Since the dawn of humanity, man has looked to the stars in wonder. Sailors have used the stars to guide their oceanic journeys, astrologers have used the stars to guide lives, and astronomers have used the stars as maps to the unknown reaches of space. Indeed, even our calendar is based on a star.
As man has evolved, his curiosity has paved the way to new frontiers. As we learn more about our own planet, we look up and wonder what else there is beyond our pale blue dot.
As we ready ourselves for the historic launch of the first manned mission to leave American soil since 2011, I wanted to look back on those that came before.
On May 25, 1961, John F. Kennedy announced before a special joint session of congress the ambitious goal of sending an American safely to the moon before the end of the decade.
Less than one year later, on February 20, 1962, John Glenn became the first American to orbit the Earth. Launched atop an Atlas rocket, the Mercury spacecraft known as Friendship 7 spent a total of 55 minutes and 23 seconds far above Earth. This mission reestablished NASA and the United States as a strong contender in the space race with the Soviet Union.
Three years later, on March 23, 1965, the first manned Gemini mission launched with Gus Grissom and John Young aboard. The spacecraft, Molly Brown, conducted 3 orbits of the Earth and demonstrated that astronauts could change their capsule’s orbit.
Grissom and Young also pioneered rendezvous and docking with other spacecraft, essential skills to land on the moon and safely return to Earth.
A couple of months later, on June 3, 1965, Gemini IV was launched. This mission stayed aloft for 4 days allowing Edward H. White II to perform the first EVA (spacewalk) by an American astronaut. This, of course, was a critical task that would have to be mastered before landing on the moon.
On January 27, 1967, the first deaths due to the space program occurred. At 6:31pm, during a simulation aboard Apollo-Saturn on the launch pad at Kennedy Space Center, a flash fire broke out in the pure oxygen atmosphere of the capsule and Gus Grissom, Ed White, and Roger Chaffee were lost. It would be almost 2 years before another manned space flight was attempted.
On October 11, 1968, during a hot afternoon in Florida, the first crewed Apollo space mission was launched from Cape Canaveral. This mission marked the first live television broadcast of Americans from space.
The first manned mission to the moon launched on December 21, 1968. Apollo 8 astronauts Frank Borman, James A. Lovell, and William A. Anders focused a portable television camera on Earth. This would mark the first time humanity saw its home from afar as a tiny, lovely, and fragile blue marble hanging in the blackness of space.
Seven months later, on July 16, 1969, Apollo 11 left the Earth for its 3 day trip to the moon. At 4:18pm EST, on July 20, 1969, astronauts Neil Armstrong and Buzz Aldrin landed on the lunar surface while Michael Collins orbited above in the command module.
As Armstrong stepped off the ladder onto the lunar soil, he uttered the famous words: “That’s one small step for a man, one giant leap for mankind.” Aldrin soon followed him, and the two men spent the next 21 hours on the moon’s surface, leaving a plaque behind with the inscription: “Here Men from Planet Earth First Set Foot Upon the Moon. Jul. 1969 A.D. We came in peace for all mankind.”
A new era for space flight began April 12, 1981 when STS-1 launched the space shuttle Columbia from NASA’s Kennedy Space Center.
The first teacher to be chosen to launch into space was Christa McAuliffe. Sadly, she, along with Francis Scobee, Michael Smith, Judith Resnik, Ronald McNair, Ellison Onizuka, and Gregory Jarvis were tragically lost when the space shuttle Challenger exploded 73 seconds after launch on January 28, 1986.
Another tragedy occurred 17 years later when the first manned space shuttle, Columbia, launched for its final time on January 16, 2003. On February 1, 2003, following its 16 day mission, the Columbia and her crew were lost during reentry.
A 7 month investigation was launched, which included a 4 month search across Texas for debris. The lives of Rick Husband, Willie McCool, Michael Anderson, Kalpana Chawla, David Brown, Laurel Clark, and Ilan Ramon were lost due to a piece of foam insulation that broke off the shuttle’s propellant tank, damaging the edge of the shuttle’s left wing.
The last American launch took place on July 8, 2011. Space shuttle Atlantis mission STS-135 would mark the last time a space shuttle would climb from Kennedy’s seaside launch complex and soar to the heavens. It would also be the last time American astronauts would launch from American soil for nearly ten years.
As we look back on these missions conducted by the brave men and women of NASA, we hope you will join us tomorrow for another first. We will have live coverage of SpaceX’s Crewed Dragon Demo 2 launch right here. This launch marks an important step in the Moon to Mars directive of NASA that will eventually get us back to the moon and beyond!
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