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The American space program has its roots in the Intermediate Range and Intercontinental Ballistic Missile programs that emerged after World War II as the military sought to launch larger and heavier payloads into space using rockets. Indeed, many of the earliest launchers, such as Atlas, Titan, and Thor, originated as IRBMs and ICBMs.

In the 1950s, the Eisenhower administration’s first priority was the development of the Utility-2 (U-2) aircraft for reconnaissance missions over the Soviet Union. Even though such flights were blatantly in violation of international treaties, the pilots were in no danger because the Soviet Union did not yet possess the technology to shoot them down. After a U-2 was downed in 1960, it became clear that satellites and space exploration would be the only way to open up the Soviet Union.

By the mid-1950s, the United States had the technology to send a satellite into Earth’s orbit, and fully intended to by the end of the century; however, the1957 launch of the Soviet satellite Sputnik, which was nothing more than a beeping metal ball, beat the United States. Within the next year and a half, after numerous failures caused by careless mistakes such as dragging a fuel hose through sand, the American Explorer 1 reached orbit, followed by Vanguard. Numerous failures with Discoverer satellites brought on international ridicule as the United States failed in the open, while the Soviet Union concealed all activities that did not succeed.

NASA, the National Aeronautics and Space Administration, was born in the summer of 1958. This civilian agency slowly took over the roles previously played by the armed forces, reinforcing the United States' claim that it sought to preserve space for peaceful activities.

Eisenhower refused to buy into the hype of the space race. He was not flustered by the launch of Sputnik and was committed to a program of affordable scientific development. When the budget for a lunar landing by 1975 was calculated to be about $40 billion, Eisenhower declined to pursue the matter. In the 1960 election, the Democratic Party candidate John F. Kennedy campaigned and was elected on a platform of closing the (at that point imaginary) missile gap and taking the lead in the space race. He immediately boosted NASA’s budget and committed to the development of the more powerful Saturn booster.

On April 12, 1961, the Soviet Union again achieved a major first when Yuri Gagarin became the first man in space. Less than a month later, on May 5, Alan Shepard became the first American in space, riding a Mercury satellite. On May 25, Kennedy committed the United States to a manned lunar landing by the end of the decade, knowing that a longer commitment would never live to be fulfilled.

John Glenn orbited the Earth in February 1962 and instantly became a national hero. He was given the honor of addressing a joint session of Congress, and was then buried in nearly 3,500 tons of “stuff” in the ticker-tape parade he received in New York, shattering the record of 3,249 tons set in 1951 for General Douglass MacArthur.

The Gemini 4 mission in June 1965 featured the first American spacewalk by Edward White (the first spacewalk had been achieved by cosmonaut Alexei Leonov). Disaster struck in 1967 when the oxygen-filled cockpit of Apollo 1 ignited, killing its three-man crew, including Ed White; however, Apollo 7 launched perfectly, and, on December 21, 1968, Apollo 8 headed to the Moon.

Apollo 11 was launched on July 16, 1969. It successfully delivered its crew to the moon and Neil Armstrong and Buzz Aldrin became the first humans ever to set foot on the lunar surface.

As the Apollo program ended in 1970, NASA sought to continue its manned space program with the development of the Space Shuttle, a reusable spacecraft that could be used by the military and rented to other states to deposed payloads into orbit. Although the program was approved, NASA’s budget began to be reined in. With the support of President Nixon behind the shuttle, the Office of Management and Budget relented a little, and NASA's costs for this project were allowed to be above the previously stated limit of $1 billion.

The space station Skylab went into orbit in May 1973. On its way, its thermal shield was ripped loose, it lost a major solar panel, and a second solar panel was jammed. The crew managed to repair some of the damage and stayed in orbit for 28 days. A second crew stayed for 59 days, and a third for 84; unfortunately, despite Skylab’s success, it would have no immediate follow-up.

During this time, NASA was also sending probes to other planets. Mariner 2 flew by Venus in 1961, and Mariner 4, 6, 7, and 9 all flew by Mars between 1964 and 1971. Viking, in the mid-1970s, actually landed on the surface of Mars.

Ronald Reagan was president during the 1980s, and his primary interest in space was for military uses; indeed, his ambitious “Star Wars” program probably would have violated the Antiballistic Missile treaty of 1972 had it actually been carried out; however, the most memorable space event that occurred was the tragic Challenger disaster of January 28, 1986. The explosion was caused by a faulty O-Ring, and NASA officials blamed the pressure put on them by an inflexible schedule for letting it go unfixed. Already the tide had been turning back to favor one-time-use spacecraft. Although the shuttles will continue to be used until 2010, after Challenger, it was on a must less regular basis.

Since the end of the Cold War, the American and Russian space programs have cooperated numerous times. A most memorable occasion followed a 1993 agreement to use the American shuttles in conjunction with the Russian space station Mir. A series of joint missions followed. Their success led to the cooperative building and launching of the successor to Mir.

American-Soviet cooperation has continued into the 21st century. Through joint missions, both programs have survived budget cuts and continued successful manned missions.