The Space Race
With the rise of the Cold War, the United States and the Soviet Union were locked in a battle to establish their military and technological superiority. Each raced to develop and launch artificial satellites and space probes. On October 4, 1957, the Soviet Union shocked the United States and the world by launching Sputnik 1, the first artificial satellite to orbit Earth. The United States responded with the launch of Explorer 1 on January 31, 1958, and the formation of NASA later that year. The race was on to send the first human into space.
NASA’s first spaceflight program, Project Mercury, selected seven test pilots from a pool of hundreds of potential astronauts. The Soviet Union once again beat the United States, sending the first man into space, Yuri Gagarin, on April 12, 1961. But the Americans were not far behind, a month later launching Alan Shepard into space. After Project Mercury came the Gemini Program, with missions that were longer and more complicated, followed by Project Apollo which put the first humans on the Moon. These mission names refer to the "heavens"—Mercury was the swift messenger of the gods, Gemini is the zodiac sign for the twins, chosen to reflect the program’s use of two astronauts for each mission, and Apollo is the mythological god who pulls the Sun in its course across the sky each day.
This was a prolific period of spaceflight for the Soviet Union and the United States. Being the first to land a man on the Moon was the ultimate prize. In 1962, President Kennedy delivered his famous "We choose to go to the Moon" speech at Rice Stadium in Houston. He inspired Americans with the words, "We choose to go to the Moon … not because [it] is easy, but because [it] is hard" and set a deadline for the end of the decade.