July 18, 2005


Chronology of NASA Space Exploration

By: Frank J. Collazo


Introduction:  The first exploration of outer space is the most remarkable accomplishment of the twentieth century.  Yuri Gagarin's first orbital mission around the earth, and Neil Armstrong's first step on the moon will likely be thought of in the same terms that we now think of the discovery of America by Christopher Columbus.  The Space gap between the USA and Russia triggered the re-organization of NASA.  This spur shook the United States out of a state of technological slumber, with one of the most immediate results being the formation of NASA just slightly less than a year later.  Of the original seven astronauts, four had been in orbit (Glenn, Carpenter, Schirra, and Cooper, while two had suborbital flights (Shepard and Grissom).  Only Slayton, originally scheduled to fly instead of Carpenter, had not been in space, although he was later to go into space on the Apollo-Soyuz docking mission in 1975. 


The Gemini and Apollo programs followed the Mercury Project.  Gemini used a two-man spacecraft that was launched using the Titan rocket.  There were 11 manned Gemini missions between March of 1965 and November of 1966.  On the second Gemini mission, Edward White II became the first American to perform a space walk outside of his spacecraft.  Apollo used a three-man spacecraft that was launched using the Saturn rocket.  The V2 rocket design was used as stepping stone to develop a family of guided missiles employed by all services of the Defense Department.  The missiles have the role of surface-to-surface, surface to air, and air-to-air missions.  The following is a summary of the chronological events for the period 1915-2005.


1200 A.D. - The Chinese developed the first rockets.  A series of experiments with various chemical mixtures led to placing an ignitable compound in a cylinder having one sealed end.  When the mixture was ignited, flames shot from the open end and the cylinder moved in the opposite direction.  A stick was attached to the charge to provide stability.  About 1230, these rockets were used in the Chinese war with the Tartars.

1688 - Geisler, a German research worker, proposed rockets weighing as much as 120 lb.

Circa 1700 - Sir Isaac Newton proposed his third Law of Motion, "For every action there is an equal and opposite reaction," which expresses the operating principle behind today's missile engines.

1780 - Prince Haidar Ali, ruler of Mysore, India, used a battery of rockets to drive the British off the battlefield of Guntur.  His rockets were made of iron tubes about 8 in., long, 10 in., in diameter, and 12 lb. in weight and they were stabilized by long, bamboo poles.

Circa 1790 - Col. Wm. Congreve, a British artilleryman, began experimenting with large rockets.  The stabilizing stick was placed in the center of the rocket base with a number of holes around it from which the blast could escape.  Congreve developed rocket units weighing 12-42 lb., which could fire projectiles as far as 1 mile.

1806 - On October 8, two hundred Congreve-type rockets were used by the British fleet against the French base of Boulogne.

1807 - British fleet units used thousands of rockets to destroy Copenhagen, which was allied with Napoleon.

1814 - Francis Scott Key wrote the Star Spangled Banner while observing unsuccessful British rocket attacks on Baltimore.  Rockets were widely used by the British during the War of 1812; they helped to rout American forces and occupy Washington, D.C.

Circa 1880 - William Hale, American research worker, eliminated the stabilizing stick, replacing it with more accurate curved flanges attached to the rocket base.

1915 - The U.S. Congress formed the National Advisory Committee for Aeronautics to "supervise and direct the scientific study of the problems of flight, with a view to their practical solutions. 

1919 - Dr. Robert H. Goddard of Clark University presented a paper, which dealt with the escape speed needed for a rocket to leave the earth's atmosphere and penetrate space. This paper, published by the Smithsonian Institute, is regarded as providing the basis for almost all-modern rocketry.

1926 - On March 16, Dr. Goddard fired the first liquid-fuel rocket.  Its fuel was liquid oxygen and gasoline.  Because of lack of interest on the part of American government and industry, it remained for the Germans to perfect the first effective liquid-fuel rockets.

1929 - German scientists developed JATO, jet-assist take-off, for aircraft.  (These rocket boosters were later used to launch overloaded bombers in World War II.)  During the same year, Germany decided to establish research centers to study the use of rocket power plants for military devices.

1938 - James Wyld developed the first successful American regenerative rocket engine. This engine was 8 in. long, weighed less than 2 lb., and produced about 100 lb. of thrust. A major innovation was the use of a cooling system to permit the engine to operate for much longer times than earlier rockets.

