Chapter 2

The Transmutation of Mercury

[27] During January 1961, NASA's manned space flight program altered course. At the policy-making level in Headquarters, thinking shifted from lunar reconnaissance to lunar landing. This change was crucial, not only for the lunar program itself but also for what was to become Project Gemini; before 1961 was over that shift would provide justification for a rendezvous development program. In the field, the newly independent Space Task Group stopped talking about an improved Mercury capsule and began working on it. Plans for a lunar landing mission and work on an advanced Mercury proceeded through the summer of 1961 at different levels and varying rates. These separate paths converged in the autumn to give birth to a new program.

Whether these efforts would have borne fruit without a sharp change in the political climate is anyone's guess. The past two years had seen their share of false starts, dashed hopes, and aborted plans. But the climate did change. Within months after taking office, President Kennedy and his advisors found compelling reasons to support an American manned space flight program far larger than Project Mercury. One factor was certainly the renewed clamor about a space race between the United States and the Soviet Union. Informed opinion might discount Soviet accomplishments or stress American sophistication against Russian brute force; that smacked of quibbling to the American public, especially after 12 April 1961, when Cosmonaut Yuri A. Gagarin aboard Vostok I became first human being to orbit in space. [28] Two days later, the chairman of the House Committee on Science and Astronautics was not merely speaking for himself when he asserted, "My objective . . . is to beat the Russians." The President announced his decision on 25 May 1961, in a speech to Congress on "Urgent National Needs." He committed the United States to landing an American on the Moon before the end of the decade.1


1 John M. Logsdon, The Decision to Go to the Moon: Project Apollo and the National Interest (Cambridge, Mass., 1970), pp. 93-130; U.S. Congress, House, Committee on Science and Astronautics and Subcommittees Nos. 1, 3, and 4, 1962 NASA Authorization: Hearings on H.R. 3238 and 6029 (Superseded by H.R. 6874), 87th Cong., 1st sess., 1961, p. 380.


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