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Select Image. American Human Spaceflight. Early Missions - Mercury & Gemini. Lunar Missions . Apollo-Soyuz Test Project (ASTP). Space Stations. Space Shuttle. Future Missions . Reference Information. Mercury - 1958 to 1963.

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American Human Spaceflight

Early Missions

- Mercury & Gemini

Lunar Missions

Apollo-Soyuz Test Project


Space Stations

Space Shuttle

Future Missions

Reference Information


Mercury - 1958 to 1963

The idea of human spaceflight has been in the mind of humans throughout recorded history. By the late 1950s, technology had developed to the level ideas could be transformed into hardware to achieve human spaceflight.

In 1959, NASA asked the U.S.A. military services to list members who met specific qualifications. The search was underway for pilots for the new manned spaceflight program. The first seven NASA Astronauts for Project Mercury were announced on April 9, 1959.

Front row - left to right - Walter Schirra, Donald Slayton, John Glenn, and Scott Carpenter.

Back row - Alan Shepard, Virgil “Gus” Grissom, and Gordon Cooper.


Mercury Chimp “Ham” Prepares for Test Flight

On January 31, 1961, a 44-month old chimpanzee, named Ham, was the first higher primate launched into outer space. Ham is shown trying out his combination couch and life support system on January 28, 1961 in preparation for his flight.

Ham was secured in a Mercury capsule atop the Mercury Redstone-2 (MR-2) rocket and launched from Cape Canaveral, FL. During the flight, Ham successfully pushed a lever within five seconds after seeing a flashing blue light. Failure resulted in negative reinforcement in the form of an electric shock to the soles of his feet. He landed 422 miles downrange after a 16.5 minute flight. Ham's capsule landed in the Atlantic Ocean and was recovered by a rescue ship. After the flight Ham lived for 17 years in the National Zoo in Washington D.C., then at the North Carolina Zoo before dying at the age of 27 on January 19, 1983.

The MR-2 flight was one in a series of flights leading to the manned orbital flights of the Mercury program.



Project Mercury put the first Americans into space.

Astronaut Alan Shepard was the first American in space during his sub-orbital flight on May 5, 1961 aboard Freedom 7. The Mercury – Redstone 3 rocket was launched from Pad LC-5 at Cape Canaveral, FL.



Astronaut John Glenn became the first American to orbit the Earth on February 20, 1962 aboard Friendship 7 launched by the Mercury - Atlas 6 rocket from Pad LC-14 at Cape Canaveral, FL.


Gemini - 1962 to1966

Project Gemini was an intermediate step between Mercury and Apollo developing technologies needed for lunar exploration.

Gemini-Titan 4 lift-off from Cape Canaveral, FL carried James McDivitt and Ed White for a four-day mission on June 3, 1965. This flight included the first space-walk by an American astronaut, accomplished by Ed White.



On June 3, 1965, Edward White became the first American to step outside his Gemini 4 spacecraft.



On December 15, 1965, Walter Schirra and Thomas Stafford on Gemini 6 and Frank Borman and James Lovell on Gemini 7 accomplished the first space rendezvous. Gemini 6 views Gemini 7.




Gemini 11 command pilot Charles Conrad climbs from the spacecraft hatch minutes after splashdown on September 9, 1966. Pilot Richard Gordon still has his hatch closed. U.S. Navy frogman team attached a flotation collar to the spacecraft.


Apollo - 1963 to 1972

The purpose of the Apollo Program was to land men on the lunar surface and to return them safely to Earth. Six missions landed on the surface of the moon; three others orbited the moon without landing, including the ill-fated Apollo 13.

The Apollo 11 Saturn V space vehicle lifted off with astronauts Neil Armstrong, Michael Collins and Edwin Aldrin on July 16, 1969, from Launch Complex 39A at the Kennedy Space Center, FL. On July 20, 1969, Neil Armstrong became the first human to walk on the moon.



Apollo 16 Lunar Module (LM) pilot Charles Duke photographed this Descartes Highlands landing site on April 21, 1972. Commander John Young is to the right of the LM and directly behind the Lunar Roving Vehicle. Thomas Mattingly remained with the Command and Service Module (CSM) in lunar orbit.



The Apollo 16 CSM approached the LM on April 23, 1972 for their final rendezvous. Aboard the LM, John Young and Charles Duke returned to the CSM in lunar orbit after three successful days on the lunar surface. Thomas Mattingly piloted the CSM.



The photograph of the Earth rising over the Moon's horizon was taken from the Apollo 11 CSM in July 1969.


