Project Mercury, which ran from 1961 to 1963, had the goal of determining whether humans could survive in space. Single astronauts were launched into space in the Mercury spacecraft on six missions and spent up to 34 hours in space (see How Project Mercury Worked and How Project Mercury Missions Worked).
Soon after astronaut Alan B. Shepard completed a 15-minute suborbital flight, President Kennedy committed NASA to sending a man to the moon and back before the end of the decade. Under the direction of then Vice President (later President) Lyndon B. Johnson, Congress appropriated funds and NASA expanded its programs to achieve President Kennedy's vision.
Project Gemini (1965-1966)
The Gemini spacecraft carried two astronauts and could maneuver in space. Over the course of 10 missions, astronauts changed orbits, rendezvoused with other spacecraft, docked with an unmanned Agena rocket, and walked and spent long periods of time in space.
Public domain image
Gemini II spacecraft on display at the Air Force Space and Missile Museum, Cape Canaveral Air Force Station, Florida
Upon completion of the Gemini program, NASA learned how to fly, live and work in space for the durations (around two weeks) necessary to send men to the moon and back.
Image courtesy JSC Digital Image Collection/ NASA
Astronaut Edwin E. Aldrin Jr., lunar module pilot, faces the camera as he walks on the moon during Apollo 11 extravehicular activity.
Project Apollo (1967-1972)
The Apollo spacecraft carried three men and consisted of a command module (crew quarters), service module (rocket motor, fuel cells, fuel tank, maneuvering rockets, science packages and life support), and a lunar module (a two-man, two-stage independent space vehicle for landing and lifting off from the lunar surface). Apollo's primary mission was to land men on the moon, explore it and return them safely to Earth.
Project Apollo started with a tragic fire that claimed the lives of three astronauts (Virgil Grissom, Edward White and Roger Chaffee) on the launch pad. The Apollo spacecraft was redesigned and tested in Earth orbit during Apollo 7. Apollo 8 took astronauts into lunar orbit, then Apollo missions 9 and 10 tested the lunar module in earth orbit and lunar orbit, respectively. Apollo 11 carried the first men (Neil Armstrong and Edwin "Buzz" Aldrin) to the lunar surface, while a third astronaut (Michael Collins) orbited the moon in the command module. Armstrong and Aldrin spent hours walking on the moon, and their mission fulfilled President Kennedy's challenge.
NASA sent six more missions to explore various places on the moon, where astronauts spent up to two days exploring the lunar surface and gathering samples of moon rocks. One mission, Apollo 13, did not make it to the moon because an explosion crippled the spacecraft en route. NASA showed its ability to handle a crisis as it improvised solutions to get the spacecraft around the moon and return the crew safely to Earth (Apollo 13 is often called a successful failure).
In the next section, we'll look at more accomplishments in NASA history.