February 20, 1962: John Glenn Orbits the Earth.
This is the Mercury mission everyone remembers. Glenn was the fifth human to reach outer space, so he wasn’t a trailblazer in the strictest sense, but he was the first American to orbit the Earth (after sub-orbital flights from Shepard and Gus Grissom in 1961), which made him a ubiquitous national hero of the type we wouldn’t see until Neil Armstrong over eight years later. He was feted from one side of the country to the other, and treated to a massive tickertape parade in New York City. Glenn deserved his accolades. He had been a hero during the Korean War, and a pioneering test pilot in the years between the war and being selected by NASA as one of the original seven astronauts. His historic Mercury flight had a few hairy moments, at least from Mission Control — Glenn wasn’t informed of any problems until after splashdown. An error light indicated that perhaps the heat shield on Glenn’s Friendship 7 capsule had been damaged, which if true could have made it impossible for him to survive re-entry. Glenn’s mission was cut short by a few orbits, and when the capsule was recovered and examined, engineers discovered that the error light had resulted from a faulty sensor, and that the heat shield had remained intact the entire time.
Glenn’s Friendship 7 spacecraft is on display at the Smithsonian’s National Air and Space Museum in Washington, D.C. It’s encased in half-inch acrylic glass all around, but there are a few gaps where you can slip your fingers through and touch it.
June 3-7, 1965: Ed White Walks in Space During Gemini IV.
Like John Glenn’s orbital flight, Ed White’s EVA during Gemini IV wasn’t a first — cosmonaut Alexey Leonov did it a few months earlier during his Voskhod 2 mission — but it was a first for an American, making White another national hero. White’s spacewalk produced some of the most stunning photographs in the whole history of manned spaceflight, including that one over there of White floating outside the spacecraft, with the Earth bright and blue in the background. Ed had such a great time floating out there by himself, he had to be asked repeatedly by Mission Control, and eventually by Command Pilot Jim McDivitt, to come back in.
Ed White’s next crew assignment was as senior pilot (the position later known as command module pilot) on Apollo 1. That mission was to be the first manned flight of the Apollo Command and Service Module, the vehicle which would carry astronauts to the Moon. On January 27, 1967, White, along with Gus Grissom and Roger Chaffee, was killed during a routine plugs-out test on the launch pad when fire erupted in the Apollo capsule. The Apollo project was halted for over a year and a half while the accident was investigated and the command module was redesigned. The first manned Apollo flight didn’t take place until Apollo 7 in October, 1968.
March 16-17, 1966: Neil Armstrong and Dave Scott on Gemini VIII.
The Gemini program aside from Ed White’s spacewalk gets little attention compared to Mercury and Apollo, but it was the program that taught astronauts the skills they needed to survive in space for days at a time, fly to and land on the surface of the Moon, and come back home. The man who eventually made history as the first man to walk on the Moon made his first spaceflight here, flying Gemini VIII alongside Dave Scott. Their mission was to rendezvous and dock with the Agena target vehicle, a crucial maneuver which Apollo astronauts would need to perform in order to take the Lunar Module with them to the Moon, and then for Scott to replicate White’s spacewalk. The docking with the Agena went off without a hitch, but after that things went a little screwy. A thruster malfunctioned on the Gemini capsule, sending Armstrong, Scott, and the still-attached Agena into a continuous uncontrolled roll. Command Pilot Armstrong kept a cool head, detached from the Agena and used the re-entry control thrusters on his Gemini capsule to regain control. Dave Scott missed out on his space walk, but both men made it home safe.
Armstrong and Scott would each walk on the Moon (Armstrong as commander of Apollo 11, Scott as commander of Apollo 15), but they were heroes already.
December 21-27, 1968: Apollo 8 Flies to the Moon and Back.
Frank Borman, Jim Lovell and Bill Anders became the first human beings to travel to another celestial body when they took their Apollo 8 CSM from the Earth to the Moon and back over Christmas 1968. The journey from Earth took three days, and the crew then spent 20 hours in lunar orbit, circling the Moon 10 times before starting back home. During their hours over the Moon, the crew participated in what at the time was the most watched television broadcast ever, ending with a reading of the opening chapters of the Book of Genesis, and Borman’s wish of “a good night, good luck, and a Merry Christmas to all of you, all of you on the good Earth.”
