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Deeply entrenched in the Cold War of the United States and the U.S.S.R., the National Aeronautics and Space Administration (NASA) was established in 1958 as America’s response to Russia’s developing space program and to try to gain an upper hand in the Space Race and the race to the moon. The perceived national threat from the Soviet Union, who beat the U.S. into space with the first artificial satellite, Sputnik, in 1957, drove both U.S. Presidents Dwight D. Eisenhower and John F. Kennedy to pressure the newly formed NASA to catch and surpass the Soviet program. The late 1950s and early 1960s was the dawn of NASA’s manned and unmanned missions to the outer limits of the atmosphere and journey into space where scientific exploration was in its infancy. Tapping the resources of the United States Army, Navy and Air Force for the best and the brightest pilots in the world, NASA was quickly able to develop the technology and understanding of both the vehicles and the aviators and the limitations of each. Seven “astronauts”, Alan Shepard, “Gus” Grissom, John Glenn, Scott Carpenter, Wally Shirra, Jr., Gordon Cooper and “Deke” Slayton, were chosen to be the first men to reach space in the inaugural Mercury missions of NASA. (The 1979 Tom Wolfe book and subsequent 1983 film adaptation The Right Stuff chronicled the seven astronauts rise to fame and hero status, as well as introduced the world to the life of these former test pilots and their contemporaries like Chuck Yeager.)
One month before Alan Shepard became the first American to reach space on May 5, 1961 in Mercury-Redstone 3 Freedom 7, Russian cosmonaut Yuri Gargarin became the first person in space when he orbited the Earth on April 12, 1961 aboard the Russian spacecraft Vostok 1. John Glenn became the first American to orbit the Earth, nearly a year later, on February 20, 1962 aboard Mercury’s Friendship 7. In the coming years, NASA launched more Mercury missions. They also created the Gemini program, designed to enhance those practices learned from Mercury, and most notably the Apollo program, with a goal of finally taking man to the moon. On May 25, 1961, President Kennedy submitted to Congress that America’s goal of “landing a man on the Moon and returning him safely to Earth” was a priority by the end of the decade. With only months to spare, Apollo 11 accomplished the mission on July 20, 1969 as astronauts Neil Armstrong and Buzz Aldrin became the first and second persons to step foot on the lunar surface. (Astronaut Michael Collins remained aboard in lunar orbit.) “That’s one small step for man, one giant leap for mankind,” uttered by Armstrong with his first step onto the surface of the moon became, possibly, the most recognizable quotes in the American history. Several more Apollo missions would follow; the final, Apollo 17, marked the last time a human being stepped foot on the moon.
The race for space between the United States and the Soviet Union is riddled with firsts: Yuri Garagin – first man in space; Neil Armstrong - first man on the moon; Valentina Tereshkova – first woman in space, and so on. However, after the United States development of the Space Shuttle program in the 1970s, the competition turned into collaboration, where research and technological advancement, i.e. the releasing of satellites, became top priority. For many years, Americans and Russians, as well as numerous other space travelers, sat side by side on missions to understand space and created the International Space Station in 1998. The space station was created as a research laboratory in space. Unfortunately, NASA’s success was not without numerous failures, most notably the cabin fire on Apollo 1 that killed all three astronauts, Gus Grissom, Edward H. White and Roger B. Chaffee, during a launch pad test (the first real tragedy of the space race), the explosion of the Space Shuttle Challenger just 73 second after liftoff on January 28, 1986 and the destruction of the Space Shuttle Columbia upon re-entry into the atmosphere on February 1, 2003. The Space Shuttle program ended in 2011, but the legacy of astronauts and cosmonauts from NASA and all of its programs will continue to inspire and encourage more exploration into space. Like it or not, astronauts are considered heroes and their autographs remain extremely sought after, especially those of the “firsts.” Autographs from Gargarin, Armstrong, Aldrin, Shepard and Sally Ride – the first American woman to orbit the Earth -- as well as those lost in NASA disasters, are relics of the time when the entire world was first introduced to the endless possibilities of space and the pursuit of the next frontier was just beginning.