Apollo-Soyuz Test Project (ASTP) - 1975

ASTP was the first human spaceflight mission conducted jointly by two nations. This led to future cooperative missions. Soyuz was launched prior to the American Apollo launch on the same day. The two spacecrafts docked on July 17, 1975 and joint operations were conducted for two full days. The docking module served as an airlock and transfer corridor between the two spacecrafts.

Astronaut Donald Slayton and cosmonaut Aleksey Leonov are shown in Soyuz.


Apollo Command and Service Module

Docking Module


Skylab- 1973 to 1974

Skylab, the first American space station, was adapted from the third stage of an Apollo Saturn V rocket and launched into orbit on May 14, 1973. Three successive crews of three astronauts each occupied Skylab. The longest mission, ending on February 8, 1974, lasted almost three months.



Skylab 3 astronaut Jack Lousma takes a shower in the crew quarters of the Orbital Workshop (OWS) on July 1, 1973.

Skylab 4 astronauts Gerald Carr (right) and William Pogue are shown in the OWS on February 1, 1974.


Seven American astronauts spent nearly 1000 days living in orbit with cosmonauts on the Russian space station Mir. American shuttles rendezvoused ten times with Mir. The Shuttle-Mir Program prepared the way for the International Space Station and began an era of cooperation and exploration. Soyuz cosmonauts took the photograph during a fly-around on July 4, 1995.

Shuttle / MIR - 1994 to 1998


International Space Station (ISS) - 1998 to present

In 1998, the first two ISS modules were launched and joined in orbit. Other components soon followed and the first crew arrived in 2000.

A crewmember onboard the STS-130Space

Shuttle Endeavour photographed the ISS after the two spacecrafts undocked February 19, 2010.


Space Shuttle - 1981 to present

The space shuttle orbiters were the first spacecraft capable of routinely launching into orbit like rockets and then returning to Earth as gliders. The orbiters are part of the Space Transportation System used for scientific research and space applications. The space shuttle will be retired in 2010.

The first shuttle, Columbia, STS-1, was launched April 12, 1981 from Pad 39A at Kennedy Space Center, FL carrying astronauts John Young and Robert Crippen. The Earth orbital mission lasted 54 hours and ended with an un-powered landing at Edwards Air Force Base, CA.


Orion Crew Exploration Vehicle (CEV) - Future

Orion was part of the Constellation Program that provided humans the capabilities necessary to travel and explore the solar system. On February 1, 2010, President Barack Obama announced cancellation of the program.The new spacecraft was designed to deliver six crew members and supplies to the International Space Station (above) by 2014; carry four astronauts to and from the moon by 2020; and transport crews to Mars bound vehicles assembled in low Earth orbit. The Orion vehicle was shaped like an Apollo capsule, but it was larger and it had solar panels to provide power.


Orion Crew Vehicle – Launch and Return

Orion astronauts would be launched on the Ares I (left) comprised of a single space shuttle solid rocket booster derivative and a second stage powered by an engine using liquid hydrogen fuel and liquid oxygen oxidizer. Ares I lifted more than 27.5 tons to low Earth orbit.

To return to Earth, the Orion spacecraft engine would be fired, and the service module jettisoned from the crew module, exposing the heat shield. The capsule re-entered Earth’s atmosphere; the parachutes and airbags deployed; and the capsule set down on dry land (right) or water. Splashdown would have been the primary landing method with dry land an option.

NASA recovered the astronaut capsule, replaced the heat shield and launched it again. A new crew module would be reused up to 10 times.


Aries V Cargo Launch Vehicle

The Ares V solid rocket boosters separated and the payload fairings released following launch. The cargo launch vehicle is shown (right) carrying the lunar lander and the departure stage that would have provided the energy to allow the astronauts to leave Earth's orbit for the moon.


Orion – Lunar Missions

The Orion crew would have launched after Ares V achieved orbit, docked with the lunar lander/departure stage and then left Earth orbit for the moon. Three days later, the crew would go into lunar orbit (left).

Orion would have sent four astronauts to the lunar surface, twice as many as Apollo, and they would have stayed longer. The initial missions would have lasted four to seven days and the new ship could have carried enough propellant to land anywhere on the moon's surface.

After landing and exploring the surface (right); the crew launched from the lower part of the lander; docked with Orion; and returned to Earth.

The Orion spacecraft operated without a crew in lunar orbit, eliminating the need for one astronaut to stay in the capsule while others explored the surface. Once a lunar outpost was established, crews could remain on the lunar surface for up to six months.


American Human Spaceflight - Reference Information

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Orion images courtesy of NASA, Lockheed Martin, and John Frassanito and Associates.

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