Sigma and Faith

Carpenter's re-entry problems turned the emphasis of Walter Schirra's Sigma 7 mission back to engineering. During six orbits of the Earth on 3 October, much of the time was spent testing the automatic control systems. Schirra also tested elastic devices for exercise in space, attempted to steer his capsule by the stars, and made the first live TV broadcast from space. Re-entry this time was perfect, and Sigma 7 splashed down in the Pacific Ocean.

The last Mercury mission, piloted by Gordon Cooper, was also by far the longest - 22 orbits over a period of 34 hours. The capsule, Faith 7, needed modification to support an astronaut for this long, and so launch did not take place until 15 May 1963. During his flight, Cooper was occupied with a range of experiments, including the release and tracking of a strobing microsatellite from the capsule. He also studied the Earth from orbit - his reports of seeing individual roads and houses on the ground below made some on the ground think he was suffering from hallucinations, but they ultimately paved the way for the modern science of remote sensing.

Following Cooper's successful Pacific splashdown, some at NASA pushed for a three-day Mercury mission. But it was time to move on. In May 1961, the President had given NASA a new and exciting goal - they were going to the Moon.

15 March 1962

Scott Carpenter is moved up the Mercury flight roster to replace Deke Slayton on the second orbital Mercury mission, after the discovery that Slayton has a minor heart defect.

24 May 1962

Carpenter and Aurora 7 launch on time at 07:45. During the mission, the spacecraft uses more manoeuvring fuel than expected, and as a result splashes down 400km (250 miles) off target. Carpenter has to board his life raft and wait several hours for rescue.

3 October 1962

Walter Schirra's six-orbit flight aboard Sigma 7 is completed without a hitch.

14 May 1963

The scheduled launch of Gordon Cooper's Faith 7 is postponed due to a problem at a radar tracking station.

15 May 1963

Faith 7 launches successfully. Cooper completes 22 orbits of the Earth and successfully deploys a tethered balloon for studying conditions around the Earth.

21 May 1963

The end of the Mercury programme is marked by a White House reception at which the astronauts and other key project personnel are honoured by President Kennedy.


The first of NASA's giant Saturn V rockets stands ready to launch the Apollo 4 test mission. Within two years similar rockets would launch men all the way to the Moon.


THROUGHOUT THE 1960S, the Space Race became an outlet for all the Cold War rivalries that threatened to spill over into open conflict on Earth. Fully aware that the perception of Soviet superiority in space would have political repercussions around the globe, America's new, young President galvanized his nation with what seemed an insanely ambitious goal - to put American astronauts on the Moon by the end of the decade.

The challenge of a lunar landing was the endgame of the entire Space Race - the target lay at the very limits of 1960s technology, stretching the ingenuity and engineering skill of each side, while remaining tantalizingly achievable. Through the early stages, the rival powers continued an open race to each new spectacular, but cracks were starting to appear in the Soviet programme, and their lunar effort eventually fell apart in almost total secrecy. John F. Kennedy would not survive to see it, but America would live up to his challenge and eventually emerge as the ultimate victor in the Space Race.

20 January 1961

John F. Kennedy is inaugurated as President of the United States.

14 February 1961

James E. Webb is appointed as new NASA Administrator.

12 April 1961

Cosmonaut Yuri Gagarin makes his historic first flight into orbit.

14 April 1961

A meeting of top officials tells Kennedy that NASA's best chance of catching the Soviets is in the race to the Moon.

8 May 1961

Vice President Lyndon Johnson formally delivers to the President a set of recommendations on America's future in space, based on his discussions with Webb and others.

Kennedy's challenge

With America soundly beaten in the early stages of the Space Race, in 1961 President Kennedy announced an ambitious programme to overtake the Soviet Union and land the first man on the Moon.

10 May 1961

Kennedy and his senior advisers ratify Johnson's recommendations.

25 May 1961

President Kennedy announces America's lunar ambitions in a speech to Congress.


John F. Kennedy owed his presidency in part to the Space Race - he had turned early Soviet triumphs to his advantage, accusing Eisenhower's administration of complacency. His inauguration coincided with the arrival of a new administrator at NASA. In February 1961, James E. Webb took charge of both the agency and the Mercury programme. Hugh Dryden, former head of NACA, remained as his deputy. In addition, one of Kennedy's first acts as President was to establish a National Space Council, headed by Vice President Lyndon Baines Johnson.

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