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Mercury Program | 1958-1963
Initiated in 1958 and completed in 1963, Project Mercury was the United States' first human spaceflight program. The objectives of the program, which made six crewed flights from 1961 to 1963, were:
The Mercury spacecraft was a cone-shaped one-man capsule with a cylinder mounted on top. It was 2 meters (6 ft, 10 in) long, 1.9 meters (6 ft, 2.5 in) in diameter, and a 5.8-meter (19 ft, 2 in) escape tower was fastened to the cylinder of the capsule. The blunt end was covered with an ablative heat shield to protect it against the 3,000 degree heat of entry into the atmosphere. The Mercury program used two launch vehicles: a Redstone for the suborbital and an Atlas for the four orbital flights. Prior to the crewed flights, uncrewed tests of the booster and the capsule were made carrying a chimpanzee.
See NASA's Project Mercury website for more information:
Apollo Program | 1966-1975
The Apollo program was designed to land humans on the moon and bring them safely back to Earth. Six of the missions (Apollos 11, 12, 14, 15, 16, and 17) achieved this goal. Apollos 7 and 9 were Earth-orbiting missions to test the command and lunar modules, and did not return lunar data. Apollos 8 and 10 tested various components while orbiting the moon and returned photography of the lunar surface. Apollo 13 did not land on the Moon due to a malfunction, but did return photographs. The six missions that landed on the moon returned a wealth of scientific data and almost 400 kilograms of lunar samples. Experiments included soil mechanics, meteoroids, seismic, heat flow, lunar ranging, magnetic fields, and solar wind experiments.
The Apollo spacecraft, including the command module (CM), service module (SM), and lunar module (LM), could accommodate a crew of three and was launched on a Saturn V rocket. The Saturn V launch vehicle itself consisted of three stages:
See the Smithsonian National Air & Space Museum web site for more information on the Apollo program and its missions:
Space Shuttle Program | 1981-2011
The space shuttle was the first reusable space vehicle developed by NASA in the 1970s. The space shuttle consisted of three major flight elements:
- The orbiter spacecraft, which could accommodate a crew of up to seven
- A large external tank, which held over 1.5 million pounds of liquid hydrogen and liquid oxygen for the orbiter's main engines
- Two solid rocket boosters, which provided most of the vehicle's thrust during the first two minutes of flight
Five orbiter flight vehicles were built (Columbia, Challenger, Discovery, Atlantis, and Endeavour) and flew a total of 135 missions between April 1981 and July 2011.
For more information see the NASA Space Shuttle interactive web site:
Project Gemini | 1964-1966
Project Gemini was an intermediate project between Project Mercury and the Apollo Program to develop and demonstrate capabilities needed for crewed missions to the moon. Objectives included:
The Gemini spacecraft was a larger version of the capsule used for Project Mercury and was launched using a Titan II rocket. Ten crewed missions were flown between March 1965 and November 1966. These missions developed the systems and procedures needed to make the Apollo Program a success. For more information see:
Skylab | 1973-1979
Skylab was the United States' first space station and consisted of three major elements:
- The orbital workshop which housed the crew quarters and a major experiment area
- The airlock module, attached to the forward end of the workshop, which enabled crew members to make excursions outside Skylab
- A docking adapter, attached to the forward end of the airlock module, that provided the docking port for the Apollo command and service module.
Skylab was designed to orbit 270 statute miles (235 nautical miles) above the Earth's surface where astronauts would conduct scientific observations in human adaptation/life sciences, human system design, solar astronomy, Earth resources, science, technology, and applications. A carefully planned series of biomedical and behavioral performance experiments were designed to evaluate crew's physiological responses and aptitudes in space under zero-gravity conditions and their post-mission adaptation to Earth's environment. Progressively longer missions were planned to determine the increments by which mission duration could safely be increased.
Three separate crews spent a total of 171 days onboard the Skylab space station between May 1973 and February 1974. Ten extravehicular activity (EVA) excursions (spacewalks) totaling more than 41 hours were also conducted during this period.
