Overview of American Space Program
Apollo 13's failure to reach the moon is perhaps best remembered due to the
Hi, I'm Ben Arrona, here for About.com. I'm an historian with a Master's Degree in American History, and today we're going to take a look at the American Space Program.From the late 1950's throughout present day, the United States space program has captured the imagination of people the world over, brought amazing technological advancements, and helped us better understand our place in the larger universe. In the years following WWII, as the Cold War was in full swing, space exploration began to be viewed by the United States as the next frontier in the struggle against Communism. When the Soviet Union launched the first man-made satellite, Sputnik, into orbit on October 4, 1957, a sense of shock and feeling of falling behind hit the American public.The United States answered back several months later when they successfully launched their own satellite, Explorer 1, on January 31, 1958. To help ensure that the United States wouldn't fall behind the Soviets in the space race, Congress and President Dwight D. Eisenhower created the National Aeronautics and Space Administration, forever to be known by the acronym NASA. Almost immediately NASA's push was to put a man into space.As the Americans neared the achievement of this goal, the Soviet Union once again got there first. On April 12, 1961 Soviet cosmonaut Yuri Gagarin became the first man to go into space. Much as in the case with Sputnik, the United States followed shortly thereafter, sending Alan Shepard into space, as part of the Mercury Program, on May 5, 1961. With the imagination and competitive juices of an entire country engaged, President John F. Kennedy, in a speech to a joint session of Congress on May 25th, 1961, challenged the United States to land a man on the moon and return him safely to earth by the end of the decade.To achieve this goal, NASA formed the Apollo program and began inching toward meeting Kennedy's challenge. While the milestones for the space program came at a breakneck pace, the cost was sometimes more than just money. On January 27, 1967 three astronauts were killed on the launching pad when a fire broke out in their capsule during a test. Apollo forged ahead, however, and in December of 1968 the Apollo 8 mission became the first to orbit the moon. The crowning achievement came on July 20, 1969 when Apollo 11 astronauts Neil Armstrong and Buzz Aldrin walked on the surface of the moon.The Apollo program would have another six missions, five that would successfully reach the moon. Apollo 13's failure to reach the moon is perhaps best remembered due to the harrowing ordeal, and unexpected safe return of its crew to Earth.During the years of the Apollo Program, the push came for NASA to design and build a reusable space vehicle. In 1976 NASA unveiled to the world the first space shuttle, which was a reusable space vehicle. The first space shuttle to launch was Columbia on April 12, 1981. While the space shuttle program made the building of space stations and the placement of high powered space telescopes possible, the program was also marred by a pair of tragedies.On January 28, 1986 the Space Shuttle Challenger exploded 73 seconds after lift off. All seven crew members on board were killed, including school teacher Christa McAuliffe. Tragedy struck again on February 1, 2003 when the space shuttle Columbia burned up upon re-entry into the earth's atmosphere. As with the Challenger, all seven crew members on board were killed. The final space shuttle mission came on July 8, 2011, with the Space Shuttle Atlantis.As American space exploration forges ahead in the decades to come, unmanned exploratory missions, such as the Mars Rovers and Cassini Spacecraft, serve as both a call to the exploratory spirit of our past and a window into the future.Thanks for watching. To learn more, visit us on the web at About.com.