In the beginning, there were heroes. John Glenn, Alan Shepard, Gus Grissom and others embraced a clear and perilous mission: to land a man on the moon within a decade. The president challenged them. The country cheered them. And the world rejoiced that thrilling day in 1969 when the Eagle landed. Now, on NASA's 50th birthday, interest in America's space program is eclipsed by war, terrorism and fears of economic collapse.
Can the thrill be rekindled?
Mercury - 1959-63
On Oct. 4, 1957: the Soviet Union stunned the world with its launch of Sputnik 1, the first satellite. The space race was on. NASA was founded the following year with the intent of gaining the global edge in space, and Project Mercury was the first human spaceflight program of the United States. Its goal: Put a man in orbit around Earth.
1. Oct. 1, 1958: The National Aeronautics and Space Administration begins operation.
2. Oct. 11, 1958: Pioneer 1 is the first NASA launch from Cape Canaveral. The spacecraft is intended to reach the moon but doesn't make it.
3. Dec. 18, 1958: An Air Force Atlas booster places into orbit a communications relay satellite, Project SCORE. On Dec. 19, President Eisenhower's Christmas message is broadcast from this satellite, the first time a voice is beamed from space.
4. March 3, 1959: Pioneer 4 is sent to the moon, successfully making the first U.S. lunar flyby.
5. April 9, 1959: NASA introduces the Mercury astronauts: Scott Carpenter, Gordon Cooper, John Glenn, Gus Grissom, Walter Schirra, Alan Shepard and Donald Slayton. Today, Glenn and Carpenter are the last surviving members of the Mercury 7.
6. May 28, 1959: The United States launches two monkeys, Able and Baker, aboard a Jupiter missile and recovers them after a suborbital flight.
7. April 1, 1960: The United States launches TIROS 1, the first successful meteorological satellite, for monitoring Earth's weather.
8. April 12, 1961: Russian cosmonaut Yuri Gagarin becomes the first man in space and the first to orbit Earth. He tells ground control, 'The Earth is blue. How wonderful. It is amazing.' This development prods NASA to accelerate its program.
9. May 5, 1961: Alan Shepard becomes the first American to fly in space, on the Freedom 7 suborbital shot from Cape Canaveral.
10. May 25, 1961: President Kennedy commits the United States and NASA to landing on the moon by the end of the decade.
11. Feb. 20, 1962: John Glenn becomes the first American to orbit Earth, making 3 orbits in his Friendship 7 Mercury spacecraft.
Gemini - 1961-66
With the success of Mercury, the United States turned its attention toward gearing up for a mission to the moon. Gemini's objective was to develop the techniques needed for deep-space exploration.
12. Feb. 1, 1964: NASA completes its land acquisition on Merritt Island, totaling about 88,000 acres.
13. March 23, 1965: Astronauts Gus Grissom and Orlando's John Young make the first Gemini flight with astronauts on board.
14. April 14, 1965: A topping-out ceremony is held on the roof of the 36-story Vehicle Assembly Building.
15. May 26, 1965: Kennedy Space Center headquarters opens.
16. June 3-7, 1965: The 2nd piloted Gemini mission, Gemini 4, stays aloft for 4 days. Astronaut Ed White performs the first American spacewalk.
17. July 14-15, 1965: Mariner 4 arrives at Mars and passes within 6,118 miles of the planet's surface after an 8-month journey. This mission provides the first close-up images of the red planet.
18. Dec. 15, 1965: Gemini 6A and Gemini 7 achieve the first space rendezvous, coming within 0.3 meters of each other but never touching. The spacecraft stay in close proximity for 5 hours.
19. June 1966: The Surveyor spacecraft lands on the moon.
20. Nov. 11-15, 1966: The 12th and final flight of the Gemini program. Underwater training is introduced for spacewalk preparation. Astronauts mark Gemini's finale by wearing signs on their backs: Alan Lovell's reads 'THE,' Buzz Aldrin's reads 'END.'
Apollo - 1961-75
The accomplishments of Apollo are among humankind's greatest. Six missions land men on the moon between 1969 and 1972, the only time humans have ventured onto another celestial body. The program also is marred by NASA's first tragedy on the ground (Apollo 1) and a near tragedy in space (Apollo 13).
21. Jan. 27, 1967: Three astronauts -- Gus Grissom, Ed White and Roger Chaffee -- die during a simulation aboard Apollo 1. A flash fire broke out in the capsule and flames engulfed it on the launchpad at Kennedy Space Center.
22. Nov. 9, 1967: The Saturn V -- a 363-foot rocket capable of 6 million pounds of thrust -- makes its maiden flight.
23. Dec. 21-27, 1968: Apollo 8, carrying a 3-man crew, circumnavigates the moon. It is the first manned spacecraft to leave the gravitational influence of Earth.