With the assassinations of Martin Luther King Jr. and Robert Kennedy, widespread riots in American cities, and opposition to the ongoing Vietnam War at its peak, 1968 is often remembered as a horrible year. The crew of Apollo 8 were named Men of the Year by Time Magazine. Frank Borman received an anonymous telegram after the mission that read, “Thank you, Apollo 8. You saved 1968.”
July 20, 1969: Armstrong and Aldrin Walk on the Moon.
Almost forty years later, it’s still the pinnacle of human accomplishment. Sixty-six years after the first airplane flight, forty-three years after the launch of the first liquid-fueled rocket, eight years after John Kennedy set the goal of landing on the Moon by the end of the decade, there were two men walking around on the surface of the Moon. The Moon landings have been a fact of life since before I was born — I have never lived in a world where we hadn’t walked on the Moon — and yet my mind still can’t quite reach all the way around it. People left the Earth on rockets the size of the Statue of Liberty, flew to the Moon in tiny ships controlled by computers far less powerful than modern pocket calculators, landed on, walked on and eventually drove on the surface of the Moon, and flew back safely to Earth. And not one time — six times. Had Apollo 13 not gone haywire, it would have been seven. Even Apollo 13 wasn’t a complete disaster — the Moon landing was scrubbed, but the crew and Mission Control personnel showed great ingenuity and courage in the face of crisis, and no lives were lost. Remarkable.
The crew of Apollo 11 — Neil Armstrong, Buzz Aldrin, and Michael Collins — are pioneers and heroes in the truest sense of those words. They did something no one had ever done before, something that still seems amazing whenever I think of it, and paved the way for the crews who came after them to complete the Apollo program. It was the high-water mark for NASA as an organization, and for us as a species.
February 5-6, 1971: Alan Shepard Walks on the Moon.
There’s a scene in the film The Right Stuff depicting a barbecue thrown in honor of the Mercury Astronauts, to celebrate NASA relocating Mission Control to Houston. Alan Shepard sits eating a steak dinner with his wife when a big cowboy-hat-sporting Texan approaches and says, “Which one are you?”
“Well, which one’s Glenn? He’s the one I wanna meet.”
Shepard points the cowboy in John Glenn’s direction, then turns and tells his wife, “I’m going to the Moon, I swear to God. I’m on my way.” As the commander of Apollo 14, Shepard did just that. An inner ear condition, Ménière's disease, kept Shepard from flying after his Mercury flight in 1961. Surgery and medication allowed Shepard to overcome the condition and earn himself a spot in the Apollo crew rotation. He was originally set to command Apollo 13, but was displaced in favor of the more experienced Jim Lovell. Had Shepard flown on Apollo 13, his dream of reaching the Moon would have remained unfulfilled. Instead, he commanded the first mission after the near-tragedy of 13, and became the only Mercury astronaut to land on the Moon.
“It’s been a long way,” Shepard said as he walked on the Moon’s surface for the first time, “but we’re here.”
July 15-24, 1975: Americans and Soviets Fly Together on Apollo-Soyuz.
We tend to think of the manned Moon landings as the end of the space race, but the real final chapter is this once unthinkable mission between astronauts and cosmonauts in 1975. A modified Apollo capsule commanded by Mercury original Deke Slayton docked with a Russian Soyuz capsule commanded by Alexey Leonov, the first man to walk in space. The two vehicles orbited the Earth together for two days while the crews cooperated on experiments, visited each other’s ships, and exchanged American and Soviet flags.
The Cold War continued for nearly another twenty years. Looking back at the success of Apollo-Soyuz, I wonder why we ever fought it in the first place.
July 20, 1976: Viking 1 Lands on Mars.
July is a big month for NASA. In 1976, seven years to the day after the first manned landing on the Moon, NASA accomplished the first soft landing on another planet with the Viking 1 Lander. It was joined on the Martian surface two months later by the Viking 2 Lander. Together, along with their accompanying Orbiters, the Viking probes photographed their landing sites extensively, dug and tested the Martian soil, and analyzed the pressure, temperature and composition of the atmosphere.
The Viking missions stretched from 1976 to November 1982, when the Viking 1 Lander finally ceased to function. The achievement of the Viking program allowed NASA to follow it with other successful unmanned missions to Mars, most recently the Phoenix probe, which landed in the northern polar region of Mars this past May.
