Beating the Americans again, the Soviets sent the first human into space. 5

from book

Even with the recruitment of the Mercury Seven, the first tests were not made with humans, but with animals. The first primate to fly on a Mercury flight was Sam, a rhesus macaque, who flew 53 miles up on December 4, 1959, to test the capsule’s emergency escape system. He was safely recovered from the Pacific Ocean. The last nonhuman Mercury mission flew on November 29, 1961, when a chimpanzee named Enos successfully spent three hours in space, also surviving. By the time Enos’s Mercury capsule splashed into the ocean, however, the USSR had achieved something even more remarkable.  On April 12, 1961, Soviet air force lieutenant Yuri Gagarin blasted off from the steppes of southern Kazakhstan. In his spacecraft, Vostok 1, Gagarin traveled past Earth’s atmosphere and orbited the planet for one full revolution – a huge accomplishment, given that early Mercury missions were aiming for suborbital spaceflight.  The news devastated NASA, and was another cultural victory for the USSR, confirming its superior position in the space race.  Even so, Project Mercury kept plugging away, and on May 5, 1961, Alan Shepard – disappointed that Gagarin had beaten him to it – became the second human being to reach space. His mission, named Mercury-Redstone 7 (MR-7), reached a height of 116 miles, lasted 15 minutes and was a complete success. Broadcast live on television to 45 million Americans, MR-7 ignited a public passion for space exploration and soothed damaged American egos. There would be five more manned Mercury missions over the next two years – all successful, a testament to NASA’s rigorous culture of safety and reliability. But after MR-7 touched down, NASA and the American nation immediately set their sights higher.   Just three weeks after Alan Shepard’s mission, then-President Kennedy announced to Congress that he believed the US should commit itself to setting a man on the moon by the end of the decade. This was a monumental task, requiring the design and development of far more advanced rockets and spacecraft, new factories and transportation methods, and an army of new experts to overcome a laundry list of problems. But there was mass public and political support for the project, and in 1962 Congress approved a staggering $1.62-billion-dollar budget for NASA.    But NASA simply didn’t yet have the knowledge, technology or expertise for a moon landing. In order to achieve that, a crucial bridging project would be required. This was called Project Gemini.