1943 - Russian Katyusha solid-propellant rockets, each about 6 ft. long, were used in defense of Stalingrad.

1943 - In August, a British ship in the Bay of Biscay, was struck by a radio-controlled glide bomb.  This bomb, which was controlled by a German pilot in a plane some distance from the convoy, marked the arrival of the guided missile.  A guided missile is an unmanned vehicle whose course can be altered en route to its target by either internal or external devices.

1944 - On June 12 and 13, German V-1 attacks on London began.  This vehicle was 25 ft. long, and had a wingspan of about 16 ft.  A pulsejet engine (in which intermittent pulses of air, taken in through air-inlet valves, are combined with fuel before the mixture is ignited to provide thrust powered it.  The V-1 had a range of about 150 mi. and was relatively slow.

1944 - On September 8, the German V-2, which was not strictly a guided missile since its guidance was preset, began falling on England.  It had a rocket engine, which used an alcohol-liquid oxygen mixture as fuel and had a top speed of about 5,300 ft. per second.  The V-2 could reach peak altitudes of 70 mi.  It weighed about 26,000 lb. and was about 46 ft. long and 5 ft. in diameter.  Dr. Wernher von Braun, now Technical Director of the Development Operations Div., U.S. Ballistic Missile Agency, Redstone Arsenal, Huntsville, AL., was in charge of the German V-2 project.

1945 - The WAC Corporal, first successful U.S.-built research rocket, reached altitudes of 40 miles.  A liquid-fuel rocket, it used red fuming nitric acid and aniline for propellant.

1946-1947 - Captured German V-2's replaced the WAC Corporal in U.S. atmospheric research.  In the course of this test series, a V-2 reached an altitude of 114 mi.

1946-1948 - The Convair MX774, forerunner of the Atlas ICBM, was developed in a U.S. Air Force research program.  It was about 32 ft. long, 2.5 ft. in diameter, and reached a maximum altitude of over 100 mi. in vertical flight.

1948Atlas rocket with Mercury spacecraft - The Atlas rocket launch vehicle, which lifted John Glenn into orbit, began being World War II.

1948-1951 - Over 100 test firings of the U.S. Navy Sparrow air-to-air guided missile were completed.  This beam-rider missile, developed by Sperry Gyroscope Co., has a top speed of Mach 3.

1949 - On February 24, a two-stage "Bumper-WAC" rocket, consisting of a WAC Corporal attached to the nose of a V-2, reached a record altitude of 242 mi.  The rocket was fired from White Sands Proving Ground, New Mexico.  The V-2 powered it to an altitude of about 20 miles where the WAC Corporal was fired, the V-2 falling away shortly after.


1950-1952 - Hughes Aircraft Co. developed the Falcon air-to-air missile with automatic tracking radar.  The Falcon is standard equipment on F-102A, F-106, and F-89 interceptors.

1953 - The Nike became the first U.S. surface-to-air missile to enter full production, and the Terrier surface-to-air missile entered production.  The Terrier, which can be launched from U.S. Navy surface vessels, has an effective ceiling of 60,000 ft. and a top speed of about Mach 2.  The Petrel air-to-underwater anti-submarine missile, which uses an underwater self-homing device, was developed for the U.S.  Air Force and the U.S. Navy developed the Sidewinder air-to-air missile.  The Sidewinder is one of the first missiles to use infrared guidance, an infrared seeker in its nose that "homes in on," or is attracted by, a source of energy, such as a jet exhaust, to strike its target.  The Sidewinder is 9 ft. long, 5 in. in diameter, and weighs about 150 lb. It has a range of about 30 mi. and top speed of Mach 2.5.

1954 - Division of General Dynamics Corp. received the go-ahead to develop the Atlas ICBM; the Martin Co. started work on the Titan ICBM.  U.S. ICBM will have a range of 5,000 mi. and travel a good part of the distance to its target in outer space.  It will weigh about 100,000 lb. and have a top speed of Mach 15, about 11,000 mph.  The 1st and 69th U.S. Pilot less Bomber Squadrons, equipped with the Matador, were sent to Germany. The Matador weighs about 14,000 lb., is 39.5 ft. long, 4.5 ft. in diameter, and has a 28.5 ft. wingspan.  It has a 600-mi. range and a top speed of about Mach 0.9.

