According to an ancient Chinese proverb, “A journey of a thousand miles must begin with a single step.” NASA is preparing for a journey to Mars, a planet that is 49 million miles from Earth. That journey began 55 years ago with a single, 116-mile “step” into space on May 5, 1961.
Amid a backdrop for the effort to put a human in space was the Cold War. The Soviet Union also was working to put the first human in space, and they did on April 12, 1961. Cosmonaut Yuri Gagarin was launched aboard a spacecraft named Vostok (Russian for East) and completed an entire orbit of the Earth, landing after a flight of one hour and 29 minutes.
Three weeks later, NASA astronaut Alan Shepard flew aboard a Mercury spacecraft he named Freedom 7. It was a short, 15-minute flight into space, but it was a “small step” that has led to many “giant leaps.”
Following the success of Shepard’s flight, President John F. Kennedy knew he needed a bold response to the challenge of the Soviet Union as the Space Race began to heat up.
“We knew we were in a competitive situation,” said Dr. Kurt Debus, NASA’s Launch Operations director at the time. “But, we never permitted the pressure to make us take risks that might endanger Shepard’s life or the success of the mission.”
Debus, who would go on to serve as the first director of the Kennedy Space Center, knew he and the Project Mercury team were on the verge of something historic.
“We were proud that we were permitted to do some of the pioneering work and aware that we were at the threshold of something very important,” he said.
When Ike Rigell, chief of Project Mercury Electrical Network Systems, looked back at Shepard’s flight, he expressed similar emotions.
“This was a very significant flight, because the country needed this,” he said. “The whole free world needed this flight at that time.”
Following a delay due to unfavorable weather on May 2, 1961, NASA was ready for another attempt to launch Mercury Redstone-3.
Shepard climbed aboard Freedom 7 at 5:15 a.m. for the planned 7:20 a.m. liftoff from Launch Complex 5 at Cape Canaveral Air Force Station. But the launch was held for an hour to allow cloud cover to clear. Next, an inverter in the electrical system had to be repaired. Once the countdown began again, another hold was required to recheck a computer at Goddard Space Flight Center. The Greenbelt, Maryland-based center was responsible for management and operations of Project Mercury’s communication networks.
Shepard Reaches Space
Finally, at 9:34 a.m., the Mercury Redstone rocket roared to life with 78,000 pounds of thrust.
“Roger, liftoff and the clock has started,” Shepard radioed back to Mercury Control at the Cape.
An estimated 45 million American television viewers watched as the sleek, 83-foot launch vehicle rose into the blue Florida sky. Thousands more “bird watchers” flocked to Cocoa Beach and Port Canaveral to witness the historic event.
After the flight, Shepard reported the launch phase went smoothly.
“The cockpit section experienced no vibration and I did not even have to turn up my radio receiver to full volume to hear the radio transmissions.”
During the rocket’s acceleration, Shepard was subjected to 6.3 g, or 6.3 times his normal weight, just before shut down of the Redstone engine, two minutes and 22 seconds after liftoff.
“Ten seconds later, the spacecraft separated from the launch vehicle,” Shepard said.
Soon after, America’s first space traveler got his first view of the Earth.
“What a beautiful view,” Shepard said.
Now weightless in space, Shepard took control of the spacecraft with a hand controller.
“I made this manipulation one axis at a time, switching to pitch, yaw and roll in that order until I had full control of the craft,” he said.
These options were not available to Gagarin on Vostok.
Freedom 7’s retrorockets fired five minutes, 15 seconds after liftoff to begin the return to Earth. Strapped atop the heat shield, the retro pack was successfully jettisoned for the return through the atmosphere.
“The re-entry and its attendant acceleration pulse of 11 g was not unduly difficult,” Shepard said, “and I noticed no loss of peripheral vision.”
An experienced Naval aviator, Shepard reported that the splashdown in the Atlantic Ocean “did not seem any more severe than a catapult shot from an aircraft carrier.”
Helicopters dispatched from the recovery carrier, the USS Lake Champlain, were soon hovering above the floating Mercury spacecraft.
After the main hatch was blown off, Shepard climbed out and into a sling and was hoisted into a Marine helicopter. Both astronaut and Freedom 7 were flown to the deck of the Lake Champlain where sailors cheered the arrival.
The flight of Mercury Redstone-3 lasted 15 minutes, 22 seconds with Freedom 7 ascending to an altitude of 116 miles, splashing down 302 miles from Cape Canaveral.
Three days after the flight of Freedom 7, President Kennedy presented Shepard with the NASA Distinguished Service medal in a ceremony at the White House.
Opening a New Frontier
Walt Kapryan, who was capsule project engineer for Shepard’s flight, recalled the excitement of being a part of America’s first human spaceflight.
“We felt we were on the threshold of something very important,” Kapryan said. “We were on the threshold of opening a new frontier.”
Kapryan, who went on to become director of Launch Operations at Kennedy, soon learned that feeling was well founded.
During a joint session of Congress on May 25, 1961, Kennedy challenged the nation to take the next steps in the journey in space by “landing a man on the moon and returning him safely to the Earth.” In remarks at Rice University in Houston on Sept. 12, 1962, Kennedy put in perspective the challenge that was ahead.
“We choose to go to the moon in this decade and do the other things, not because they are easy, but because they are hard,” he said, “because that goal will serve to organize and measure the best of our energies and skills, because that challenge is one that we are willing to accept, one we are unwilling to postpone, and one which we intend to win.”
As Project Mercury’s orbital flights transitioned to the technological advances of Project Gemini, NASA honed skills in maneuverable spacecraft, spacewalking, rendezvous, docking and flights of up to two weeks.
