights and the long-duration missions proposed for the Apollo program. Major objectives of Project Gemini included demonstration that man can perform effectively during extended periods in space both within and outside the protective environment of a spacecraft, development of rendezvous and docking techniques, and perfection of controlled reentry and landing procedures. The Gemini program provided the first American demonstration of orbital rendezvous and docking--a critical maneuver for a manned lunar landing.
Apollo, the largest and most ambitious of the manned space programs, had as its goal the landing of astronauts on the moon and their safe return to earth. Lunar missions began in December 1968. The first four manned missions, Apollos 7, 8, 9, 10, marked the successful completion of all the complicated lunar orbital maneuvers--the first moon orbit, the first manned flight of a lunar module, and the separation, rendezvous, and docking of the lunar module with the command and service modules--paving the way for the moon landing attempt.
On July 20, 1969, the goal of landing a man on the moon was achieved when Apollo 11 astronauts successfully executed history's first lunar landing. Commander Neil Armstrong and lunar module pilot Edwin Aldrin set foot on the surface, while pilot Michael Collins orbited in the command module.
The "giant leap for mankind" was followed by six additional moon missions, during which extensive exploration and sample collection were successfully conducted. Experimental equipment was set up on the moon, which continues to send valuable scientific data back to earth. Lunar samples, photographs, and other information received will provide scientific research opportunities for years to come. The last manned landing on the moon occurred in December of 1972.
Coinciding with the manned space effort was the initiation of the unmanned space program. Scientific achievements ranged from geophysical and atmospheric studies to astronomical and planetary exploration. The successful launch of Explorer I in February 1958 opened a new world of scientific investigation, which will continue into the future.