THE SPACE RACE
The Soviet Union leaped ahead first, with two Sputnik launches—the second of which carried Laika, a live dog. Laika survived for several days before her air supply ran out. The
Soviets then placed the first human into Earth orbit, on
12 April 1961. The spacecraft,
Vostok ("east"), was little more than a cabin in a cannonball, covered entirely by a heat shield. The cosmonaut, Yuri
Gagarin, sat in an ejection seat, which he activated to safely parachute back to Earth.
Ostensibly, the goal of
America's incipient space program, called Project Mercury, was to place astronauts into space, test their reactions and the spacecraft's maneuvering abilities, and return them safely to Earth.
The long-term goal, however, as proclaimed in no uncertain terms by President John F. Kennedy in May 1961, was to land a man on the Moon by the end of the decade. It was a bold challenge, not only to the Soviets, but to the American people and their science and technology.
In contrast to Russia's daring steps into space, the Mercury program proceeded more cautiously, testing the footing each step of the way. There were 25 flights in all, only some of which were piloted. To ensure the safety of spacecraft for humans, NASA, like Russia, placed several animals into orbit. In November 1961, a chimp named Enos rocketed into orbit and safely returned. This inhumane use of chimps and monkeys would continue into the Apollo program.