On the morning of October 5, 1957, with the Cold War in full swing, America awoke to unsettling news. The Soviets had successfully launched a 184-pound steel ball into orbit around Earth. Named Sputnik 1 and housing two basic radio transmitters, it was the first ever man-made satellite. The USSR had beaten its mortal enemy to space. This came as a nasty shock to the US, which had become accustomed to its own technological superiority. Worse still, during its orbit Sputnik passed directly over the US seven times a day. The space race was a culture war – with each side trying to prove the superiority of its own ideology – but it was also a national security threat. Just four weeks later, at Florida’s Cape Canaveral, a military missile-launch facility, the Americans responded with their own attempted satellite launch. Broadcast live on TV, the launch of the 70-foot rocket ended in an explosion as millions of viewers watched. The small satellite, perched atop the rocket, escaped the fireball and rolled into a row of bushes. The Americans were humbled – and they’d have to get used to the feeling: the USSR setting space records, and the US playing catch-up, would become a constant theme of the early space race. Early the next year, on January 31, 1958, the Americans did succeed in sending up their own satellite, Explorer 1. But this was quickly overshadowed by the Soviet launch of Sputnik 3 on May 15 – this 2,926-pound satellite was far larger, and had an array of advanced research equipment. This first half of 1958 was characterized by a flurry of American and Soviet satellite launches – or attempts anyway. There were at least five failed launches on the US side, and one in the USSR. But because the Kremlin never announced failed efforts, no one knew about these Soviet duds for decades. People on both sides of the Iron Curtain thought the USSR’s space program was disaster-proof. By the end of 1958, it was becoming increasingly clear to both sides what the next objective would be: send a human into space, and return him safely. Whichever side could pull this off first would score a huge propaganda victory. So, on December 17, 1958, the US announced a venture to do just that. And project Mercury, as it was called, would be run by the new civilian-led US space agency NASA, created just eight weeks before.