Project Mercury came to an end in early 1963 to focus on Project Gemini, with America still behind in the space race. By the end of May 1963, four Americans had flown in orbit for a total of fifty-three hours, compared to the Soviet Union’s orbit time of nearly eight days.[7] America was still unsure how advanced the Soviets were, but reports from a Congressional subcommittee suggested that it was believed they had been experimenting with manned flight, based on information from tracking stations. The end of Project Mercury came in a year that saw two more milestones, one technical and one cultural: Vostock 5 (piloted by Valery Bykovsky, 1934-2019) orbited the Earth for five days, making it the longest manned space flight to date; and less than two days later Vostock 6 launched, making its pilot Valentina Tereshkova (1937-) the first woman to go into space.

1964 saw another milestone. On October 12, Voskhod 1 launched, and became the first crewed space flight. Previous flights had been done with individuals on board, but Vladimir Komarov (1927-1967), Konstantin Feoktistov (1926-2009), and Boris Yegorov (1937-1994) became the first crew to successfully orbit the Earth, and it was the first flight that did not use spacesuits. The rate that the Soviet Union made these achievements continued to have an effect on America’s reputation and self-image, with ever increasing criticism. Politicians were actively trying to block budget increases for NASA, even though the space project still had its defenders.

In March 1965, Voskhod 2 saw the first successful Extravehicular Activity (EVA, the technical name for a spacewalk), piloted by Pavel Belyayev (1925-1970) and Alexei Leonov (1934-). Despite these achievements, the second half of 1965 saw America begin to catch up. A pivotal moment was approaching with the flight that linked the work of Project Mercury to Project Apollo, transitioning from orbital flight to a potential moon flight. In March 1965, Virgil "Gus" Grissom (1926-1967) and John W. Young (1930-2018) made the first successful crewed flight in Gemini 3, which was quickly followed in June when James A. McDivitt (1929-) and Edward H. White II (1930-1967) made the first American space flight to last five days in Gemini 4. These successes went a long way to restoring public perception, and “…space fever, heady and incurable, has now hit Americans on the ground…. There is no stopping the moon race now”.[8] 

In August, America overtook the Soviets for the first time: Gordon Cooper (1927-2004) and Charles "Pete" Conrad Jr. (1930-1999) made the longest space flight to date, orbiting Earth for seven days in Gemini 5. The Gemini project finished the year with another first: Gemini 6A (piloted by Frank F. Borman II, 1928- and James A. Lovell, Jr., 1928-, after Gemini 6 had failed to launch) and Gemini 7 (piloted by Walter M. Schirra, Jr., 1923-2007 and Thomas P. Stafford, 1930-) achieved the first rendezvous flight.

  • What motivated the space race?

    The cost of the moon project was not the only thing questioned during the space race. While the missions had always been promoted as scientific discovery, there was always underlying suspicion of military objectives and weaponization. Paranoia around potential nuclear war during the sixties, coupled with the Vietnam War, fed into the opinion that space domination was not a new frontier for science, but the foundation for a new way to engage in combat. The space race was not just a metaphor for political philosophies, but an indicator of which superpower would have the advantage in attempts to destroy the other.

    The Economist were among many that asked this question, and reported that “Eventually, the scientists believe, military communications and therefore to some extent military tactics will be revolutionised”. It was a big enough concern that “both the United States and the Soviet Union proposed to the United Nations a treaty to keep the moon and the planets, in effect, demilitarised”.[9]  There was also the question of what happens to NASA after the moon landing is completed, whether it should focus on terrestrial issues or aim to go even further out into space.

    By the end of 1966, these questions seemed even more urgent as enthusiasm for the space rage began to decline again, even within NASA itself: “Already [NASA] employees have begun to drift away now the bulk of the research and production is finished”. With growing social issues like Civil Rights, and more pressing political issues like the Vietnam war, “Nasa [sic.] seems to have accepted the fact that space exploration has lost its urgency…. Nasa is thought to be scaling down its ambitions”.[10] 

    This was reflected in the budgets, with The Economist reporting at the end of December 1966 that the budget for the sciences in America had seen its biggest shift for many years. Between 1960 and 1966 NASA had more than quadrupled the share of budget it received, but 1967 would see its first decline since 1958. The drop was in favour of making sure “Government science, so to speak, is coming closer to home”, with the biggest budget increases coming in social and psychological sciences.[11] 

Project Gemini spent 1966 claiming more milestones, establishing an American lead in the space race. The year did not start well, with Gemini 8 (piloted by Neil Armstrong, 1930-2012 and David R. Scott, 1932-) aborting its docking test mid-flight in March, and Gemini 9A (piloted by Thomas P. Stafford and Eugene A. Cernan, 1934-2017) failing to make a successful docking in June. Despite these setbacks, Gemini 10 (piloted by John W. Young and Michael Collins, 1930-) completed the first EVA between two vehicles in flight in July; Gemini 11 (piloted by Charles "Pete" Conrad Jr. and Richard F. Gordon Jr., 1929-2017) completed the first successful direct-ascent rendezvous in September; and Gemini 12 (piloted by James A. Lovell, Jr. and Edwin E. “Buzz” Aldrin, Jr., 1930-) completed the longest successful EVA to date in November.

By the time Project Gemini concluded at the end of 1966, America had moved ahead of the Soviet Union, and for the first time in the space race looked like the likeliest to achieve the moon landing first. It had equalled and bettered many of the existing records, and claimed several important milestones ahead of the Soviets. What had seemed to be a one-sided race a few years before now seemed much closer, but it had to face some darker events before reaching the finale.

[7]   Space Sciences. Ed. John F. McCoy. Vol. 3: Humans in Space. 2nd ed. Detroit, MI: Macmillan Reference USA, 2012  |   RETURN  

[8] "Space Fever." Economist, 12 June 1965, p. 1279   |   RETURN 

[9] "Space for what?" Economist, 18 June 1966   |   RETURN 

[10] "Beyond the moon." Economist, 19 Nov. 1966   |   RETURN 

[11] "Science's wheel of fortune." Economist, 31 Dec. 1966   |   RETURN 

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