For more information on Skylab see:
X-15 | 1959-1968
Part of the X-plane series of experimental aircraft was flown during the 1960’s by the US Air Force and NASA and was the first operational spaceplane. The X-15 was designed to reach the edge of outer space and return data for use in further aircraft and spacecraft design.
The X-15 was carried aloft and drop launched from a B-52 mother ship. A hybrid vehicle, it had controls for aerodynamic flight as well as a reaction control system that used rocket thrusters. Features included heated windows to prevent icing and a forward headrest for periods of high deceleration.
See NASA's Armstrong X-15 fact sheet for more information:
Apollo Soyuz Test Project (ASTP) | 1975
The Apollo Soyuz Test Project was a joint U.S. and Soviet Union project to test the compatibility of rendezvous and docking systems and the possibility of an international space rescue. On July 15, 1975 the United States launched a Saturn IB rocket with a modified Apollo command and service module and three crew members onboard. The Apollo spacecraft rendezvoused and docked with a Soyuz spacecraft and its crew of two on July 17 and conducted joint operations for nearly two days before undocking and returning to Earth.
For more information on the Apollo Soyuz Test Project see:
Space Shuttle-Mir Program | 1973-1979
The Shuttle-Mir Program was a joint U.S. and Russian program to share resources and assets for the further development and advancement of human spaceflight and microgravity research. From February 1994 to June 1998 space shuttles made 11 flights to the Russian space station Mir, and American astronauts spent seven residencies onboard Mir. Space shuttles also conducted crew exchanges and delivered supplies and equipment to the Mir space station.
For more information on the Shuttle-Mir program see:
International Space Station | 1998-present
The International Space Station is a multi-nation microgravity research laboratory operating in low Earth orbit. The first element was launch in November 1998 (Russian Functional Cargo Block - FGB) and final assembly was completed in 2010. The International Space Station has been continuously occupied since November 2000 and in its present configuration can accommodate a crew of six. Approximately four crewed flights and four to six uncrewed cargo resupply flights to the International Space Station are required per year to support crewed operations onboard the station. The International Space Station continues to be a test bed and springboard for advancements in space exploration, enabling research and technology developments that will benefit human and robotic exploration of destinations beyond low Earth orbit, including asteroids and Mars.
For more information on the International Space Station see:
Voskhod | 1964-1966
Voskhod was the second Soviet spaceflight project, with only two manned flights in 1964-1965. Vokshod was simply a modified Vostok; able to carry up to 3 crew members. Some vehicle issues included:
The Voskhud was replaced by the new design Soyuz spacecraft, which is still in use today.
See the Voskhod entry on Astonautix.com for more info:
Mir Hardware Heritage, by David S. F. Portree, NASA Reference Publication 1357.
Mir Space Station | 1986-2001
Mir was a Soviet Union/Russian space station consisting of seven main elements/modules (Mir base block, Kvant I, Kvant II, Kristall, Spektr, Priroda, and docking module) which were launched separately and attached on orbit between 1986 and 1996. The station served as a microgravity research laboratory in which crews conducted experiments in biology, human biology, physics, astronomy, meteorology, and spacecraft systems with a goal of developing technologies required for permanent occupation of space. The station normally housed three crew members, but was capable of supporting as many as six for up to a month. After 15 years of operation the Mir space station was de-orbited and fell into the South Pacific Ocean on March 23, 2001.
For more information on the Mir space station see:
Vostok | 1960-1963
Vostok was the Soviet counterpart to the American Mercury project, with the goal of placing a human in low earth orbit and returning him safely to earth. The first human in space, Yuri Gagarin, launched on Vostok 1 on April 12, 1961. There were 8 total and 6 manned spaceflights in the program, which lasted from 1961 to 1963. The longest flight lasted nearly 5 days. The last 4 flights were also launched in pairs, only 1 day apart. The vehicle consisted of:
The Vostok was designed for an extremely rough reentry, and the cosmonaut would eject at approximately 7000 meters (23,000 ft) and finish descent via parachute separately from the descent module. This was the abort plan, which covered all phases except the first 40 seconds after liftoff. The Vostok was spherical and had heat protection on all surfaces due to its limited control capability. This design meant the astronaut experienced 8 to 9 g during reentry.
