A Brief History of American Spaceflight

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The history of American spaceflight is much longer than most people realize. It started even before Samuel Langley was tinkering behind the Smithsonian Institute, and it continues today through private companies paving the way for human colonization of Mars. Throughout the history of American spaceflight, there have been many victories and some defeats. Today, as it was in 1915, space travel remains a novelty. The following is a brief history of American spaceflight with some key events that you may want to know.

Spaceflight’s Humble Beginnings

The exploration of space in the United States dates back before the formation of the Advisory Committee for Aeronautics, soon to become known as the National Advisory Committee for Aeronautics, on March 3, 1915. The creation of this organization probably never would have happened except that Smithsonian Secretary Samuel Langley was already tinkering with airplanes in a shed behind the Smithsonian Museum in Washington, D.C. The original committee created by an amendment to the Naval Appointment Bill included two from the United States Navy, two from the United States War Department and members of the Smithsonian Institution, The Weather Bureau, the Bureau of Standards. Five members of the general public also served on the committee that had a budget of $5,000. United States President Woodrow Wilson insisted that the committee not build a research facility because he wanted the country to look neutral in the early days of World War I.

Construction of the First Space Research Facility

Even in its initial report, the committee clearly supported the building of a research facility to promote space travel one day. The committee was soon able to work out an agreement with the United States Army to construct a co-research facility with construction starting in 1915. It took five years to construct the facility that included a dynamometer lab, an atmospheric wind tunnel, an administration building and a small warehouse.

John F. Victory’s Vision

While the Norfolk, Virginia, facility had a workforce of 11 people, none was more influential than John F. Victory, who became the first full-time employee of the National Advisory Committee for Aeronautics. Over the next 50 years until his retirement from NASA in 1960, no individual showed more dedication to seeing America win the space war. Even though the staff at Langley grew to over 100 individuals by 1925, most people ate in a common lunchroom where ideas were exchanged. Just like NASA today, the organization was independent, and people of all backgrounds were encouraged to investigate their ideas.

Funding Through the Daniel Guggenheim Fund

As the field of aeronautics became more organized, many universities started offering courses. This was spurred on by Daniel Guggenheim, one of the richest men in America during World War I. He fell in love with aeronautics during the war and spent his own money to establish the Daniel Guggenheim Fund for the Promotion of Aeronautics. This fund enabled many universities to start research facilities of their own to further develop ideas along with letting students get specialized training.

Goddard’s Vision

Another very early pioneer in the field of space travel was Robert Hutchings Goddard, who amazed his students at Worcester Polytechnic Institute of Clark University with his stories of people traveling to the moon someday. He wrote about the possibility of sending a rocket to the moon as early as 1912, and he envisioned it exploding a payload that was observable from telescopes on Earth to prove that it actually arrived. On March 16, 1926, he fired the first liquid-fuel rocket into the air. He was also the first man to successfully build a rocket to carry scientific instruments into the air. In 1914, he received a patent for a multistage rocket.

Bureaucratic Response to Rocketry

It was not until World War II drove the general public to become interested in rocketry that America’s space program became more formalized. One of the early programs was the funding of jet-propulsion rocketry at the Guggenheim Aeronautical Laboratory at the California Institute of Technology. However, the funding package carefully left out the word rocketry because it had negative connotations in bureaucratic circles.

Seized V2 Rockets

Toward the conclusion of World War II, 300 trainloads of sophisticated V2 rockets were surrendered to American troops. They became the foundation of the country’s intercontinental ballistic space program. Technology learned from those rockets also made the first manned flight into space possible. In all, the United States launched six of these rockets with the highest reaching 250 miles into space.

Russians Win the Race to Space

Germans, Americans and Russians all participated in a space race, but the Russians won with the launching of Sputnik on October 4, 1957. President Johnson tried to ease Americans’ frustration that they had lost this race during the Cold War by announcing that the United States would launch its Vanguard spacecraft in December. Congress quickly took action by implementing the Preparedness Investigation Subcommittee of the Senate Armed Services Committee to plan for America’s future in space.

Vanguard Missions

The first Vanguard mission to launch a satellite into orbit, however, was not successful. Just four seconds after the satellite lifted off the launch pad, it crashed back to Earth. Luckily, it threw the satellite away from the inferno, but the rest of the rocket went up in smoke. By March 1958, Congress and the American people agreed that the United States needed a civilian space program, and Congress quickly approved the formation of the NASA. President Eisenhower signed the legislation in July of 1958, and on October 1, NASA officially began operation.

NASA’s Dominance

The ending of the 43-year National Advisory Committee for Aeronautics program brought about many changes rapidly. The former organization had been very frugal with its money. By 1958, the original 11-person staff had grown to more than 8,000 people spread across five facilities. The Langley Research Center was joined by Ames Research Center near Moffett Federal Airfield on December 20, 1939, and the Lewis Flight Propulsion Laboratory opened in 1942.

Explorer 1

On January 31, 1958, the United States launched its first satellite. Called the Explorer 1, this satellite went around the Earth in a looping motion, getting as close as 220 miles and as far away as 1,563 miles. Tests aboard the satellite proved the existence of the Earth’s radiation belt and found it to be much stronger than theorized.


The first X-15 flight was commanded by Scott Crossfield, who flew three flights of this airplane that was the first to reach the edge of outer space. It returned important data that help spacecraft designers build systems that would withstand the rigors of outer space. In all, 12 men flew this aircraft including Neil Armstrong, who would become one of the first men to walk on the moon; and Joe Engle, who played an instrumental role in space shuttle flights.

