Preparing for the Moon Program or the Early Years of NASA

Space is an unimaginably huge area, about which we know a little more than nothing. It is not a secret for anybody that human is insignificantly small in comparison with outer space, and the knowledge of space helps people to understand their significance in this world. Even now, when we can look at photos of distant galaxies and send unmanned missions to other planets or even beyond our solar system, the Universe has not become clear and predictable for us.

The Creation of NASA

Almost 62 years ago, namely, on October 4, 1957, the whole world, with bated breath, saw in the tiny screens of its black and white televisions the orbit of the first Soviet satellite in the world, the “Satellite PS1”. This event had epochal importance and it became a cold shower for the US government, which only then realized that they should have come to grips with space exploration a long time ago.

As a result of the revision of the space doctrine on July 29, 1958, a new agency was formed in the USA with the abbreviation NASA (National Aeronautics and Space Administration).

The main task of the new agency was to study the problems of flights inside and outside the atmosphere of our planet. At that time, NASA already had about 8,000 employees, and its annual budget was about $100 million. The management also had three large research laboratories and several small test sites. This is how the history of NASA began and with it the rivalry in space with the USSR, which lasted more than a decade. It is worth noting that the United States entered the race as a lagging side and the Americans began to actively catch up. We all know well where all this led to, so let’s talk more about the history of the formation of this agency.

Almost immediately after the reorganization, the agency began work on a new manned program for manned space flight, using the developments of all previous US space programs. Three main programs were created for this purpose:

  • Mercury
  • Gemini
  • Apollo

Besides, there were two additional support programs that were studying the interplanetary space and collecting information:

  • Ranger
  • Surveyor

Mercury program

The first stage was a human flight on manned spacecraft in the Mercury program. Initially, researchers needed to find out if a person can physically be in space.

In early 1959, NASA began the selection of astronauts for a flight on a single manned spacecraft. It is worth remarking that the selection criteria were quite severe, and by April 2, 1959, only seven people were selected out of 110 applicants. The first NASA astronaut detachment was formed of them. Their training was carried out at the Langley Research Center, it is noteworthy that the Mercury spacecraft and the “Redstone” and “Atlas” launch vehicles were developed at the same location. The power and payload of these rockets were small, which limited the capabilities of the manned capsule. But despite this, the program made it possible to thoroughly work out the methods of the ship`s orientation, the flight-control systems, landings and to conduct primary biomedical researches.

January 31, 1961, after several test unmanned launches, as part of this program, the first flight was carried out with an unusual 17-kilogram astronaut on board. It turned out to be a chimpanzee named Ham, who flew 670 kilometers in space at a speed of 9400 km/h. This flight was one of the links of the large-scale program of preparation of flights in near-earth orbit for testing and adaptation of a living organism in the conditions of vertical launch and the entire space flight as a whole.

On May 5, 1961, less than a month after the flight of Yuri Gagarin, the first suborbital flight of the American astronaut Alan Shepard occurred in a single capsule “Freedom 7”. The flight did not last long, only 15 minutes, but it was a serious achievement and it ended with a successful landing in the ocean.

The Mercury project was research, its main goal was to maximize the collection of the necessary information to ensure future flights to the moon. For this reason, a series of unmanned reconnaissance probes were launched in parallel, the task of which was to go from near-earth orbit to near-moon. Such flights helped develop a logical sequence in space exploration. These tasks were classified according to the degree of difficulty. The first flights of unmanned Ranger were not very successful, they either crashed, falling on the moon or missed, flying away into outer space. But even these unsuccessful missions helped to collect useful information, for example, to get the first clear photographs of the satellite surface of our planet.

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Gemini Project

In December 1961, NASA announced the launch of a second project, Gemini, the goal of which was to develop and improve the technologies necessary for a manned flight to the moon. It was planned to launch 10 manned spacecraft into a near-earth orbit during the 20-month history of this project. Within the framework of Gemini, first flights of the ship without a crew were envisaged along a ballistic trajectory, and then the launch of four satellites with crews. The duration of manned flights reached up to 14 days. The ships of the new generation had a double capsule, which was equipped with ejection seats. With the help of this mission, the researchers studied the effect of a long stay in space on the human body.

Another important goal of this project was to exit a person into the hostile environment of outer space. In addition, the plan included the development and testing of proximity and docking operations in space. But the technology of that time did not allow it. For example, a two-seater capsule was too heavy to be put into orbit using an Atlas booster. For this project, NASA has selected a manned version of the intercontinental ballistic rocket of US Air Force “Titan II”.

February 20, 1962, John Glenn made the first American orbital flight and became the third person to be in outer space.

Further, the agency faced serious problems that were connected with the lack of the necessary technology to implement the tasks. For example, the first launch of the unmanned launch of the Gemini program was 11 months behind the schedule, up to April 1964. However, during its first flight, the rocket successfully completed 64 orbits around our planet. The second unmanned test flight confirmed Titan II’s readiness for operation.

In March 1965, Gemini 3 performed its first manned flight, operated by Gus Grissom and John Young. During this 5-hour flight, they circled the Earth three times. With the help of the orbit control system and the maneuvering of the Gemini spacecraft, the astronauts were able to manually change the orbital flight trajectory. This means that they mastered the main potential for future docking in outer space.

The main achievement of the Gemini project was Ed White’s 20-minute spacewalk, the first American astronaut working in outer space.

In December 1965, two manned ships Gemini 6A and Gemini 7 were launched. During the flight, they approached up to two meters, after which the ships dispersed to a distance of 50 kilometers. Experiments on meeting and docking ships with unmanned objects, as well as astronauts going into outer space were performed on manned vehicles.

The Gemini project made a huge contribution to the developing American space program in the mid-60s. In general, the program was attended by 20 astronauts who spent more than 970 hours in space flights, and the total distance traveled is 39 million km. It is worth remarking that it is more than 100 times the distance from the Earth to the Moon. The total budget of the Gemini project was estimated at 1.3 billion US dollars, that is, the cost of manufacturing and launching one satellite ship was on average about 45 million US dollars.

All these impressive achievements were a major contribution to the upcoming venture missions of interplanetary flights. As for the moon program Apollo and its terrible tragedy at the very beginning, we will tell about it in the next article. Keep for updates on our website, not to miss interesting materials on the topic of space exploration.

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