Think NASA′s space program started with the moon landing? Think a-glenn. | Science | In-depth reporting on science and technology | DW | 09.12.2016

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Think NASA's space program started with the moon landing? Think a-glenn.

There's a good chance Buzz Aldrin's recent rescue from the south pole means more to people than John Glenn's death. Aldrin's a household name; Glenn is not. But he and many others were NASA's original trailblazers.

It was 1969 when Apollo 11 headed for the moon with NASA astronauts Edwin "Buzz" Aldrin, Neil Armstrong and Michael Collins aboard, and the "Eagle" Lunar Module (LM) landed on its surface. Armstrong and Aldrin became the first humans to walk on the moon. It was the start of something new, no doubt. But to some, it was as though nothing had happened in space up until Armstrong uttered those immortal words: "One small step … "

"No one here in America really remembers the Apollo mission accurately," says astrophysicist Neil deGrasse Tyson in an interview with DW. "They think, 'We're Americans, so of course we're going to explore,' without remembering we were at war with the Soviet Union, basically in a pissing contest."

Which the Soviets won.

"Yes. They were first out of the box in almost every space achievement. And we got to the moon before they did, and then we said, 'We win!'," laughs deGrasse Tyson.

Mythos Mond Bildergalerie Astronaut Edwin E. Aldrin

Edwin "Buzz" Aldrin on the moon - an iconic photo, but not the start of the US space program

In 1969, the US and Soviet space programs were well into a toxic period during the world's first space race. It started with unmanned missions, but given its relative infancy, it was not long before armies of astronauts (and animals) had made human spaceflight a reality.

And the Soviets were the first

The Soviet space program, now called Roscosmos, started in the 1930s. It was the first to launch a satellite into space, with Sputnik 1 in October 1957. Following this "small sensation," the US Army Ballistic Missile Agency launched the first American satellite, Explorer 1 in January 1958.   

But on April 12, 1961, Yuri Gargarin became the first man in space. He completed a 108-minute orbital flight in the Vostok 1 spacecraft.

The Soviets were also pioneers in an area in which American and European space programs still seem to struggle. Soviet leader Nikita Khrushchev initiated a "Woman-in-Space" program, and on June 16, 1963, Valentina Tereshkova became the first woman in space.

They were also responsible for the first lunar flyby. Luna 1 was a sphere-shaped spacecraft and the first to reach the Moon in 1959.

Laika Hund Weltraum

The first living creature in Earth's orbit was no human, but dog Laika

But things got really interesting in 1964 when the Soviets launched Voskhod 1, the first multi-manned flight. The crew were cosmonauts Vladimir M. Komarov, Boris B. Yegorov (a physician), and Konstatin P. Feoktisov (a scientist).

Oh, and let's not forget "man's best friend," the first dog in space. In 1957, Laika became the first living creature to be sent into orbit. That was the Soviets too. Problem was, as Time magazine once put it, it was "a guaranteed suicide mission for the dog, since technology hadn't advanced as far as the return trip."

And what were the Americans up to?

The National Aeronautics and Space Administration (NASA) began operation on October 1, 1958. Ten days later, it launched Pioneer 1. It was meant to study the ionizing radiation, cosmic rays, magnetic fields, and micrometeorites in the vicinity of the Earth and in lunar orbit. But it failed to reach the Moon.

Pioneer 3, launched in December 1958, was more of a success. It was followed by a string of other satellites and probes in rapid succession, like Vanguard 2. By March 1959, Pioneer 4 made NASA's first lunar flyby.

The Mercury Astronaut Corp.

America took its first full step towards manned spaceflight with the Mercury Astronaut Corp., which was selected and unveiled in April 1959.

John Glenn, who died on December 8 aged 95, was among the seven men. The others were Walter M. Schirra, Jr., Alan B. Shepard, Jr., Malcolm Scott Carpenter, Leroy Gordon Cooper, Virgil I. "Gus" Grissom, and Donald K. Slayton. They all had military backgrounds.

USA Raumfahrt John H. Glenn, Jr. in Mercury-Atlas 6 vor dem Start

John Glenn, about to become the first American to orbit Earth, enters the Mercury "Friendship 7" spacecraft

In 1963, NASA wrote that "the actual beginning of the effort that resulted in manned space flight cannot be pinpointed although it is known that the thought has been in the mind of man throughout recorded history."

It was certainly in the public imagination, whether it was for scientific, political, commercial or cultural reasons. And the Mercury Seven "became heroes in the eyes of the American public almost immediately."

John Glenn became the first American to orbit Earth when he flew on Friendship 7 on February 20, 1962. He is also known as the oldest human to "venture into space."

At the age of 77, Glenn spent almost nine days on the space shuttle orbiter Discovery. And he was a Democratic US senator representing Ohio.

The other six

Walter "Wally" Schirra was the only astronaut to fly in the Mercury, Gemini and Apollo programs. He died in 2007.

Alan Shepard was the first American in space, flying Freedom 7. He flew to the moon on Apollo 14 and he and crewmate Edgar Mitchell went on two moonwalks. He died in 1998.

USA Raumfahrt die Manschaft der Mercury 7 in Cape Canaveral

NASA's first astronaut class, the Mercury 7

Scott Carpenter was the second American in orbit. On May 24, 1962, Carpenter circled Earth three times, flying Aurora 7. He died in 2013.

Leroy Gordon Cooper, Jr. piloted the sixth and last flight of the Mercury program. His mission in May 1963 lasted more than 34 hours and 22 orbits. It was more than three times the length of American human spaceflight until then. He died in 2004.

Gus Grissom became the first man to go to space twice when he rode on Gemini III. He died in 1967 at NASA Kennedy Space Center in Florida as a result of an Apollo spacecraft fire.  

Donald K. Slayton was scheduled to pilot the Mercury-Atlas 7 mission but was "relieved of this assignment" due to a heart condition discovered in August 1959. His first spaceflight was in 1975 on a joint US-Soviet mission that saw astronauts and cosmonauts meet in space. He died in 1993.

Are heros heros forever?

NASA says Glenn was an "instant hero." But how many people still know his story, or that of the other six Mercury men? Perhaps it's not so much the people as it is the missions we forget. Getting to the moon for both Americans and Soviets was a long journey in every sense of the word. What comes next is equally not to be taken for granted.