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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.

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.