On Oct. 4, 1957: the Soviet Union stunned the world with its launch of Sputnik 1, the first satellite. The space race was on. NASA was founded the following year with the intent of gaining the global edge in space, and Project Mercury was the first human spaceflight program of the United States. Its goal: Put a man in orbit around Earth.

  • Oct. 1, 1958: The National Aeronautics and Space Administration begins operation.
  • Oct. 11, 1958: Pioneer 1 is the first NASA launch from Cape Canaveral. The spacecraft is intended to reach the moon but doesn’t make it.
  • Dec. 18, 1958: An Air Force Atlas booster places into orbit a communications relay satellite, Project SCORE. On Dec. 19, President Eisenhower’s Christmas message is broadcast from this satellite, the first time a voice is beamed from space.
  • March 3, 1959: Pioneer 4 is sent to the moon, successfully making the first U.S. lunar flyby.
  • April 9, 1959: NASA introduces the Mercury astronauts: Scott Carpenter, Gordon Cooper, John Glenn, Gus Grissom, Walter Schirra, Alan Shepard and Donald Slayton. Today, Glenn and Carpenter are the last surviving members of the Mercury 7.
  • May 28, 1959: The United States launches two monkeys, Able and Baker, aboard a Jupiter missile and recovers them after a suborbital flight.
  • April 1, 1960: The United States launches TIROS 1, the first successful meteorological satellite, for monitoring Earth’s weather.
  • April 12, 1961: Russian cosmonaut Yuri Gagarin becomes the first man in space and the first to orbit Earth. He tells ground control, ‘The Earth is blue. How wonderful. It is amazing.’ This development prods NASA to accelerate its program.
  • May 5, 1961: Alan Shepard becomes the first American to fly in space, on the Freedom 7 suborbital shot from Cape Canaveral.
  • May 25, 1961: President Kennedy commits the United States and NASA to landing on the moon by the end of the decade.
  • Feb. 20, 1962: John Glenn becomes the first American to orbit Earth, making 3 orbits in his Friendship 7 Mercury spacecraft.


With the success of Mercury, the United States turned its attention toward gearing up for a mission to the moon. Gemini’s objective was to develop the techniques needed for deep-space exploration.

  •  Feb. 1, 1964: NASA completes its land acquisition on Merritt Island, totaling about 88,000 acres.
  • March 23, 1965: Astronauts Gus Grissom and Orlando’s John Young make the first Gemini flight with astronauts on board.
  • April 14, 1965: A topping-out ceremony is held on the roof of the 36-story Vehicle Assembly Building.
  • May 26, 1965: Kennedy Space Center headquarters opens.
  • June 3-7, 1965: The 2nd piloted Gemini mission, Gemini 4, stays aloft for 4 days. Astronaut Ed White performs the first American spacewalk.
  • July 14-15, 1965: Mariner 4 arrives at Mars and passes within 6,118 miles of the planet’s surface after an 8-month journey. This mission provides the first close-up images of the red planet.
  • Dec. 15, 1965: Gemini 6A and Gemini 7 achieve the first space rendezvous, coming within 0.3 meters of each other but never touching. The spacecraft stay in close proximity for 5 hours.
  • June 1966: The Surveyor spacecraft lands on the moon.
  • Nov. 11-15, 1966: The 12th and final flight of the Gemini program. Underwater training is introduced for spacewalk preparation. Astronauts mark Gemini’s finale by wearing signs on their backs: Alan Lovell’s reads ‘THE,’ Buzz Aldrin’s reads ‘END.’


The accomplishments of Apollo are among humankind’s greatest. Six missions land men on the moon between 1969 and 1972, the only time humans have ventured onto another celestial body. The program also is marred by NASA’s first tragedy on the ground (Apollo 1) and a near tragedy in space (Apollo 13).

  • Jan. 27, 1967: Three astronauts — Gus Grissom, Ed White and Roger Chaffee — die during a simulation aboard Apollo 1. A flash fire broke out in the capsule and flames engulfed it on the launchpad at Kennedy Space Center.
  • Nov. 9, 1967: The Saturn V — a 363-foot rocket capable of 6 million pounds of thrust — makes its maiden flight.
  • Dec. 21-27, 1968: Apollo 8, carrying a 3-man crew, circumnavigates the moon. It is the first manned spacecraft to leave the gravitational influence of Earth.
  • July 16-24, 1969: Apollo 11 launches. On July 20, it lands on the lunar surface. Astronauts Neil Armstrong and Buzz Aldrin walk on the moon.
  • April 11-17, 1970: About 56 hours into the flight of Apollo 13, the oxygen tank in the service module ruptures and damages several of the power, electrical, and life-support systems. The crew returns safely to Earth.
  • Feb. 5, 1971: Apollo 14 lands on the moon, commanded by Alan Shepard. He is the only astronaut from Project Mercury to reach the moon.
  • July 30, 1971: Apollo 15 lands on the moon. Astronauts stay for three days, exploring the surface with the first lunar rover.
  • Dec. 7-19, 1972: Apollo 17 is the last of the 6 Apollo missions to the moon.