• The Mercury spacecraft was the first U.S. spaceship. It was a cone-shaped, one-man capsule with a cylinder mounted on top. Courtesy of the Indiana Department of Natural Resources, Division of State Parks and Reservoirs.

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    Mercury spacecraft model
    • Date
    • 1961
    • Description
    • Mercury spacecraft, NASA-McDonnell
    • Partner
    • Indiana Memory
    • Contributing Institution
    • Indiana Department of Natural Resources, Division of State Parks and Reservoirs

  • "Allow me to express to the people of the United States and to you [President Kennedy] personally gratitude for congratulations on the occasion of the unprecedented exploit of the Soviet people—the successful launching of the first being into space." Telegram from Nikita Knrushchev to President John F. Kennedy, April 30, 1961. Courtesy of the National Archives and Records Administration.

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    Telegram, Khrushchev to Kennedy re: Yuri Gagarin April 30, 1961
    • Creator
    • President (1961-1963 : Kennedy). Office of the Personal Secretary. 1961-1963.
    • Description
    • This is a Department of State translation of a telegram from Nikita Khrushchev to President Kennedy thanking him for his congratulations on the successful flight of Yuri Gagarin, and expressing hope the U.S. and USSR may work together in mastering th... more
      This is a Department of State translation of a telegram from Nikita Khrushchev to President Kennedy thanking him for his congratulations on the successful flight of Yuri Gagarin, and expressing hope the U.S. and USSR may work together in mastering the universe. April 30, 1961. less
    • Rights
    • Unrestricted.
    • Partner
    • National Archives and Records Administration
    • Contributing Institution
    • John F. Kennedy Library

  • Senator Warren G. Magnuson with John Glenn and crowd viewing Friendship 7 space capsule at Century 21 World's Fair Exposition, Seattle, Washington, 1962. Courtesy of the University of Washington. 

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    Senator Warren G. Magnuson with John Glenn and crowd viewing Friendship 7 space capsule at Century 21 World's Fair Exposition, Seattle, Washington, 1962
    • Description
    • PH Coll 638.1188
    • Rights
    • For information on permissions for use and reproductions please visit UW Libraries Special Collections Use Permissions page: http://www.lib.washington.edu/specialcollections/services/permission-for-use
    • Partner
    • University of Washington

  • On September 9, 1959, NASA launched this unoccupied Mercury spacecraft from Cape Canaveral, Florida, on a suborbital flight that lasted 13 minutes. Its launch was the second in the Mercury program and the first using an Atlas booster. The flight helped NASA evaluate the booster, the new ablative heat shield, the capsule's flight dynamics and aerodynamic shape, and spacecraft recovery systems and procedures. Courtesy of the National Air and Space Museum, Smithsonian Institution.

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    Capsule, Mercury
    • Description
    • On September 9, 1959, NASA launched this unoccupied Mercury spacecraft from Cape Canaveral, Florida, on a suborbital flight that lasted 13 minutes. Its launch was the second in the Mercury program and the first using an Atlas booster. The flight help... more
      On September 9, 1959, NASA launched this unoccupied Mercury spacecraft from Cape Canaveral, Florida, on a suborbital flight that lasted 13 minutes. Its launch was the second in the Mercury program and the first using an Atlas booster. The flight helped NASA evaluate the booster, the new ablative heat shield, the capsule's flight dynamics and aerodynamic shape, and spacecraft recovery systems and procedures. The heavily instrumented "Big Joe" was the most massive American spacecraft launched up to that time. It weighed about as much as a manned version would, and its success paved the way for the beginning of manned Mercury launches in 1961. Mercury Capsule. less
    • Rights
    • Transferred from the National Aeronautics and Space Administration. Do not reproduce without permission from the Smithsonian Institution, National Air and Space Museum.
    • Partner
    • Smithsonian Institution
    • Contributing Institution
    • National Air and Space Museum

Throughout the 1950s and 60s, the United States was locked in competition with its Cold War rival, the Soviet Union (USSR), to prove supremacy through space travel. Along with the heated nuclear arms race, the space race became a way for each country to prove their technological prowess. It had its roots in ideology too, as both Cold War powers tried to prove the strength of their nation’s economy and politics through the success of their space programs.

The NASA Mercury space programs began in 1958 and were the first manned space flights, introducing the American public to its first astronauts. Project Mercury made six flights with astronauts aboard between 1961 and 1963 with the goal of determining capabilities for sending humans into space, as well as orbiting a manned craft around the Earth.

After being the first to launch a satellite into orbit in October 1957, the USSR advanced ahead of the US and its Mercury program again with another space exploration milestone. On April 12, 1961, cosmonaut Yuri Gagarin was launched into orbit in the Vostok I, making him the first man in space. Three weeks after Gagarin orbited the Earth, the US sent Alan Shepard into space in the first Mercury flight, the Freedom 7. Shepard’s flight went perfectly but the US was still one step behind the USSR.

After two defeats by the Soviets, the US was desperate for a win, and the next critical milestone was sending a man to the Moon. Since neither country had the necessary rocket technology to achieve this goal yet, the US would not be starting at a disadvantage. It became President John F. Kennedy’s goal to land a man on the Moon by the end of the decade.