On May 25, 1961, John F. Kennedy delivered one of the most memorable State of the Union addresses in the history of the United States. “I believe that this nation should commit itself to achieving the goal, before this decade is out, of landing a man on the Moon and returning him safely to the earth” (http://www.cs.umb.edu/jfklibrary, President John F. Kennedy’s Special Message to the Congress on Urgent National Needs). With those words, Kennedy launched a new era of space exploration in the United States. Although the National Aeronautics And Space Administration was created in 1958 by the National Aeronautics and Space Act (http://www.hq.nasa.gov, Key Documents), and the Russians already launched the first satellite into space in 1957, the US was still at a stand still on the subject.
What the country needed was a wake-up call, and that is exactly what it got from one of the most celebrated speakers in its history. The new era promised much, but expected little. From USA’s struggle to be the dominant world power in the Cold War Era, to the careless depletion of natural resources in the Information Age, space exploration and astronauts were and will be the real keys to the new millennium and beyond. Before looking into the future, or even evaluating the present, one must look in detail at the history of the space project. The missions that gave scientists and engineers the necessary data and experience to make new, safer, more reliable and intricate equipment were launched long before there was realistic talk of sending probes to Mars. The astronauts that helped shape the training programs, took the beatings of primitive flight tests, and died in order to serve their country were born before World War II.
And even the Russian Space Program was crucial to what the space program is today. It fueled competition, and provided more resources for American engineers. Until Apollo 11, they were ahead of the Americans in almost everyway, with their launch of Sputnik, a unmanned satellite in 1957, and their countless firsts in orbiting and space walks. Yuri Gagarin was the first man in space. Although most of the missions that have been launched have been important in their own ways, some missions just stand out, whether it was the first step on the Moon, or the first mission to Mars. NASA’s first high profile program was Project Mercury, an effort to learn if humans could survive in space. It was the prelude to the later missions, and it gave NASA the necessary data to build better, and more comfortable ships for humans to stay in space for extended periods of time. The first launch of the Mercury program was the LJ-1 on August 21, 1959.
At thirty-five minutes before launch, evacuation of the area had been proceeding on schedule. Suddenly, half an hour before launch-time, an explosive flash occurred. When the smoke cleared it was evident that only the capsule-and-tower combination had been launched, on a trajectory similar to an off-the-pad abort (http://www.ksc.nasa.gov, Mercury: LJ-1). The first mildly successful spacecraft launch occurred September 9, 1959. Although the BJ-1 ship experienced some problems, and the timing on some of the separation procedures was off, the capsule made it back to earth some seven hours after lift-off. The capsule orbited the earth for approximately thirteen minutes (Mercury: BJ-1).
Mercury mission MA-5 was the first to carry live organisms into sub-orbit. Although Enos – a chimpanzee, was not a perfect substitute for a human, he served as a good test for the environmental controls of the capsule. He orbited the earth in total weightlessness for over three hours and upon landing was in perfect physical condition (Mercury: MA-5). On May 5, 1961, Freedom 7 was the first launch to carry humans into space. Alan B. Shepard, Jr. was the only crewmember, and the successful mission lasted for over 15 minutes (Mercury: MR-3). More manned flights from the Mercury series followed, highlighted by the Friendship 7, where on February 20, 1962, John Glenn was the first American in actual orbit, and he orbited the earth three times for a little under five hours (Mercury: MA-6).
The last mission from the Mercury project came on May 15, 1963, where L. Gordon Cooper was in orbit in the Faith 7 for over a day. Total weightless time was over thirty-four hours, and the mission was celebrated and deemed more than successful (Mercury: MA-9). Gemini missions followed which built on the success of the Mercury flights, and basically followed the same outlines, except with a crew of two astronauts. The most monumental program in the history of the US came next, following the late President Kennedy’s mission of landing a person on the Moon. The Apollo project featured many milestones, and also some setbacks. The Apollo 1 mission was a huge failure as astronauts Virgil Grissom, Edward White, and Roger Chaffee lost their lives when a fire swept through the Command Module (Apollo 1). After a few more test flights, Apollo 8, launched on December 21, 1968, was the first manned lunar orbital mission, staying in the Moon’s orbit for twenty hours, making ten circles (Zimmerman, 6).
While the flights before were all important, the most celebrated and documented mission in the history of the US was the Apollo 11, where Neil A. Armstrong, Michael Collins, and Edwin E. Aldrin, Jr. were the first to land on the Moon. The mission launched without any delays on July 16, 1969, and even the crewmembers could barely grasp the magnitude of their mission. Before the flight, while the astronauts were being strapped in, Michael Collins had this to say, “Here I am, a white male, age thirty-eight, height 5 feet 11 inches, weight 165 pounds, salary $17,000 per annum, resident of a Texas suburb, with black spot on my roses, state of mind unsettled, about to be shot off to the Moon. Yes, to the Moon” (http://www.ksc.nasa.gov, Apollo 13). The flight went perfectly and on July 20 at 04:17 p.m. EDT, “The eagle has landed.” The first step on Moon, was at exactly 10:56:15 p.m. EDT, and Aldrin described the experience better than anyone else could, “We opened the hatch and Neil, with me as his navigator, began backing out of the tiny opening. It seemed like a small eternity before I heard Neil say, “That’s one small step for man . . . one giant leap for mankind.” In less than fifteen minutes I was backing awkwardly out of the hatch and onto the surface to join Neil, who, in the tradition of all tourists, had his camera ready to photograph my arrival” (Apollo 13). There were celebrations all around the world, especially in the US when Neil Armstrong place the US flag into the rocky lunar soil, and straightened out the creases. At this time, the two astronauts on the surface received probably the biggest phone call of their life, from the president.
