The story of the Mercury Atlas Rocket, and the manned American Space Program begins in the 1920's with a man named Robert Hutchings Goddard. His contributions to the history of the rocket are many. Dr. Goddard's day job was as professor of physics at Clark College (Currently Clark University). Professor Goddard was fascinated with rockets, however, and spent a lot of time designing and building them. Solid propellants, similar to gunpowder only mixed in different proportions to allow slower burning, had powered all rockets previous to Dr. Goddard. This propellant mix was not appreciably different from that of the ancient Chinese who first developed rockets in the early thirteenth century. Dr. Goddard developed the first liquid propellant fueled rocket, which he launched on March 16, 1926, near Auburn, Massachusetts. This was an important development in rocketry for space flight, because gunpowder needs oxygen for fuel, and there is no oxygen in space. Liquid fueled rockets carry their own oxygen for fuel. Unfortunately, Goddard's work was largely ignored in the United States.
During this same period (1920's) Russian and German scientists were also working on rocket propulsion, and they didn't ignore Goddard's findings. Dr. Werner Von Braun was a brilliant German scientist who built on Godddard's work. Dr. Braun was one of the principal scientists who developed the V-2 rockets for the German war machine. Goddard's rockets had all been small rockets. The V-2 was the first large liquid fueled rocket. It was first launched on October 3, 1942 from the island of Usedom, near Peennemunde, Germany. The V-2 was an important development in rocketry. As a weapon, it terrified the English, and caused much destruction and death. But it's more important contribution was its peaceful application as a space delivery vehicle. Rocketry history since than has been based on this work.
Victorious American forces brought Dr. Braun and other scientists to the United States, along with some V-2 rockets. These and other elements of the German rocket program were essential to the development of the X-1 rocket plane in which Chuck Yeager broke the sound barrier on October 14, 1947.
The 1950's saw the beginnings of the Cold War, and its twin the Space Race, a period well remembered by most 'Baby Boomers'. The Russians took the lead in this race with the first orbiting satellite, Sputnik I, launched on October 4, 1957. Sputnik II followed on November 3. 1957. Although the United States was well along with this type of technology, the propaganda value of this feat was invaluable, and Americans were terrified. In an age of atomic weapons, the nation that had an effective missile delivery system had a distinct advantage.
The Russian development threw the American space program into a turmoil. X-15 technology would have delivered a 'space plane' in two to three years, but for American politicians, this was too long a time to 'lag behind' the Soviets. The first American satellite, Explorer I, joined Sputniks I and II on January 31, 1958, four months after the initial Soviet launch. The National Aeronautics and Space Administration (NASA) was established by Act of Congress on July 29, 1958. The Americans decided to abandon the slower 'space plane' approach to space flight, and follow the quicker 'rocket' approach.
Manned space flight came a step closer to reality with the establishment of the American Mercury and the Russian Vostok space programs. Again, the Russians won this achievement with the launch of Vostok I, and Yuri Garigan became the first man in space on April 12, 1961. Alan Shephard followed on May 5, 1961 to become the first American in space riding a Mercury Atlas rocket named Freedom 7. John Glenn became the first American to orbit the earth in Friendship 7 on February 20, 1962.
If you're interested in a more complete story about the Mercury Space Program, and more of Chuck Yeager's story, read The Right Stuff By Tom Wolf. It's an excellent story about America's first steps into space.
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