See the Vostok entry on Astonautix.com for more info:
Soyuz Program | 1967-present
The Soyuz (Union) series of spacecraft were designed by the Soviet Space Program in the 1960s, first flown in 1966, and the fourth generation are currently flying. Originally built as part of the Soviet Manned Lunar Program, today they are used as the launch vehicle for transportation to and from the International Space Station. The Soyuz spacecraft consists of three parts:
The orbital module, or habitation section
The reentry module, which returns the crew to earth
The service module, which contains the instruments and engines
The Soyuz carries up to 3 crew and will provide habitable conditions for 30 person days. The reentry module is protected by heat-resistant covering on the portion facing earth during reentry. Deceleration is by atmosphere, then a braking parachute, and finally a main parachute at landing. There are also solid fuel braking engines which fire at 1 meter above the ground. The Soyuz MS is the last planned upgrade to the series. Its maiden flight was July 2016; and upgrades included more efficient solar panels, better telemetry system, and a lighter and more fuel efficient approach and docking system.
See the Soyuz entry on Astonautix.com for more info:
SpaceShipTwo | 2010-present
Unveiled to the public in 2009, Virgin Galactic announced the first space program for tourists. If successful, Virgin Galactic plans to expand into providing commercial point-to-point travel via suborbital spaceflight.
Objectives of SpaceShipTwo are:
The SpaceShipTwo spaceplane will launch from the mother ship (WhiteKnightTwo) at an altitude of 15,000 meters (50,000 ft or 9.5 miles) and reach supersonic speeds within 8 seconds. After 70 seconds of rocket propulsion, the rocket engine will shut down and the spaceplane will glide to its expected apogee of approximately 110 kilometers (68 miles) in the lower thermosphere. The crew cabin is 3.7 meters (12 ft) long and 2.5 meters (75 ft) in diameter.
See the SpaceShipTwo entry on Virgin Galactic's website for more info:
SpaceShipOne | 2003-2004
SpaceShipOne is a three-place, high-altitude research rocket, designed for sub-orbital flights to 100 km altitude. The unique configuration allows aircraft-like qualities for boost, glide, and landing.
SpaceShipOne was designed to:
See the SpaceShipOne entry on the Scaled Composites wesite for more info:
Abort Guidance System
Auxiliary Power Unit
Abort to Orbit
Russian Micropurification Unit (Russian)
Carbon Dioxide Removal System
Colony Forming Unit
Control Moment Gyroscope
Cell Performance Monitor
Compound Specific Analyzer-Combustible Products
Extravehicular Mobility Unit
Electrical Power System
Fuel Cell Monitoring System
Functional Cargo Block (Russian)
Flight Safety Office
Galley Iodine Removal Assembly
Guidance, Navigation, and Control
General Purpose Computer
Global Positioning System
Inertial Measurement Unit
International Space Station
Internal Thermal Control System
Launch Control Officer
Low Iodine Residual System
Loss of Crew
Loss of Vehicle
Minimum Duration Flight
Master Events Controller
Main Landing Gear
Micro-Meteoroid Orbital Debris
Marshall Space Flight Center
NASA Standard Initiator
Office of Safety & Mission Assurance (NASA HQ)
Protuberance Air Load
Precision Approach Path Indicator
Primary Avionics Software System
Pyrotechnic Initiator Controller
Partial Pressure of CO2
Reaction Control System/Subsystem
Remote Manipulator System
Russia or Russian
Return to Launch Site
Safety & Mission Assurance
Solid Fuel Oxygen Generator
Solid Rocket Booster
Condensate Water Processor Unit (Russian)
Space Shuttle Main Engine
Space Shuttle Program
Thermal Protection System
Click an entry on the timeline below for more information.
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Space Shuttle 1981-2011
<-----Apollo Soyuz Test Project (ASTP) 1975
International Space Station 1998-present
Current as of 2016