1954 - On May 24, a U.S. Viking research rocket reached an altitude record of 158 mi. for single-stage rockets.  Between May 1949 and December 1956, 13 of the 10,000-lb. Vikings were launched.  Eight reached altitudes of over 100 mi. and speeds of about 5,000 mph.

1955 - On July 29, President Eisenhower announced that the United States would launch a number of small, unmanned satellites as part of the country's contribution to the International Geophysical Year (IGY), which extends from July 1, 1957, to Dec. 31, 1958.  The Soviet Union later stated it, too, would send up satellites as part of the program.

The U.S. Army launched a three-stage research rocket, consisting of a Redstone first stage, a cluster of four Sergeant rockets as the second stage, and a single Sergeant as the third stage from Cape Canaveral, Florida.  The third-stage Sergeant reached an altitude of 400-600 mi.  The Soviet Union was reported to be testing intermediate-range ballistics missiles on a regular schedule of about five a month.

1957 - On June 11, the first launch was attempted, however, just four months prior to the launching of the Sputnik I.  Unfortunately, the first Atlas launch ended with the missile exploding at 10,000 feet.

In May, the first flight test of a Russian ICBM, capable of a range of 5,000 mi. was reported.  In the United States, Boeing Aircraft Company was awarded a production contract for the Bomarc interceptor missile.  This surface-to-air missile weighs about 15,000 lb., is about 47 ft. long, and 3 ft. in diameter.  It has a wingspan of slightly more than 18 ft., a range of about 250 mi., and a top speed of Mach 3.  Two Marquardt ramjet engines power it.

On June 11, the first test firing of the U.S. Atlas ICBM ended after a flight of only 20-30 sec.  The missile was destroyed from the ground because of engine malfunction.

In August, the shark surface-to-surface aerodynamic cruise missile became the first U.S. intercontinental missile to go into full production.  It has a range of 5,000 miles, a top speed of about Mach 0.94, and a weight of 35,000 lb.  It is, basically, an unmanned turbojet airplane.  The Soviet Union announced it had successfully fired a multi-stage ICBM over a "huge distance" and that the missile landed "in the target area."


On October 4, the Soviet Union launched Sputnik I, the first artificial satellite to be placed in orbit around the earth.

On October 20-22, the U.S. Air Force Far Side project, a series of tests in which rockets were launched from balloon platforms, succeeded in sending one vehicle to an altitude of 4,000 miles.  The four-stage rocket is 23 ft. long.  The first stage consists of four Thiokol rockets; the second stage of one Thiokol rocket; the third stage of four Arrow-II rockets, and the fourth stage of one Arrow-II.  The fourth stage alone reached the maximum altitude, the other stages dropping away after firing.  The complete vehicle weighed 1,900 lb. and attained a top speed of 17,000 mph.  The balloon reaches an altitude of 23 mi. before the first stage is fired.

On October 28, four Rascal air-to-surface missiles launched from B-47 jet bombers scored direct hits on targets 100 miles away.  In November, the Rascal became operational with the Strategic Air Command.

On November 3, the second Soviet earth satellite was launched.  It reportedly carried a dog and reached a maximum orbital altitude of about 1,000 mi.  Its weight was said to be about 1,120 lb.  Orbital velocity was about 17,850 mph.

On December 5, Research Projects Agency (ARPA) was created to direct space projects in the Defense Department.  ARPA later founded the ARPANet, which later became the Internet.

1958 - On January 10, a second Atlas test launch also ended in failure on September 25, 1957.   The Atlas rocket was successfully launched.

NASA absorbed the earlier National Advisory Committee for Aeronautics, as well as a number of research laboratories and other test facilities. 960

In June, the initial specifications were established for what was to become the Project Mercury manned spacecraft.

The seven original Mercury astronautsOn October 7, Project Mercury was approved which led to the first orbital flight by an American astronaut, John Glenn, in the "Friendship 7" spacecraft, about three years and four months later, on February 20, 1962.

On November 5, The Space Task Group was formed to implement a manned satellite program.

On November 26, the manned satellite program was officially designated as Project Mercury.

1959 - On April 7, the seven original Mercury astronauts were selected, having been culled from a total of 69 prospective candidates.  The seven original Mercury astronauts were Scott Carpenter, Gordon Cooper, John Glenn, Virgil "Gus" Grissom, Walter Schirra, Alan Shepard, and Donald "Deke" Slayton.


