The Space Age

On June 24, 1961, the public learned of President John Kennedy‘s letter assigning Vice President Lyndon Johnson the high priority task of unifying the U.S. satellite programs. Twenty-two years later, on the same day, astronaut Sally Ride landed at Edwards Air Force Base aboard the 100-ton space shuttle Challenger, completing her voyage as the first American woman in space. These two events evidence the nation’s leap from an age of earth-bound methods of communication and travel into the space age.

I will appreciate your having the Space Council undertake to make the necessary studies…for bringing into optimum use at the earliest practicable time operational communications satellites.

Letter to the Vice President on the Need for Developing Operational Communications SatellitesExternal. [released June 24, 1961, dated June 15, 1961] The American Presidency ProjectExternal.

John F. Kennedy, head-and-shoulders portrait, facing right. [between 1960 and 1970]. Prints & Photographs Division

On May 25, 1961, President Kennedy declared to a joint session of Congress his belief that the nation should commit itself to landing a man on the moon by the end of the decade. This mission was accomplished on July 20, 1969.

Development during and after WWII of the appropriate technology for large, liquid-fueled rockets made the space program possible. Rockets such as those tested at the White Sands Missile Range provided the power to boost both satellites and men into orbit. The U.S. Air Force Missile Test Center began operating at Cape Canaveral in 1949; the first U.S. earth satellite, Explorer I, was launched from the center in 1958.

After the Soviet Union launched the world’s first artificial satellite in 1957, Americans riveted their attention on the U.S. space program. As chairman of the National Aeronautics Space Council, Lyndon Johnson played a significant role in developing coherent policy for a program plagued by interagency rivalries, high turnover of top personnel, and expanding costs.

Under Johnson, the Space Council recommended that the National Aeronautics and Space Administration (NASA) provide policy coordination with all government agencies involved in space flight. NASA established its command and control center, the Manned Spacecraft Center (now known as the Lyndon B. Johnson Space Center), in Houston, in Johnson’s home state of Texas.

Aerial View Showing Sides 3 and 4 of Mobile Launcher One. Part of HAER FL-4, Mobile Launcher One, Kennedy Space Center, Titusville, Brevard County, FL. National Aeronautics and Space Administration, photographer, 1983. Historic American Buildings Survey/Historic American Engineering Record/Historic American Landscapes Survey. Prints & Photographs Division

The Mobile Launcher (ML) was an integral part of the Apollo Program. Its use shortened the time period between launches as assembly of the launcher and launch vehicle no longer had to take place on the launch pad. Apollo 11, the first manned landing on the moon, lifted off of ML-1.

The government’s policy approach was two pronged: 1) develop a system of unmanned satellites that would orbit the earth and provide global telecommunications; and 2) pursue manned and unmanned space exploration. To serve the former purpose, the Communications Satellite Corporation (COMSAT) was founded in 1962, and the International Telecommunications Satellite Organization (INTELSAT) in 1964. In 1965, INTELSAT oversaw the launch of Early Bird, the capacity of which was sufficient to provide either 240 voice circuits or one two-way television link between the U.S. and Europe, technology which came to impact people’s everyday lives.

NASA’s Mercury Program rapidly pursued space exploration by preparing a group of seven astronauts to go into outer space. On May 5, 1961, Alan B. Shepard Jr. flew sub-orbitally, and, on February 20, 1962, John Glenn orbited the earth.

Nighttime View of a Space Shuttle Launch from Kennedy Space Center. Don Browning, photographer, 2000. State Library and Archives of Florida. World Digital Library

In June 1963, Soviet astronaut Valentina Tereshkova became the first woman in space, but it was another twenty years before the American astronaut Sally Ride orbited Earth. Ride, who had received her PhD. in physics from Stanford University, was accepted for astronaut training in 1978. During her six-day mission aboard the Challenger (she launched from the Kennedy Space Center on June 18, 1983), Mission Specialist Ride helped launch two communications satellites and retrieve another. An expert in the use of the shuttle’s fifty-foot-long mechanical arm, the Remote Manipulator System (RMS), Ride also monitored the Challenger‘s instrument panel.

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Siam and the World Transportation Commission

On June 24, 1932, during the reign of King Prajadhipok of the Chakri dynasty, a coup ended the absolute monarchy of Siam (present-day Thailand). The military-dominated constitutional monarchy that replaced it brought 700 years of absolute rule under a series of Siamese kings to an end.

The Chakri dynasty had assumed power in 1782, at which time the king, Rama I, established his capital, Bangkok, on the east bank of the Chao Phraya River. During his reign, the impressive city wall, the Grand Palace, and the Buddhist Temple, Wat Po, were constructed.

During the nineteenth century, the Thai kings became increasingly receptive to Western trade and influence, particularly under the reigns of King Mongkut (1851-68) and his son, King Chulalongkorn (1868-1910). By introducing social and political reforms recommended by their European advisers, they enabled Siam to avoid the colonial rule imposed on most of Southeast Asia.

Bangkok – Palace Court Interior. William Henry Jackson, photographer, 1895. World’s Transportation Commission. Prints & Photographs Division
Bangkok – Looking Up River or Canal. William Henry Jackson, photographer, 1895. World’s Transportation Commission. Prints & Photographs Division

During King Chulalongkorn’s reign, new public construction, which included traditional temples, palaces, public buildings, and a garden city beyond the city wall, transformed Bangkok. Elegant bridges and modern roads capable of accommodating the newly invented automobile supplemented these magnificent buildings. A modern railway system and an electric tram service were built and telegraph and postal services were established. Traditional shipping and canal systems already existed.

In 1898, the World’s Transportation Commission, a delegation of U.S. businessmen, traveled to Siam to explore possibilities of promoting American trade. They found an exotic, thriving city with a modern system of transportation already in place.

William Henry Jackson, the commission’s official photographer, captured the architecture, art, modes of transportation, and people of Siam. These photographs are available in the collection World’s Transportation Commission.

Bangkok – 2 Men on Sacred White Elephant;…. William Henry Jackson, photographer, 1895. World’s Transportation Commission. Prints & Photographs Division

The elephant is a national symbol of Thailand. White elephants, especially, are held to be sacred and a symbol of royal power. The World’s Transportation Commission encountered elephants during several stops on its tour. Search the collection on the term elephant to see more images of that pachyderm.

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