Then came the giant leap to the moon.
On Dec. 21, 1968, Apollo 8 astronauts Frank Borman, Jim Lovell and Bill Anders became the first humans to leave Earth orbit and make the 250,000 mile journey to the moon. The trio orbited the moon 10 times on Christmas Eve.
Kennedy’s goal was achieved in July 1969 when Apollo 11 launched from Kennedy to land on the moon. While Mike Collins remained aboard the command module in lunar orbit, Neil Armstrong and Buzz Aldrin landed in the area known as the Sea of Tranquility. Soon after, Armstrong descended the lunar module’s ladder.
“That’s one small step for (a) man, one giant leap for mankind,” said Armstrong as he stepped onto the lunar soil.
It was just over eight years since Shepard’s small, 15-minute step in what was becoming an ongoing journey. By December 1972, 12 NASA astronauts had walked on the moon.
In the mid-1970s, NASA’s focus returned to low-Earth orbit with the prototype space station, Skylab. In July 1975, a joint mission, called the Apollo-Soyuz Test Project, turned into an opportunity to develop international cooperation with the rendezvous and docking of a U.S. Apollo with a Soviet Soyuz spacecraft.
A Highway to Space
A new era in spaceflight began on April 12, 1981, with the launch of NASA astronauts John Young and Bob Crippen on the first space shuttle mission. The reusable spacecraft opened a highway to space traveled by shuttle crews for more than 30 years.
Launching satellites, astronomical observatories and research labs provided opportunities for more advances in developments of space technology, none more crucial to understanding the universe than deployment of the Hubble Space Telescope.
Lifting off from Kennedy on April 24, 1990, the STS-31 crew deployed the 24,490-pound observatory in an orbit 347 miles above the Earth. Avoiding distortions of the atmosphere, Hubble has an unobstructed view peering to planets, stars and galaxies, some more than 13.4 billion light years away.
After only nine space shuttle missions, President Ronald Reagan asked NASA to use the shuttle’s capabilities for the agency’s next giant leap.
“I am directing NASA to develop a permanently manned space station,” he said in his State of the Union address on Jan. 25, 1984. “Nowhere can we so effectively demonstrate our technological leadership and ability to make life better on Earth.”
As plans for the orbiting outpost progressed, it became a global effort known as the International Space Station, or ISS.
Kennedy’s director, Bob Cabana, a former space shuttle astronaut, considers international cooperation an essential element of space exploration going forward.
“I believe it’s the model for how we are going to explore beyond planet Earth,” he said. “Right now we’ve got the United States, Japan, Canada, Russia, ESA and all its partners working together as one up there. When we leave planet Earth, we’re not going to leave as any one nation, we’re going to leave as the people from planet Earth.”
The 11 members of ESA – the European Space Agency – that participate in the ISS program include Belgium, Denmark, France, Germany, Italy, the Netherlands, Norway, Spain, Sweden, Switzerland and the United Kingdom.
The station’s first element, the functional cargo block named “Zarya,” was placed in orbit by Russia on Nov. 20, 1998. Two weeks later, the space shuttle Endeavour lifted off from Kennedy with Cabana as commander. The crew carried with them the first American-launched station element, node 1, called “Unity.” During the 12-day STS-88 shuttle flight, the crew connected Unity to Zarya.
As ISS construction continued, permanent occupancy of the space station began with the Expedition 1 crew launched Oct. 31, 2000, establishing a continuous human presence conducting landmark research in space that endures today.
“In addition to being just a phenomenal scientific laboratory, the space station is a superb engineering test bed,” Cabana said. “We’re proving the systems that we need to explore beyond our own planet to stay in space for extended periods of time.”
The Next Steps for NASA
Speaking at the Florida spaceport on April 15, 2010, President Barack Obama outlined the course his administration was charting for NASA’s next steps in space exploration.
“By 2025, we expect new spacecraft designed for long journeys to allow us to begin the first-ever crewed missions beyond the moon into deep space,” he said. “By the mid-2030s, I believe we can send humans to orbit Mars and return them safely to Earth. And a landing on Mars will follow.”
To achieve that next giant leap, NASA is developing the Orion crew vehicle, Space Launch System, or SLS, rocket and Exploration Ground Systems that will one day allow astronauts to travel beyond low-Earth orbit. The SLS is a new heavy-lift rocket that will be capable of sending humans aboard Orion to deep-space destinations such as an asteroid and Mars.
Launched atop a Delta IV Heavy rocket on Dec. 5, 2014, an Orion spacecraft performed a near flawless flight test on its first journey to space. During the two-orbit, four-and-a-half hour mission, engineers evaluated systems critical to crew safety, the launch abort system, the heat shield and the parachute system.
The next Orion flight will be Exploration Mission-1. On Feb. 1, the pressure vessel for that Orion spacecraft arrived at Kennedy. Late in 2018, this spacecraft will liftoff atop NASA’s SLS rocket on the launch vehicle’s maiden voyage.
“This is our full-up Orion spacecraft on top of the SLS rocket, the most powerful rocket ever launched,” said Scott Wilson, NASA’s manager of Orion Production Operations at Kennedy. “This will be our test to wring out the vehicle to make sure it’s safe to put humans on the very next flight.”
The long Journey to Mars began with a single step in 1961. In the 55 years since Alan Shepard’s sub-orbital flight, NASA has followed with many giant leaps forward.
The ongoing endeavor is designed to improve lives on Earth by advancing scientific knowledge and discovery, developing new technologies, providing economic opportunities, and continuing U.S. leadership in the peaceful, international exploration of space.