Ham, the first chimpanzee to go into outer space1961 – On January 31, a Redstone rocket launched a Mercury space vehicle from Cape Canaveral with Ham, a 37-pound chimpanzee, as its passenger in a suborbital flight.  Ham survived the flight in good shape, but when he was shown the space vehicle again later, made clear he wanted no part of it.

John Glenn, Virgil Grissom, and Alan Shepard in front of the Redstone rocketOn February 1, John Glenn, Virgil Grissom, and Alan Shepard were selected to train for the first manned space flight.

On April 12, the Soviet cosmonaut, Yuri Gagarin, became the first human to be launched into orbit around the earth aboard the Vostok I spacecraft.  The flight lasted 108 minutes, at an orbital speed of 27,400 kilometers per hour.  Unlike the Mercury spacecraft, the Vostok I's reentry was entirely controlled by onboard computers, with Gagarin more of a passenger than a pilot.  Gagarin also did not land in the Vostok I, but ejected and landed using a parachute.  Gagarin died in a plane crash in 1968 and never flew in space again.

On May 5, Alan Shepard made the first manned suborbital flight in the Freedom 7 spacecraft.  A Redstone booster rocket launched Shepard into sub orbit, with Shepard exercising manual control of the vehicle after separation from the booster.  The spacecraft reached an altitude of 116.5 miles and had a flight trajectory of 302 miles from Cape Canaveral.  The flight lasted a little over 15 minutes.  During the flight, Shepard experienced 5 minutes of weightlessness.  The spacecraft reached a top speed of 5,180 miles; Shepard experienced 6 Gs on launch and 12 Gs on reentry.

On May 25, President John F. Kennedy called for an accelerated program to land a man on the moon before the end of the decade achieving the goal, before this decade is out, of landing a man on the moon and returning him safely to the earth."

On July 21, Virgil Grissom became the second American to make a suborbital flight aboard the Liberty Bell 7 spacecraft.  Shepard close to that experienced the speed, height, and length of the flight.  After landing, however, the spacecraft sank and was lost in the Atlantic due to the premature activation of a hatch release.

On August 6, the Soviets launched the second man to orbit the earth, Gherman S. Titov, aboard the Vostok II spacecraft.

On September 13, the un-manned Mercury spacecraft was successfully launched into orbit with a mechanically simulated pilot on board.  The Atlas booster, which had a series of earlier launch failures, performed well.  After launched into orbit, the mission, scheduled for three orbits, was cut short after two orbits due to minor problems with the roll reaction jet and electrical system.

1962 - On February 20, astronaut John Glenn became the first American to be launched into orbit by an Atlas rocket booster aboard the Friendship 7 spacecraft, with some 60 million persons watching live on television.  Glenn’s three-orbit flight lasted 4 hours and 55 minutes.  Glenn’s flight was not without problems.

On August 11, Andrian Nikolayev was launched into orbit aboard the Vostok III, and on August 12, Pavel Popovich joined him in orbit aboard the Vostok IV. In orbit, the two spacecrafts achieved a near-rendezvous.

On October 3, Walter Schirra was launched aboard the Sigma 7 spacecraft on a six-orbit flight.  Schirra's flight transpired without any problems.  After a flight of over nine hours, Schirra's spacecraft landed only 9,000 yards away from the primary recovery ship.

On November 4 Enos, the first chimpanzee to orbit the earth, died from causes unrelated to his orbital flight.

1963 - On May 15, Gordon Cooper was launched aboard the Faith 7 spacecraft on a 22-orbit flight.  During the flight, Cooper became the first person to launch a satellite, a flashing beacon, from orbit.  An attempt to deploy a balloon failed.  Cooper also spent three of his 22 orbits sleeping.

On June 12, James E. Webb, NASA Administrator, announced that there would be no more Project Mercury flights, scrubbing one final flight that had been planned.

1966 – There were 11 manned Gemini missions between March of 1965 and November of 1966.  On the second Gemini mission, Edward White II became the first American to perform a space walk outside of his spacecraft.

1969 – There were 4 manned Apollo missions before Apollo 11 was launched on July 16, 1969, on its way to landing the first men, Neil Armstrong and Edwin Aldrin, on the moon (Michael Collins remained in orbit in the command module.)