The Pressure Mounts

On April 12, 1961, to the consternation of the United States, the USSR announced the successful placement of the first man in space. Cosmonaut Yuri Alexeyevich Gagarin (1934-68) successfully orbited the Earth one time aboard the Vostok 1 for an astonishing one hour and 48 minutes at an altitude of 187 miles (302 kilometers) and a speed of 18,000 miles (28,962 km) an hour. The next month, on May 5, the United States succeeded in sending astronaut Alan Shepard into the upper atmosphere aboard one of von Braun's modified Redstone rockets. Shepard became the first American in space, though his 15-minute flight—which never achieved Earth orbit— paled in comparison to the flight of the Vostok 1.

On May 25, 1961, an announcement came from President John F. Kennedy declaring that winning the space race was a national priority. One historic sentence stood out:

"I believe that this nation should commit itself to achieving the goal before this decade is out of landing a man on the Moon and returning him safely to Earth."

Those few words from President Kennedy generated $25 billion toward rocket research and made possible von Braun's vision of space travel and planetary exploration. Soon afterward, the Apollo space program was born. Included in the U.S. race for space was the Mercury program, established in 1958 with the goal of placing a man in orbit and returning him to Earth. Also included was the Gemini program, established in 1961 with the goal of exploring and developing humankind's capabilities to work in the environment of space.

Now the challenge was great. Landing the first man on the Moon was much different from the previous goal of merely a circumlunar mission, which did not involve a landing. While the Space Task Force team at Langley Research Center in Virginia was responsible for designing the capsule in which the astronauts would ride, it was von Braun and his team's responsibility to create a rocket powerful enough to propel the payload of a lunar lander and all that it necessitated into outer space. The U.S. Air Force had its Atlas rocket (which made it possible for astronaut John Glenn to become the first American to completely orbit the Earth on February 20, 1962), but the Atlas was not capable of enough thrust to escape Earth's gravity while pushing a fully loaded command module and a lunar module. The Saturn series rocket, or superbooster, was chosen for this task. Von Braun became the chief architect of what would become the Saturn V launch vehicle, the most massive rocket design ever imagined.

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