September 5, 1977-Present: The Voyager Program. As I mentioned about the voyages of the Voyagers in my article about Ulysses earlier this month, they are now the fastest and most distant human-made objects in the universe. Voyager 1 and Voyager 2 were originally launched specifically to study the planets of the outer solar system. Following historic flybys of Jupiter, Saturn, Uranus and Neptune, the Voyagers were boosted into trajectories that will take them beyond the Sun’s gravitational influence. In 2015, Voyager 1 will likely cross the heliopause, making it the first man-made object to leave the solar system, and giving scientists here on Earth their first opportunity to study the conditions of interstellar space.
They’re unmanned probes, so the Voyager missions aren’t as highly touted as the Apollo flights, but these durable machines have gone faster and farther than anything else ever built by human hands, and taught us a thing or two about our little corner of the galaxy along the way. Their accomplishments are exciting, and inspiring, and just as important in their way as those of Apollo.
February 7, 1984: Bruce McCandless Makes the First Untethered Spacewalk.
When I was a little boy, Bruce McCandless was my hero. I didn’t even know what the guy looked like; I just knew he had been the first to use the MMU (Manned Maneuvering Unit), the nitrogen-propelled backpack that allowed astronauts to conduct EVAs without being tethered to the spacecraft. I was the only kid in my class who knew what the fuck “MMU” stood for. McCandless ventured 320 feet away from the Space Shuttle Challenger, making him the first human to fly in space totally unattached to a spacecraft.
McCandless and his crewmate Robert Stewart each used the MMU during their mission, and it was used during a few more missions before it was retired following the Challenger disaster in 1986. Since then, all EVAs have been conducted with the astronauts tethered to the shuttle. NASA’s prudence is understandable, given the loss of both Challenger and Columbia, but I still long for those all-too-fleeting days of untethered spacewalks, when people orbited the Earth in jetpacks, two hundred miles up in the sky.
April 24, 1990-Present: The Hubble Space Telescope.
When it was first launched, the Hubble was a punchline, a visible example of government waste and incompetence. Its main mirror had been ground incorrectly, resulting in blurred images. It took several visits from the Space Shuttle to repair. Since the mirror was fixed in 1993, the Hubble has silenced those early naysayers with a flurry of jaw-dropping images, recording areas of space never before seen, expanding the visible universe by billions of light-years, documenting the presence of black holes, and measuring the expansion of and establishing the accurate age of the universe. Its contributions to astronomy and cosmology would be difficult to overstate.
And, more superficially, what wonderful images the Hubble has given us. The Pillars of Creation in the Eagle Nebula, the Orion Nebula’s stellar nursery, the eye-popping Deep Field and Ultra Deep Field images — all seen for the first time by human eyes through the instruments of the Hubble Space Telescope.
November 20, 1998-Present: The International Space Station.
NASA can’t take full credit for this one, since the Europeans, Russians, Japanese, Canadians, and Brazilians have all chipped in, but that only makes it even more of an achievement. The ISS is the first long-term human outpost in space, continuously staffed since November 2000. Securing the funding to build it, and putting it together up there has taken over twenty years altogether, demonstrating that Gene Roddenberry’s great vision of mankind selflessly coming together across national and cultural boundaries to explore space was a half-baked load of horseshit (ditto for that space station episode of This is America, Charlie Brown). But the persistence needed to construct and maintain the space station only makes its existence all the more extraordinary.
I remember President Reagan proposing Space Station Freedom when I was a child. I spent the rest of my childhood looking forward to it, only to be disappointed when budget cuts and a lack of interest following the resolution of the Cold War led to the project being scrapped. When construction of the current ISS was commenced in 1998, I found it underwhelming. For a few years, it was just two tin cans welded together and powered by batteries. Now, though, with multiple modules in place and solar panels deployed in mighty arrays, and with international crews manning it day in, day out for the last eight years, it’s looking pretty cool. It’s scheduled to remain in operation until at least 2016. I hope our government has the foresight to keep the ISS up there and working well beyond that premature expiration date.
Those are a few of the highlights of the last 50 years of American space exploration, as I see ‘em. Did I miss anything?
Happy anniversary, NASA. And thanks.