a program in Special English by the Voice of America.
That announcement was made May fifth, nineteen
sixty-one. It was the first manned flight of project Mercury. Today, Tony Riggs
and Larry West tell about the beginning of the United States space program that
carried humans into space.
United States entered the Space Age in nineteen forty-five, at the end of World
War Two. German rocket scientists, with the support of the German government,
had spent fifteen years developing rockets as weapons. Near the end of the war,
Germany began firing huge rocket bombs at Britain.
Called V-2 rockets, the German weapons carried a ton of
explosives three hundred twenty kilometers. They flew as high as eighty
When the war ended, American forces found the parts for
about one hundred V-2 rockets. They brought the German rockets to America and
launched sixty-six of them.
army opened the V-2 launch program to American scientists at several
universities. Civilian scientists used the V-2 rockets to study the Earth's
atmosphere. They gathered much new information and learned much about designing
instruments for scientific rockets and satellites.
Many of Germany's top rocket scientists came to the
United States after the war. They worked with American scientists and engineers
to develop and test new rockets for military and scientific use. In nineteen fifty-six,
the United States launched a Jupiter military rocket that flew more than five thousand
officials immediately offered to use the Jupiter to put a scientific satellite
into orbit around the Earth. But the American government said no. Officials
decided not to mix military and civilian rocket programs. The United States
said it would not launch a scientific satellite until a non-military rocket --
the Vanguard -- could be completed to carry it into space.
Navy scientists were building the Vanguard for scientific
purposes. They planned to launch it in nineteen fifty-eight.
The twenty-two meter long rocket would put a little
scientific satellite into orbit as one of the events of the international
geophysical year. The satellite itself would weigh less than two kilograms. But
it would contain many tiny electronic instruments for scientific research.
scientists also were working on rockets and satellites.
In nineteen fifty-seven, a Soviet military rocket
carried a small satellite into Earth orbit. The eighty-three kilogram
satellite, called Sputnik, had two radios that sent signals as it circled the
world. One month later, a larger Sputnik was launched with a dog inside. The
dog survived the launch. But there was no way to return it to Earth. So it died
A few months later, the Soviet Union put a one thousand
three hundred sixty kilogram satellite into space.
Soviet successes with its Sputnik satellites caused the United States to change
its space plans. Officials decided to launch the Vanguard as soon as possible.
The attempt was made on December sixth, soon after the
first two Sputnik launches. The attempt failed. The rocket exploded during the
launch. Less than two months later, however, the United States put its first
satellite into orbit.
The rocket was an army Jupiter. The satellite was
Explorer One. It weighed only fourteen kilograms. But it carried a great many
electronic instruments for scientific research.
The instruments reported much new information about
conditions in space. The most important was the discovery of a belt of
radiation around the Earth. It was what we now call the Van Allen Belt.
was growing, in Congress and among scientists, for a United States civilian
space agency. Soon, Congress passed a bill creating NASA -- the National
Aeronautics and Space Administration. President Eisenhower signed the bill into
Its job: the scientific exploration of space. Its major
goal: sending the first Americans into space.
new space agency was given a lot of money and thousands of engineers and
technicians from military and civilian agencies. Within three months, the
man-in-space program had a name: Project Mercury. The name came from the
ancient Greeks. Mercury was the speedy messenger of the Greek gods.
Much work had to be done before Project Mercury could
put an American astronaut into space. Dependable rockets needed to be built and
tested. A spacecraft had to be designed and built. A worldwide radio system was
needed to communicate with orbiting astronauts. And astronauts had to be chosen
save time, NASA decided to work on all parts of the program at the same time.
It placed orders for four different kinds of military rockets for Mercury
flights. It chose the McDonnell Aircraft Company to design and build the
Mercury spacecraft. And it began to look for men who would be astronauts.
NASA said its astronaut candidates had to be between twenty-five
and forty years old and in excellent health. They could be no taller than one
hundred eighty centimeters. Candidates had to be highly intelligent, with an
education in science or engineering.
NASA also said the first astronauts had to be military
pilots with experience in test flying airplanes. Test pilots already were
trained to make quick, correct decisions in dangerous situations.
observer said in a joking way that the space agency was just looking for a
group of "normal, everyday supermen." But it was not a joke. NASA
found seven normal, everyday supermen in a group of five hundred candidates.
On April seventh, nineteen fifty-nine, the space agency
introduced the first American astronauts. They were Scott Carpenter, Gordon
Cooper, John Glenn, Virgil Grissom, Walter Schirra, Alan Shepard and Donald
All were married and had children. All were from small
towns or cities. All were about the same height, weight and age. And all were
experienced military test pilots.
of the new astronauts, however, brought his own special knowledge and skills to
the Mercury project.
Navy pilot Scott Carpenter, for example, was well
trained in communications and navigation. So he helped with Mercury's
communications and navigation systems. Walter Schirra, another Navy flier, was
an expert on the pressure suits worn by navy divers. He helped design the space
suits that would protect the Mercury astronauts in space.
Air Force pilot Gordon Cooper became an expert on the
Redstone Rocket that would launch Mercury astronauts on short training flights.
Donald Slayton, another Air Force flier, worked on the long-range Atlas Rocket.
Marine John Glenn was an expert on airplane instruments. So he helped design
easy-to-use instruments for the Mercury spacecraft.
Navy pilot Alan Shepard helped plan Mercury's worldwide
communication system. And Virgil Grissom, of the Air Force, worked on Mercury's
made its first unmanned test flight of the Mercury spacecraft nine months after
the project started. The launch was made from the space center at Cape
Canaveral, Florida. The flight tested the heat shield. The shield protected the
spacecraft from the great heat produced when it returned through the Earth's atmosphere.
Many other unmanned test flights followed in the next
The final test flight was made at the end of January,
nineteen sixty-one. It carried a chimpanzee named Ham on a seven hundred
kilometer flight over the Atlantic Ocean. Several problems developed. But Ham
survived the launch and the landing in the ocean. However, he never wanted to
get close to a space capsule again.
Space officials announced that astronaut Alan Shepard
would become the first American in space. He would be launched early in May,
nineteen sixty-one, on a short, fifteen minute flight. That will be our story
have been listening to EXPLORATIONS -- a program in Special English by the Voice
of America. It was written by Marilyn Rice Christiano and Frank Beardsley. Your
narrators were Tony Riggs and Larry West. I'm Shirley Griffith. Listen again
next week to the second part of the story of the Mercury program that took the
first American astronauts into space.