A manned satellite project

In March 1956, the United States Air Force (USAF) initiated Project 7969, entitled "Manned Ballistic Rocket Research System", a staged programme to develop a small recoverable capsule from orbit that would lead to a larger, manned capsule recovery. In addition to the USAF, other proposals for manned space missions came from the US Army and US Navy, the National Advisory Committee for Aeronautics (NACA) and a number of aerospace companies. Existing ballistic missiles, converted to carry a human payload with adequate safety and escape methods, were proposed as the safest and quickest way to place an American in space, rather than the more complicated and longer-range proposals of manned rocket research aircraft (such as the X-15 or X-20) or lifting body technology then under development.

During the period 1956-8, USAF efforts in manned orbital space flight were in study projects rather than a designated or approved programme, although they did generate submissions from several aerospace companies concerning the design of the spacecraft, its subsystems and infrastructure that had direct implications for the eventual pioneering manned American spacecraft. In comparable studies, NACA had been working on the problems of orbital space flight and recovery since early 1952. This work was focused into one civilian space agency as a result of Senate Resolution 25, dated 6 February 1958, for a "Special Committee on Space and Astronautics to form legislation on a national program for space exploration." The National Aeronautics and Space Act of 1958 was signed by President Eisenhower on 29 July and led to the activation, on 1 October, of the National Aeronautics and Space Administration (NASA). They would be responsible for the management and development of non-military space activities, including the manned satellite project. Presentations on this project were made to Dr. Keith T. Glennan, the first NASA administrator, seven days into the activities of the new space agency, and approval of the project was driven by Glennan's desire to "get on with it."2

On the other side of the world, a different approach was being followed to place a citizen of the Soviet Union into space. Early designs for the human exploration of space were proposed in the pioneering theoretical studies of the "Father of Cosmonautics'', Konstantin Tsiolkovsky, in the early years of the twentieth century. In the 1930s, Sergey Korolyov became involved in early developments of Soviet rocketry with GIRD (Gruppa Isutcheniya Reaktivnovo Dvisheniya - the Group for Investigation of Reactive Motion) as well as Scientific Research Institute NII-3, and in 1946 was appointed Chief Designer of bureau OKB-1 (Opytnoe Konstructorskoe Byuro -Experimental Design Bureau). Years later, he was the driving force behind what evolved into the Soviet space programme in the 1950s and 1960s, responsible for the development of the programme and the many space firsts the Soviets achieved between 1957 and 1966. Studies into launching a Soviet citizen into space, though sub-orbital, were conducted during 1945-8 under the guidance of Mikhail Tikhon-ravov, using a series of manned vertical rocket flights to explore the upper atmosphere. The following year, Korolyov worked with medical specialists in the Air Force Institute of Aviation Medicine to launch dogs into space, a programme he considered to be a stepping stone for placing humans in orbit. Alongside the biomedical studies on both canines and Air Force test subjects came developments in Soviet rocketry and the creation of a suitable launch site. The development of the launch site (and the R-7 ICBM as a potential manned launch vehicle) shortened the programme of vertical flights and brought manned space flights forward to earlier than the 1964-6 estimate.3

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