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Introduction to Space Exploration - Race To The Moon

earth flight orbit suborbital

It was a month later that the first American entered space. On May 5, 1961, Alan Shepard (1923–98) soared to an altitude of 116 miles in a spaceship named Freedom 7. He spent fifteen minutes and twenty-eight seconds in a suborbital flight. Suborbital means less than one orbit. In other words, a suborbital flight does not complete an entire circle around Earth. Shepard's flight was much shorter in distance and time than Gagarin's flight had been. A few months later the second cosmonaut in space, Gherman Titov (1935–2000), completed seventeen and a half orbits around Earth. NASA knew it would be a year or more before it could accomplish a similar feat.

The United States was tired of coming in second place. Because there was no way to beat the Soviets at the orbital space race, President Kennedy decided to start a new race—one where both sides would start even. His advisers recommended that the United States put a manned spacecraft in orbit around the Moon or even land a man on the Moon. Either one would require development of a huge new rocket to supply the lifting power needed to boost a spaceship out of Earth orbit. Neither the Soviets nor the Americans had such a rocket.

On May 25, 1961, President John F. Kennedy revealed his choice to the world in a speech called the "Special Message to the Congress on Urgent National Needs." It is commonly known as the Moon challenge speech. His words ignited the biggest race in human history: "First, I believe that this nation should commit itself to achieving the goal, before this decade is out, of landing a man on the moon and returning him safely to the earth. No single space project in this period will be more impressive to mankind, or more important for the long-range exploration of space; and none will be so difficult or expensive to accomplish."

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