1961: First American in space – the Soviet cosmonaut Yuri Gargarin orbited Earth to become the first human in space, stoking concern about US inferiority. A series of exploded NASA rockets underscored a sense of gloom. Alan Shepard’s flight aboard his Freedom 7 capsule reinvigorated the US space program and national pride. Less than a year later, John Glenn made America’s first orbital flight.
1965: First US spacewalk – Astronaut Ed White floated out the hatch of the Gemini 4 capsule on June 3, 1965 for what he called “the greatest experience”, the first US spacewalk.
1967: First NASA tragedy – America’s first space tragedy occurred right here on Earth when astronauts Gus Grissom, Ed White and Roger Chaffee were running through training exercises atop a NASA launch pad in Florida when an accidental fire ripped through the Apollo 1 spacecraft. The three men died from smoke inhalation, delivering a tremendous setback to the space agency’s moon program. NASA fixed the problem and returned to spaceflight, a pattern it would repeat following the Challenger tragedy in 1986 and the Columbia tragedy in 2003.
1969: First moon landing – “The Eagle has landed” Spoken by astronaut Neil Armstrong from the surface of the moon on July 20, 1969, made it look as if Americans could accomplish just about anything they put their minds to. As Armstrong climbed out of the Eagle and onto the lunar surface, his words rang true around the world: “That’s one small step for a man, one giant leap for mankind.”
1973: First US space station – The Soviet beat the U.S. in the race to put a science lab in space with the launch of Salyut 1 in 1971, but NASA followed with Skylab in 1973. Soviet and U.S. space officials later decided to collaborate on long-duration space research, a partnership that includes experiments aboard the international space station.
1967: First U.S. probe on Mars – The Viking landers touched down on the surface of Mars in the summer of 1976 and opened the world’s eyes to another planet. The biological findings were inconclusive; the Viking mission set the stage for generation of orbiters, landers and rovers to come.
1981: First space shuttle flight – Commander John Young and pilot Robert Crippen opened a new era of human spaceflight at NASA with the successful launch of space shuttle Columbia on April 12, 1981 from Kennedy Space Center in Florida. The shuttle program never lived up to its promise of frequent and low-cost launches; it has been a remarkable workhorse.
1990: First light for Hubble – April 25 was the day the space shuttle gave space science one of its biggest gifts: deployment of the Hubble Space Telescope. Three years later, NASA launched an ambitious rescue mission to outfit the space telescope with corrective lenses, marking the agencies most successful comeback. NASA is planning one more service call to the aging telescope, a shuttle mission that could keep the eye in the sky operating for at least another five years.
1997: First road trip on Mars – NASA’s Mars Sojourner rover, part of the Mars Pathfinder mission was the first robotic rover to roll on the Red Planet. The investigations conducted by the “first interplanetary robotic geologist,” as Sojourner became known, revealed hints about Mars’ volcanic and watery past. Sojourner’s successors, Spirit and Opportunity continue to explore the planet up to date.
2000: First crew for international space station – Nov. 22, a Soyuz spacecraft delivered two Russians and an American commander to the international space station, launching an ongoing permanent human presence in space. The Expedition 1 crew members, NASA’s William Shepherd and Russia’s Sergei Krikalev and Yuri Gidzenko, spent four months aboard the station. Construction of the station is continuing with the last pieces scheduled for delivery in 2010.
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