Early space missions

The celestial space have been a constant mystery throughout many cultures and eras. We have looked into the night sky and have been mesmerized by the stars and planets.

However, space travel has been a long process, and not every attempt ended with success.

If there is anything that we know about human beings, it’s that we rarely give up, and so space exploration started out slow, but has quickly picked up speed.

The simplest of rockets were originally developed in China, and over the years they have gradually become more sophisticated.

During the 1930s and 40s, Nazi Germany had devoted a lot of money in rocket development. They were far ahead of any other country, but their rockets were weapons of war.

Late in WW II, Germany attacked London with 200-mile-range V2 missiles going over 3,500 mph.

When the war ended, both the U.S. and the Soviet Union gathered as many of the German rocket scientists and brought them back to their own countries for further scientific use.

By 1957, the Soviets had launched Sputnik 1, the first artificial satellite in space and within four years they had the first human astronaut, Russian Lt. Yuri Gagarin, orbiting the Earth in space in the Vostok 1.

The U.S. had its first satellite, Explorer 1, in orbit in 1958 and by 1961 Aland Shepard was the first American astronaut to fly in space. By 1962, John Glenn made his historic flight in space as the first American to orbit the Earth.

It became obvious that the U.S. and the Soviet Union were now involved in a “space race” and President John F. Kennedy made a requirement of NASA to put a man on the moon and return him back to Earth within the decade. The race was on.

Project Mercury

Started in 1958 and finished in 1963, Project Mercury was the first project for a man-in-space program.

The mission objectives involved six manned flights, starting in 1961 and ending in 1963 and included:

  • To orbit a manned spacecraft around Earth.
  • To investigate man’s ability to function in space.
  • To recover both man and spacecraft safely.

The missions involved both manned and unmanned spacecraft. The first U.S. spaceship was shaped like a cone and was a one-man capsule topped with a cylinder.

It was designed to orbit space and then crash land into the ocean where it would be picked up by U.S. Navy helicopters and ships.

It had a heat shield to protect it against the intense 3,000 degree heat of reentry.

The six Mercury capsules were: Freedom 7, Aurora, Liberty Bell 7, E7, Friendship 7, and Faith 7.

The unmanned Mercury launch vehicles involved a capsule carrying a chimpanzee to monitor the effects of space.

As the objectives of the Mercury project was established, they also created a number of guidelines to ensure the fastest and safest way to succeed. These included:

  • Existing technology and off-the-shelf equipment should be used wherever practical.
  • The simplest and most reliable approach to system design would be followed.
  • An existing launch vehicle would be employed to place the spacecraft into orbit.
  • A progressive and logical test program would be conducted.

As time and experimenting passed, changes to the spacecraft details were required:

  • The spacecraft must be fitted with a reliable launch-escape system to separate the spacecraft and its crew from the launch vehicle in case of impending failure.
  • The pilot must be given the capability of manually controlling spacecraft attitude.
  • The spacecraft must carry a retrorocket system capable of reliably providing the necessary impulse to bring the spacecraft out of orbit.
  • A zero-lift body utilizing drag braking would be used for reentry.
  • The spacecraft design must satisfy the requirements for a water landing.

Scientists had started the program using off-the-shelf equipment and then trying to customize with existing technologies.

It became very apparent that some of these approaches would work and some would require other changes for reliability and safety. The exceptions included:

  • An automatic blood-pressure measuring system for use in flight.
  • Instruments for sensing the partial pressures of oxygen and carbon dioxide in the oxygen atmosphere of the cabin and suit, respectively.

The challenges that the designers faced related to the fact that there was limited space and weight and not all of the lighter, smaller equipment could be packaged properly.

While the systems may look very simple compared to today’s technology, they did require redundancy in case of failure and this took up more space.

The method of propulsion of the capsules into space was finally accomplished by adapting the Atlas missile.

Modifications included adding a way to automatically sense impending catastrophic failures of the launch vehicle and ways to accommodate a new structure that would make up the area between the launch vehicle, the upper section, and the spacecraft.

They also instituted a pilot-safety program to make sure of quality components.

The Gemini Missions:

Conducted between 1962 and 1966, there were 19 launches in the Gemini Missions: 2 initial un-crewed test missions, 7 target vehicles, and 10 crewed missions. Each of the crewed missions carried two astronauts into orbit.

