There are key moments in spaceflight’s history that, in retrospect, defined the subsequent course of events. Take Yuri Gagarin’s orbital flight in 1961, for example.
When Gagarin became the first man in space, America responded with the manned lunar landing challenge, which led to the Apollo program. But what if Gagarin hadn’t been first? What if American astronaut Al Shepard became history’s first man in space? It’s an interesting question, one that conjures an alternate reality where we may not have gone to the moon at all.
The Space Age, and the Space Race, was in its infancy in 1959. And the two major players were more or less on par. Both the United States and the Soviet Union had launched satellites, were actively training astronauts and cosmonauts respectively, and neither was quite ready to launch a manned mission.
With little reason to suspect the pace of space exploration would soon go into overdrive, NASA was looking forward to a measured and deliberate plan to extend man’s reach into the cosmic ocean.
At the core of NASA’s prospective plan in space was gathering as much knowledge and experience about living and working in space. To this end, the agency hoped to develop and build new vehicles – both rockets and spacecraft – that could form the basis of a long term program to peacefully explore space. Of course, national prestige and preserving the United States’ role as a leader in space science and technology was also a priority, as was making the new technology available to the nation’s military for defense purposes. Understood in these widespread facets of spaceflight was the boon this endeavor would be to the nation’s economy.
In 1959, to realize these broader goals, NASA developed a rough mission timeline.
1960 was the year NASA hoped to work out the logistics of orbital flight by launching meteorological and communications satellites, things that could fail and still be a valuable learning experience. It was also the year NASA hoped to launch its first astronaut on a suborbital flight. The manned and unmanned launches would put the Thor-Delta, Atlas-Agena-B, and Scout vehicles through their paces, adding to NASA’s arsenal for later missions.
1961 and 1962 would build on 1960’s accomplishments with two important firsts: the first robotic flight to the Moon, and the first manned Earth orbital flight. The latter flight would realize the main goal of the Mercury program that was underway at the time.
Once the Mercury program was complete, NASA planned to take slow and steady steps in space; there was little indication that space exploration would turn into a race.