On May 5, 1961, the United States made its first manned space flight when Freedom 7, piloted by Astronaut Alan B. Shepard, was launched from Cape Canaveral. Although this first suborbital flight lasted a mere fifteen minutes, it showed that humans were capable of surviving both the weightlessness and high G stress of space flight. With the success experienced by Freedom 7, the United States inched a bit closer to the Russian space program which already had launched a successful orbital flight on April 12, 1961 with Cosmonaut Yuri Gagarin on board the Vostok I.
A mere twenty days after Alan Shepard's historic flight, President John F. Kennedy encouraged the U.S. to expand its role in space exploration. "Now is the time to take longer strides; time for a great new American enterprise; time for this Nation to take a clearly leading role in space achievement which in many ways may hold the key to our future on Earth." (1) President Kennedy then offered a fantastic challenge to the American people. "I believe that this nation should commit itself to achieving the goal, before the decade is out, of landing a man on the moon and returning him safely to the Earth." (2)
It seemed to be an impossible task. We had limited knowledge of space when compared with the magnitude of the goal set before us. We lacked experience. We had inadequate launch vehicles. We had not even achieved orbital flight. The list of obstacles seemed endless.
However, we did have a goal. We had a vision. We had passion, dedication, grit and determination. Slowly but surely, we moved forward. Thousands of Americans across the country combined their skills to make our space missions successful. The remaining Mercury flights proved that we could withstand the rigors of suborbital and orbital flight. The Gemini missions tackled the steps required to make a round trip to the moon. During these flights, we proved the satisfactory operation of all major spacecraft systems and the use of controlled maneuvering. We extended the length of our flights in order to learn about the effects of long duration space flight. We refined the techniques used in extra vehicular activity. We achieved rendezvous and docking capabilities. As 1967 dawned, the goal set by John F. Kennedy no longer seemed impossible. Rather, we were almost there. We still had much work to do before we actually could land an American on the moon, but we were close. Before the last Gemini mission ended, NASA selected the three men who would fly the maiden Apollo voyage scheduled for February 1967. Commander Virgil "Gus" Grissom, Edward White and Roger Chaffee would lead us in our quest to land a man on the moon.
1. Betty Grissom and Henry Still, Starfall (New York: Thomas Y Crowell Company, 1974), p. 87.
Roger Chaffee biography
Gus Grissom biography
Ed White biography
Apollo 204 epilogue
Updated August 4, 2006
Steve Garber, NASA History Web Curator
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