The program was designed as a “bridge” between the earlier Mercury missions and the future Apollo program so that they could test procedures, equipment, and train astronauts and ground crew. The general program objectives included:

  • Long duration flights.
  • Testing the ability to maneuver a spacecraft and to achieve rendezvous and docking of two vehicles in Earth orbit.
  • Training of both flight and ground crews.
  • Conducting experiments in space.
  • Extravehicular operations (standup sessions and spacewalks.
  • Active control of reentry to achieve a precise landing
  • Onboard orbital navigation.
  • Lasting for periods ranging from 5 hours to 14 days.

Each of the Gemini Missions used a capsule similar to the Mercury missions but much larger to accommodate two astronauts instead of 1, and the additional onboard equipment.

The Gemini missions were limited in the amount of space that the astronauts had, however, the new changes allowed the astronauts to navigate changes in the spacecraft’s orbit. The Gemini capsule was launched using a Titan II rocket which had two-stages.

NASA altered the rocket so that it could carry the larger capsule.

  • The first two Gemini flights were unmanned and set up to test safety and equipment.
  • Gemini 3 was the first one that carried two astronauts and was to test the vehicle and astronaut functionality in space.
  • Gemini 4 included the first U.S. spacewalk.
  • Gemini 5 was designed for a longer time in space orbit, lasting over a week.
  • Gemini 6A and 7 missions were in space at the same time with the plan to meet each other in orbit.
  • Gemini 7 remained in space for a duration of 2 weeks.
  • Gemini 8 took things to a new level by connecting with another unmanned spacecraft in orbit and then disconnecting and returning to Earth.
  • Gemini 9 was designed to fly near another spacecraft as well as a spacewalk.
  • Gemini 10 connected with another spacecraft and then used its engines to move both of the spacecraft safely.
  • Gemini 11’s mission was to fly higher in space than any other prior NASA mission.
  • Gemini 12 was the last of the Gemini missions and resolved some of the earlier spacewalk problems.

Apollo Missions:

The Apollo missions are often called a “bridge to the moon.”

These may be some of the most well-known missions because they involved spacecraft that exited the Earth’s atmosphere, entered into space, orbited and landed on the moon, and returned to Earth.

The missions had new rocketry as well as three specific parts to the spacecraft: the orbiter, the crew cabinet, and the lander.

The NASA goals for the Apollo missions included:

  • Establishing the technology to meet other national interests in space.
  • Achieving preeminence in space for the United States.
  • Carrying out a program of scientific exploration of the Moon.
  • Developing human capability to work in the lunar environment.

Launched using the Saturn rockets, they had a few that were called the Apollo-Saturn unscrewed missions to ensure the rockets were capable of carrying the larger payload as well as for safety factors.

  • Six of the missions landed astronauts on the moon and brought them safely back. These were Apollos 11, 12, 14, 15, 16, and 17.
  • Apollos 7 and 9 were missions for Earth orbiting and to test both the Lunar and Command Modules, but had no lunar data.
  • Apollos 8 and 10 not only succeeded in testing components during their Moon orbits, but sent back images of the lunar surface.
  • Apollo 13 was originally supposed to land on the moon but due to a malfunction they could only take photographs.

Of the missions that did land on the moon they collected moon surface samples, did scientific experiments, some of which included: measured heat flow, magnetic fields, solar wind, lunar ranging, seismic, meteoroids, and soil mechanics.

While many of the Apollo missions were watched, the most incredibly popular was Apollo 11, launched from Cape Kennedy on July 16, 1969 and had onboard Commander Neil Armstrong, Command Module Pilot Michael Collins and Lunar Module Pilot Edwin “Buzz” Aldrin for an initial Earth-orbit of 114 by 116 miles. On July 20, 1969 the Armstrong and Aldrin brought the Apollo Lunar Module, Eagle down to land on the surface of the moon.

Neil Armstrong announced “The Eagle has landed” and minutes later he became the first human being to step on a world other than the Earth.

When he stepped out he said the famous words: “That’s one small step for a man. One giant leap for mankind.”

Aldrin joined Armstrong on the moonwalk and they accomplished a number of preset experiments.


  • How many flights were involved in the Mercury mission?
  • What are the Gemini missions often called?
    a “bridge” between the earlier Mercury missions and the future Apollo program
  • What was the name of the landing module of the Apollo 11 that landed on the moon?
  • Who was the first astronaut to set foot on the moon?
    Neil Armstrong
  • What kind of rockets were used to launch the Apollo missions?
    Saturn V
  • The U.S. space mission success is thanks to what country’s scientists?