24. July 16-24, 1969: Apollo 11 launches. On July 20, it lands on the lunar surface. Astronauts Neil Armstrong and Buzz Aldrin walk on the moon.
25. April 11-17, 1970: About 56 hours into the flight of Apollo 13, the oxygen tank in the service module ruptures and damages several of the power, electrical and life-support systems. The crew returns safely to Earth.
26. 1971 NASA and the U.S. Air Force begin collaboration on the space shuttle project.
27. Feb. 5, 1971: Apollo 14 lands on the moon, commanded by Alan Shepard. He is the only astronaut from Project Mercury to reach the moon.
28. July 30, 1971: Apollo 15 lands on the moon. Astronauts stay for 3 days, exploring the surface with the first lunar rover.
29. July 23, 1972: Landsat 1 is launched from Kennedy Space Center to perform an Earth resource mapping mission.
30. Dec. 7-19, 1972: Apollo 17 is the last of the 6 Apollo missions to the moon.
31. May 14, 1973: Skylab, a small orbital space platform, is launched. Skylab became home to 3 crews during 1973-74 for periods of 28, 59 and 84 days, respectively.
32. July 15-24, 1975: The Apollo-Soyuz Test Project, taking place at the height of the Cold War, is the first joint international human spaceflight effort.
33. August and November 1975: Viking 1 and Viking 2 are launched from Kennedy Space Center on a trip to Mars. Both land there the following year.
34. Aug. 20, 1977: Voyager 2 is launched from Cape Canaveral. Voyager 1 goes up Sept. 5. Eventually the two Voyagers explore all the giant outer planets and 48 of their moons.
Space shuttle - 1973-PRESENT
NASA enters a new era when it rolls out the first winged reusable spacecraft. Called the space shuttle, it can make multiple flights into orbit and be piloted by astronauts. It plays a crucial role in building the international space station. The shuttle era also sees numerous spectacular unmanned science missions to other planets and advances in technology such as the Hubble Space Telescope.
35. August-October 1977: Shuttle orbiter Enterprise undergoes unpowered flight tests.
36. April 12, 1981: Astronauts John Young and Robert Crippen fly space shuttle Columbia on its maiden mission. Columbia orbits Earth 36 times.
37. June 18-24, 1983: On the 7th shuttle mission, Sally Ride becomes the first American woman in space.
38. Aug. 30, 1983: Aboard Challenger, Guion S. Bluford becomes the first black astronaut.
39. Jan. 28, 1986: Challenger is destroyed and its 7 crew members are lost. An explosion 73 seconds into the flight is caused by a leak in one of 2 solid rocket boosters that ignited the main fuel tank.
40. Sept. 29, 1988: Discovery marks the successful return to flight for the shuttle program.
41. Oct. 18, 1989: The Galileo spacecraft is launched to Jupiter. In 1996, data from Galileo reveals that Jupiter's moon Europa may harbor 'warm ice' or even liquid water.
42. April 24, 1990: The Hubble Space Telescope is launched.
43. June 27-July 7, 1995: Shuttle Atlantis docks to the Mir space station, the first of 9 shuttle-Mir linkups between 1995 and 1998.
44. 1998: Work begins on the international space station, a joint project between the United States, Russia, Japan, Canada and 11 European countries.
45. Oct. 29, 1998: At 77, John Glenn, aboard shuttle Discovery, becomes the oldest person to go into space.
46. July 22-27, 1999: Eileen Collins becomes the first woman to command a shuttle mission.
47. Feb. 1, 2003: Columbia disintegrates 15 minutes before its scheduled landing, killing the 7 crew members.
48. Jan. 14, 2004: President Bush announces a goal to return humans to the moon by 2020, in preparation for human exploration of Mars.
49. July 26, 2005: Discovery marks NASA's return to human spaceflight after the Columbia tragedy.
50. May 25, 2008: Mars Phoenix probe joins 2 rovers that have been exploring the planet since January 2004. In July 2008, Phoenix confirms the presence of water ice on Mars.
Journeys that await us
Planners believe that the first person to walk on Mars and lead a new generation of heroes is right now a 3rd-grader somewhere in the country. Leading up to that mission, the plan is to go back to the moon to build greenhouses and solar stations for a colony of explorers learning what it takes to live off this spaceship we call Earth. Armed with that knowledge, humankind will begin the next journey farther into the heavens, first to the red planet, and then, who knows? Asteroids? Other solar systems? Space is still a dream, but as long as humans can look up at the stars, it always will be beckoning.Copyright © 2014, The Baltimore Sun