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 Kirsten 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, June 24, 1961. The American Presidency Project.
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 of 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 Johnson Space Center), in Houston, in Johnson’s home state of Texas.
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.
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 use of the shuttle’s fifty-foot-long mechanical arm, the Remote Manipulator System (RMS), Ride also monitored the Challenger‘s instrument panel.
- Search Today in History on John Kennedy and Lyndon Johnson for more information on these presidents.
- Many images related to the development of rocketry and the space program appear in the digital collection Historic American Buildings Survey/Historic American Engineering Record/Historic American Landscapes Survey. Search on the terms mobile launcher and rocket to see available images.
- Until the late eighteenth century, both information and people traveled by land and sea. However, ascent in hot air balloons, the inventions of the telephone and telegraph, and the flight of the first airplanes and blimps all foreshadowed communication and exploration in the space age. Search Today in History for information on all of these inventions.
- Search on terms such as trains, planes, and automobiles as well as mail and telegraph in the pictorial collections to see additional images of pre-space-age communication and transportation modes.
- View other images of Sally Ride and of space exploration through the image galleries and image library on the National Aeronautics and Space Administration (NASA) website.
- See the online exhibition Revelations from the Russian Archives, which illustrates both the domestic and the foreign policy of the Soviets and is a source of primary materials which may help us better understand the history of the twentieth century. The documents presented cover Soviet history from the October Revolution of 1917 to the failed coup of August 1991.