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Home > Curator's Corner > July 2009 > The Space Race
The Space Race
Intrepid Teens Blog
Posted: 7/20/2009 4:26:46 PM

This month we celebrate the 40th anniversary of Apollo 11 and man’s first step on the Moon. However, many of us tend to overlook the small steps that were necessary to reach this goal. With the successful launch of Sputnik by the Soviet Union in 1957, the United States entered the space race with the development of the National Aeronautics and Space Administration (NASA). Early on, aeronautical engineers designed capsules that would land in the ocean, enabling Essex-class aircraft carriers, like the USS Intrepid, to act as primary recovery vessels for NASA as late as the 1970s.

NASA’s first human space flight program, known as Mercury, sought to send one-man crews into orbit between 1961 and 1963. Mercury’s second manned orbital flight was launched on May 24, 1962. The Aurora 7 spacecraft, commanded by astronaut Scott Carpenter, was in flight for only four hours but helped to qualify the program for further manned operations in extended orbital durations. The USS Intrepid participated in the Aurora 7 mission by dispatching helicopters to airlift Carpenter from his capsule. Below is a photograph of him aboard the Intrepid after his retrieval.

Three years later, on March 23, 1965, the Intrepid was called once again to participate in yet another mission to space. More advanced than the Mercury operations, the Gemini program was designed to develop techniques essential for Moon landings, such as docking with another vehicle, performing extra-vehicular activity (spacewalks) and subjecting astronauts and their equipment to long flights. As pictured below, the Intrepid recovered the two-man Gemini III capsule, the first manned flight of the Gemini program, crewed by Virgil Grissom and John Young. Known as the “bridge to the moon,” the Gemini program paved the pathway for the later Apollo program.

Without the demonstrated successes of eight years of NASA’s space programs, the Apollo 11 landing would not have been so momentous in 1969. How these past initiatives will help propel the future of space missions, we have yet to see.

Historic photographs courtesy of NASA. To learn more about the Mercury and Gemini programs, as well as other past NASA missions, visit:

Britta K. Arendt
Collections Manager