Beyond The Forecast: From the Earth to the Moon Part 2

Astronaut Alan Shepard's view of Earth from Freedom 7 (NASA, NASA)

Happy Monday and welcome to another edition of Beyond The Forecast!

Last week we covered space travel from its primitive dawn in the early 20th century through both the first Soviet satellite, Sputnik 1, and its American counterpart Explorer 1. In 1958 and 1959, both nations continued sending satellites to join their pioneering cousins. Many of these launches served not only as a way to gather more data about space itself but also as a test for how to send a person out of the atmosphere.

Only three days after Sputnik launched in October of 1957, the Mercury Project began with the intention of sending an American to space. That goal was far off for scientists of the time, but they set to work designing a capsule capable of bringing an astronaut into space and, importantly, bringing them home safely.

First NASA needed a rocket capable of bringing a capsule into the sky. Explorer 1 rode in a modified Redstone missile. The Redstone was the workhorse ballistic missile in service in the late 50s: the first live nuclear warhead on an American missile sat atop a Redstone rocket.

NASA went back to that well when it came to manned spaceflight. The missile went into service in 1953, so the designers had plenty of practice with the machinery.

The modifications made to the Redstone for Explorer proved helpful in readying the final design. A satellite full of instruments weighed much more than a nuclear warhead, so when it came time to put an even heavier capsule on top of the rocket the engineers stood ready. Prototypes of the Mercury-Redstone Launch Vehicle (MRLV) arrived in October of 1960.

The initial ballistic missile variant of the Redstone rocket needed intense, thoughtful work to turn it from a weapon of war to a vehicle for exploration (NASA)
Alan Shepard takes off in the MRLV carrying Freedom 7 which took him out of the atmosphere making him the first American in space (NASA)

The program got off to a less than hopeful start.

The first of the MRLV’s launched on November 21, 1960. It rose a whole 4 inches off the ground before crashing back down to the launchpad in Cape Canaveral, Florida. Less than a month later, a successful launch took an empty capsule on a sub-orbital flight.

Before sending a person into space, NASA wanted to send a version of a laboratory mouse to see if a living thing could experience any intense side-effects from the flight. The US settled on a chimpanzee named Ham as its first live subject. Ham launched and returned to Earth without issue (he lived until 1983).

After a few more non-human launches, NASA felt ready to put a human on top of a ballistic missile and bring them back without issue.

Scientists make some last minute observations before Ham takes his rocket ride (USAF)

NASA knew this was a dangerous enterprise from the first day. American astronauts needed to not only be physically capable of withstanding the immense force on their body at liftoff but also needed to be disciplined enough to follow instructions from Mission Control. Given that spaceflight was brand new, there was a significant risk of things going wrong so astronaut candidates also needed to accept a higher level of risk than many could handle.

The Century series of fighters (which takes its name from the designations of the planes: F-100, F-101, etc.) was the premiere testing opportunity in the late 1950s. The Mercury astronauts had to take a gamble as they signed up since they would not have the same level of control of their capsules. (USAF)

This Cold War problem found a Cold War solution: the Air Force and Navy began testing the new Century series of fighter jets in the 1950s and those pilots would be perfect for space travel. They had to stay fit as part of their military service, they understood the necessity of following orders in a tense situation, and each needed a certain daredevil spirit to push these jets to their absolute limits. Candidates went through a gauntlet of tests both physical and mental. Those tests whittled the pool down to 7: these Mercury 7 became the first Americans in space.

The Mercury 7 raising their hands in unison when asked if they feel confident that they will return from their mission

Ham’s intrepid flight launched on Jan. 31, 1961. The MRLV was still a tricky device and engineers wanted to run just a few more tests to make sure they worked out the kinks in engine development. It would do plenty of damage to the country’s enthusiasm for space travel if the person selected to be the first astronaut died during liftoff.

The first human spaceflight could be ready in March of 1961, but the extra test pushed back the ready date by only a few months. NASA was set to take the lead in the Space Race for the first time.

The Soviet Union interrupted that plan: on April 12, 1961 Yuri Gagarin, a pilot in the Soviet air force, made the first flight into space for any human. Not only did his mission, Vostok 1, make it to space but it also orbited the planet while Americans were only planning for sub-orbital flights that splashed down in an arc after liftoff. The USSR stayed one step ahead.

Vostok 1 lifts off carrying Yuri Gagarin who becomes not only the first person in space but also the first one to orbit the planet (NASA)
Yuri Gagarin rides the bus to his spacecraft and into the history books

Less than a month later, Alan Shepard took his flight on the MRLV becoming the first American in space. Gus Grissom followed in July, and John Glenn flew in orbit around the Earth launching from the more powerful Atlas rocket.

John Glenn entering the Friendship 7 capsule that he rode in to become the first American to orbit the planet (NASA)

America’s Mercury 7 consisted solely of men. An unofficial effort led to training of 13 women who passed preliminary tests to join the astronaut corps (and in some cases did better than the men preceding them), but the government of the time had little interest in sending women to space in preparation to go to the moon.

The Soviets took another step forward when Valentina Tereshkova took off in the Vostok 6 mission in June of 1963 becoming the first woman in space.

Valentina Tereshkova went to space in 1963: 20 years before the first American woman would follow in her footsteps (NASA)

Another group of women actively worked in the space program but did not get their due respect for years. As early as 1935, one of NASA’s predecessors began hiring women to work as computers (which at the time meant humans that worked out complicated math problems).

World War II drastically increased the need for computers. The computer headquarters in Langley, Virginia sought out college-educated black women to join. Segregation kept those women apart from many of their colleagues for the first years of the program. One of the most prominent computers at Langley was Katherine Johnson. She started her career analyzing data from flight tests and continued to work in the space program gaining responsibilities along the way. She helped prepare the trajectory for Alan Shepard’s flight, and John Glenn requested that she personally check over the computer-created plan for his mission.

Katherine Johnson continued to work at NASA well through the Space Shuttle program and promote diversity throughout her career (NASA)

The Mercury Project was complete with Gordon Cooper’s flight on May 15, 1963. Not long after Shepard’s flight in 1961 President Kennedy addressed Congress with the desire to commit the nation to reaching the moon by the end of the decade.

President Kennedy addresses a joint session of congress about his national priorities including space travel (NASA)

NASA had practice reaching space at this point, but getting to the moon had a host of new challenges. Missions would be longer, more than one person would need to ride in the capsule, spacecraft had to be able to rendezvous, and it would be more difficult to guide the spacecraft back to Earth from such a long distance.

The first manned Gemini mission, Gemini 3, sits atop its Atlas rocket as it launches in March of 1965 (NASA)
Among its many missions one of the goals of the Gemini program was to practice making a rendezvous with another spacecraft. Here the crew of Gemini 6 takes a picture of Gemini 7 in orbit. (NASA)

The Gemini program helped NASA solve each of these problems. Gemini capsules brought two astronauts to space at a time, and two separate Gemini missions met each other in space. Astronaut Ed White became the first American to go on a spacewalk in June 1965. The last Gemini mission lifted off in November of 1966. The Apollo program, which would bring humans to the moon, began testing soon after.

Keep an eye out for more Beyond the Forecast articles taking us from the first time humans set foot on the moon to when we arrive there again in the near future.

If you’re looking for planets in the mornings this week be sure to have a jacket. You can download our weather app to see which nights are the clearest and get Meteorologist Chris Michaels’ latest updates online.

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-- Marshall Downing

About the Author:

Marshall Downing presents the weather Saturday and Sunday evenings at 6:00 PM and 11:00 PM, and you can see him during the week at 12:00 PM and 5:30 PM.