Gagarin and Shepard: Man Enters Space


In April and May, 1961, the Soviet Union and the United States sent men into space for the first time. A prestige-laden theatre of a Cold War then scarcely 15 years old, the space race engaged the top levels of government, consumed billions of dollars, and ended with the collaboration of the two former antagonists.

Sputnik Sounds an Alarm

The U.S. developed atomic and hydrogen bombs before the Soviets. It was known that the Soviets stole American secrets before making their bomb. America was ahead in nuclear submarines and felt confident of a technological lead through most of the 1950’s.

So it came as a shock to many when the Soviet Union orbited the first artificial satellite, Sputnik, in October, 1957. The U.S., after a series of failures, finally orbited a satellite, Explorer I, early in 1958. During the interim and afterwards, the American public and its leaders were visibly nervous about the Soviet breakthrough and its implications for defense preparedness.

President Eisenhower felt it necessary to give a speech assuring the public that a serious space effort was under way and that the nation was not falling behind. Continued uneasiness and prodding from Congress resulted in the Space Act of 1958 and the establishment of the National Aeronautics and Space Administration (NASA) later that year. NASA was to be primarily a civilian space program, but full cooperation with the Defense Department was mandated.

Along with rocket development and research aimed at unmanned space exploration, a well-publicized project for preparing humans to fly in space was initiated in 1959. A mission control and training center was established in Houston, Texas, and a launch facility at Cape Canaveral, Florida. The largest rocket in history would be built in Alabama. The Mercury program proceeded on the assumption that an American pilot, designated as an astronaut, would be first in space.

The Soviets Are First Again

But the Soviet government, less susceptible to public opinion and panic, had also been running a manned space program, decidedly less publicized. And so it came as another shock to the western world when Yuri Gagarin became the first human in space by orbiting the earth for 108 minutes on April 12, 1961. Soviet leader Nikita Kruschchev now swiftly maximized the public attention focused on Gagarin and the program he represented.

The U.S. was again embarrassed and tried to make the most of Astronaut Alan Shepard’s first American space flight barely three weeks later on May 5. But Shepard’s venture lasted just 15 minutes and, rather than orbiting him around the world, it took him approximately 300 miles to a planned splashdown. It wasn’t until February, 1962 that Astronaut John Glenn made the first American orbital flight, circling the earth three times. By that time, Soviet Cosmonaut (their term) Gherman Titov had orbited for a full day in August of 1961.

JFK Responds

President John F. Kennedy, in office less than three months at the time of Gagarin’s feat, felt that a dramatic and sustained American response was called for. In a speech late in May, he proclaimed the goal of placing a man on the moon and returning him safely to earth before the end of the decade. The Apollo program achieved Kennedy’s goal in July, 1969, nearly six years after his assassination, when Neil Armstrong and Buzz Aldrin touched down on the moon and returned home. The disquieting early Soviet lead, despite strenuous and costly efforts, had not held up.

By 1975, the two space contending nations were flying a joint space project and, beginning in 1993, they have been the principal collaborators on the International Space Station.