Competition to Become the First Man in Space
The competition to become the first man in space was an intense battle waged on two continents. While the United States and Soviet Union raced to put the first person in space, astronauts and cosmonauts competed intensely with each other. Ultimately, the selection came down to skill, luck and which program was ready to fly first.
In 1959, NASA introduced seven astronauts for the manned Mercury program. The Mercury Seven, drawn from the Air Force, Navy and Marines, included: Malcolm Scott Carpenter, Leroy G. "Gordo" Cooper, John Glenn, Virgil I. "Gus" Grissom, Walter ‘Wally" Schirra, Alan B. Shepard, Jr., and Donald K. "Deke" Slayton.
The following year, the Soviets selected 20 Air Force pilots to fly aboard single-seat Vostok spacecraft. The group was winnowed down to six cosmonauts: Valery Bykovskiy, Yuri Gagarin, Gregori Nelyubov, Andrian Nikolayev, Pavel Popovich and Gherman Titov.
The Mercury Seven and Vanguard Six underwent rigorous training, competing fiercely to become the first man in space. Meanwhile, engineers prepared their rockets and spacecraft.
As 1961 dawned, both countries were getting closer to sending the first person in space. Many in the American press believed that Glenn would be first. He was the most accessible and quotable of the astronauts, and he came across as a church-going, all-American hero.
In reality, NASA officials had selected Shepard to fly the first mission based on his performance during training and a peer vote of the astronauts. Grissom would take the next flight, with Glenn serving as backup for both missions. The decision was kept secret, leaving the impression that Glenn was still in the running to be the first person in space.
On the Soviet side, the competition came down to cosmonauts Gagarin and Titov. The program's chief designer, Sergei Korolev, favored Gagarin. Nikolai Kamanin, who headed up the training program, was impressed by both men and had a hard time deciding.
Yuri Gargarin (front) and Gherman Titov
On Jan. 31, 1961, NASA launched a Mercury-Redstone suborbital flight with a chimpanzee named Ham aboard. Both the rocket and spacecraft suffered serious malfunctions, and Ham nearly drowned in the leaking capsule before the U.S. Navy rescued him.
Shepard believed the problems were minor technical glitches that could be easily fixed. He was ready to become the first man in space on the next mission in late March. However, Wernher von Braun insisted upon another unmanned test flight of the Redstone rocket. The March 24 flight went perfectly, and Shepard's mission was scheduled for April 25.
Two days after Ham's flight, the Soviets sent a Vostok capsule with a dummy cosmonaut named Ivan Ivanovich into orbit. The flight went perfectly, with Ivanovich parachuting safely to Earth after a successful re-entry.
The path to space was clear. On April 12, Gagarin and Titov put on spacesuits and were bused to the launch site. Gagarin ascended the elevator and entered the Vostok capsule. Titov, who was physically stronger, would fly the more demanding, day-long second mission.
At 9:07 a.m., the R-7 rocket below him fired as Gagarin shouted, "Let's go." Within 10 minutes, Gagarin was safely in orbit as the first man in space. He completed a single orbit before landing safely.
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