“Neil and Buzz, I am talking to you by telephone from the Oval Office at the White House, and this certainly has to be the most historic telephone call ever made . . . Because of what you have done, the heavens have become a part of man’s world. As you talk to us from the Sea of Tranquility, it inspires us to redouble our efforts to bring peace and tranquility to Earth…” (Bean, 47). On July 24, 1969, the astronauts splashed down in the Pacific Ocean, and within minutes, they were on the USS Hornet (http://www.ksc.nasa.gov, Apollo 13). More missions would follow, particularly the Apollo 13 mission, which was almost a complete disaster. Another mission to set humans on the Moon, was aborted after numerous failures – 200,000 miles from Earth. The astronauts did return in a Life Module. The last of the Apollo missions was the Apollo – Soyuz project that brought along the peace process started earlier by Nixon. The Viking project was the beginning of the Mars exploration, with the first two Viking lander and orbiter missions in 1976 (Vogt, 60).
The atmospheric conditions taken from those missions serve as background information for today’s plans to send humans to Mars. The Voyager missions in 1979 were set to explore Saturn in detail, and Jupiter, Uranus, and Neptune as fly-bys (Vogt, 22). Although these missions served to collect a lot of data for future research and went to further planets, they were not as big as the manned flights to the Moon, particularly because space exploration was so new, and because the missions to the Moon had a patriotic feel to them. But history of astronauts would not be complete with out a more detailed information about some of the more famous astronauts. John Glenn, the first American in orbit on the Friendship 7 flight, was a pilot of over ninety missions in the Korean War (Kramer, 18). Chosen for his experience as well as his bravery in the war, he rose to the rank of Colonel in the US Marine Corps before going into NASA.
He trained on crude machinery, before NASA came up with a set training program (20). He was 42 when he flew for the first time in his orbital mission (34), and he later became a Senator (39). Neil Armstrong and Buzz Aldrin, both flew in the Apollo 11, and were the first two people to walk on the moon. They will always be remembered for their historic feat. Both Armstrong and Aldrin were 39 when they flew the Apollo mission. Armstrong was the first civilian in space, and in his first flight, he was the commander of the Apollo 11 mission. “Buzz” Aldrin was a Colonel in the US Air Force, and he was also chosen for his flying experience. Because Americans have lost interest in the space program without competition, there has not been another crop of astronauts as famous as those since the days of the Apollo mission. History of space flight has been very rich with accomplishments and milestones, but it appears that the world has reached a small bottleneck for technology in the area of space exploration. In addition, the lack of competition from any other country has slowed down the pace of innovation. With the Russian Space Program in shambles, as well as the whole country of Russia, the former USSR has not produced much useful technology lately. With a huge space station in the making, Russia is the only country that has not made the necessary parts for its completion, due to costly maintenance of their old space station, Mir, on which Russia and America have worked together on conducting experiments in the years after the USSR’s break-up. With Mir’s retirement, Russia now has the time and the resources to complete their part of the International Space Station which will accelerate space exploration. America has a few of its own projects going on right now, like the Galileo, the Pathfinder, and the Mars Polar Lander. Galileo is one of the probes out right now, scheduled to study the environmental conditions of Venus and Jupiter (http://galileo.jpl.nasa.gov, Galileo).
The Mars Pathfinder, launched 2 years ago, has recently made some important discoveries about the water content on Mars, and the climate history of the “red” planet. Endless information has been sent back to earth about Mars’ ice caps, and rock formations, which have concluded that there was standing water on Mars, including oceans and seas (http://polarlander.jpl.nasa.gov/, Pathfinder). Although the Pathfinder has set the Mars exploration mission on the right track, the recent failures with the Mars Polar Lander mission have set back the program. The communication with the new lander could not be established and the ship is presumed lost. Critics say that the “faster, cheaper, better” approach taken with the lander has actually cost the government more than $36 million, and the valuable time of building and getting a new lander in position (Associated Press, 1A). Although the present movement of the space program appears to have stalled, maybe the future holds the answers.
What is in the future of the space program ? Eventually, people will settle on the planets close to earth, if not because of exploration, but because of a lack of natural resources, which is catching up with mankind. Prototypes of human habitats on Mars are being made, and NASA hopes to have humans on Mars by 2050. The International Space Station should be well on its way to being built, and should be functioning in the next five to ten years (http://polarlander.jpl.nasa.gov, Future). New cheaper satellites and explorers are also coming in the near future. The new explorers with plasma propulsion are already in design, and are going to cost no more than one million per unit greatly slashing today’s price. They are also going to have a virtually inexhaustible fuel capacity, because of the special engine design using metal for fuel. This explorer will be so affordable that they could be sent out in many directions to explore countless star systems, and still be inexpensive enough to lose (Chaikin, 60).
Plans that are being talked about right now may be a little far fetched sometimes, but even if some of them will materialize, the future looking bright indeed. Forty-eight years ago, John F. Kennedy set a grand plan in motion. His State of the Union address pushed the United States to its limits. Better training methods, and many schools for future astronauts have made a big difference in the level of the training, ability and intelligence of the future crews of American spaceships. Now, even with interest dwindling, and problems piling up, Americans have to try their best to stare in the face of adversity, and look at the big picture – the endless “playground” known as outer space.
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