First Astronauts Chosen

On April 9, 1959, NASA’s Director Thomas Keith Glennan announced that seven men had been chosen to become the first people to go into space. They were, military officers. Seven men had been chosen after months of physical and psychological testing, and they were all volunteers. Glennan eventually brought an eighth man to the group to help with press coverage. The director coined the term “astronauts” for the group, creating the word after the first people who piloted hot air balloons, known as Argonauts.

Mercury Space Program

Between 1961 and 1963, the first astronauts made six flights in the Mercury space capsule with two of them being suborbital flights. Alan Shepard became the first Mercury astronaut when he rode in the Freedom 7 capsule on May 5, 1961. While it did not have enough energy to lift Shepherd into outer space, scientists learned a lot about the conditions of the atmosphere and what would be required to send more spacecraft. On February 20, 1962, John Glenn became the first American to orbit the Earth.

Gemini Space Program

The Gemini program replaced the Mercury program with the first flight being made on March 23, 1965. On May 25, 1961, President Kennedy had pledged to the American people to put a man on the moon within the next decade, and the second Gemini flight was a step in the right direction because Ed White became the first American to walk in space on June 3, 1965.

Apollo Missions

Gemini paved the way for the Apollo missions. NASA had to overcome numerous problems with almost every mission, but they also accomplished many major milestones in the process:

Apollo 1: This mission was set to launch on January 27, 1967, but a fire in the command module killed astronauts Gus Grissom, Ed White and Roger B. Chaffee.

Apollo 7: Launching on October 11, 1968, this mission saw the first live TV broadcast from a spaceship.

Apollo 8: Launching on December 21, 1968, this mission was the first to use the Saturn V human-rated expendable rocket. Saturn V still holds the record as being the tallest and heaviest operational rocket built, and it was used throughout the rest of the Apollo program and for other purposes afterward.

Apollo 9: Launching on March 3, 1969, the addition of the Portable Life Support System made this the first Apollo mission where all the Apollo hardware circled the Earth.

Apollo 10: Launching on May 18, 1969, this mission came within 8.6 nautical miles of the moon’s surface.

Apollo 11: Launching on July 16, 1969, this mission carried the first man to walk on the moon.

Apollo 12: Launching on November 14, 1969, this mission proved that man could land in a precise location on the surface of the moon.

Apollo 13: Launching on April 11, 1970, this failed mission was the first time that the crew was successfully rescued.

Apollo 14: Launching on January 14, 1971, this mission sent the first colored pictures back from the surface of the moon.

Apollo 15: Launching on July 26, 1971, this mission was the first to stay on the moon for three days and the first to use the lunar roving vehicle on the surface to collect samples.

Apollo 16: Launching on April 16, 1972, this mission was the first to land in the Highlands area of the moon.

Apollo 17: Launching on December 7, 1972, this mission was the first to carry a trained geologist to the moon to study crater patterns and collect rock samples.

Space Shuttles

The Space Shuttle program was the fourth American program carried out by NASA, which completed the transportation using the reusable space shuttles of crew and cargo to space from 1981 to 2011.

NASA continues to explore outer space with unmanned vehicles being sent to Mars and satellites traveling beyond Saturn.

Privatization of Space

Many companies are working hard on privatizing space travel.

United Launch Alliance: This joint venture of Lockheed Martin Space Systems and Boeing Defense, Space & Security, was formed in 2006 and currently provides space launch services to the United States government. ULA operates the Delta II, Delta IV and Atlas V, and the company plans to have even more options in the near future with plans to lower the cost of launching payroll into space. The Atlas V has launched into space more than 75 times, and the company has achieved more than 120 successful launches. It is currently designing the Vulcan rocket that will replace all current models. While this company is headquartered in Denver, the company can launch rockets from either Cape Canaveral Air Force Station or Vandenberg Air Force Base.

Space Exploration Technologies Corp.: Founded by Elon Musk, SpaceX is trying to be the first to get a rocket to Mars and build a colony there. It is the first private entity to send a liquid-propellant rocket into Earth’s orbit. From 2010 to 2018, the company launched the Falcon rocket into space more than 50 times. The Falcon rocket has a reusable booster, helping to keep costs lower. The company hopes to have its Block V rocket approved to carry humans by NASA in 2018. The rocket’s current configuration can carry up to seven passengers. As of March 2018, Musk has invested more than $100 million of his own money, and he has raised more than $20 million from investors.

Blue Origin: Owned by Jeff Bezos, this company is concentrating on creating rockets that can take off and land vertically. It has worked with ULA to help develop rocket engines. By March 2018, this company had launched its New Shepherd reusable rocket seven times from its home in West Texas. Its New Glenn capsule is designed to land back on a ship, and it can be used again many times. The New Glenn has been launched from Cape Canaveral.

The history of American spaceflight goes back to 1915 with the formation of the Advisory Committee for Aeronautics. It is doubtful that those early pioneers in the field could imagine the work being done by private companies like Blue Origin, SpaceX and ULA today. One thing is certain: The same spirit found in men like Daniel Guggenheim and John F. Victory is still alive today in Jeff Bezos, Elon Musk and countless scientists. Many of the private companies have short-term goals of helping people launch satellites into orbit, but the ultimate goal is to be able to set up a colony in space for people to live.




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