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NASA's first manned space flight program was the Mercury Project. This ambitious American initiative was launched in 1958, a year after the USSR had begun the space race with the launch of the Sputnik 1 satellite.
Testing the limits of the human body in space was one of the main objectives of space programs. To this end, robots and animals, such as Ham, the chimpanzee in the Mercury Project, or the famous dog Laika, were sent to Sputnik 2. Although Ham returned to Earth and enjoyed a comfortable retirement at the Washington National Zoo DC, Laika died aboard Sputnik 2 in 1957, being the first animal to die in orbit.
The first human beings in space
Soviet cosmonaut Yuri Gagarin became the first person in space when he orbited Earth aboard the Vostok spacecraft on April 12, 1961.
About a month later, Alan Shepard Jr. became the first American to travel to space. On May 5, 1961 he traveled aboard the Mercury-Redstone 3. His 15-minute flight, called "Freedom 7", was seen by some 45 million viewers.
Only a few weeks after Shepard's flight, President John F. Kennedy announced his intention to put a man on the moon at the end of the decade. The challenge marked the birth of NASA missions Gemini and Apollo. However, the Mercury Project still had achievements to achieve. In February 1962 John Glenn became the first American to orbit Earth on the Friendship 7 mission.
The launch of the Apollo manned missions precipitated a triumph of the United States over the USSR in the space race and was one of the most important milestones in the exploration of Space.
On July 20, 1969, Neil Armstrong and Edwin "Buzz" Aldrin became the first people to reach the Moon, when they descended with the Lunar landing module in the Sea of Tranquility. Before the Apollo project ended in 1972, five other missions arrived on the Moon.
Only one of the missions failed, that of Apollo 13, which failed to reach its objective due to an explosion in the liquid oxygen tank, although the crew returned safely. From his adventure he later became a famous movie, "Apollo 13".
When the Apollo missions ended in 1972, the first era of human space exploration ended.
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