Why We Explore

Text Size

The Voyagers
06.29.06
Why We Explore

Editor's Note: This is the 21st in a series of essays on exploration by NASA's Chief Historian, Steven J. Dick.

Exploration doesn't happen by sitting still, physically or intellectually. Voyagers, whether human or robotic, are essential to the enterprise. Throughout history human explorers have therefore left the comforts of home propelled by a variety of motives, backed by governments, investors or their own funding, confident in the success of their ventures. Both in motive and means, the voyagers who journeyed into space in the twentieth century were quite different from the voyagers in the classical Age of Discovery and their successors. They were adventurers one and all, but only national governments could provide the level of funding needed for inaugurating the Age of Space. And while many ship captains in that bygone age were men of some learning, their crews varied greatly, from people pulled off the streets to religious seekers, profiteers and pirates.

By contrast the 439 astronauts, cosmonauts and taikonauts who have ventured into Earth orbit or beyond since 1961 were the products of refined technical training, as were the eight X-15 pilots who flew high enough to be qualified as astronauts, and even the two pilots who flew on SpaceShipOne in 2004. In both the Soviet and American cases, the first astronauts and cosmonauts had military backgrounds. When in April 1959 NASA selected its first astronauts, all seven had aviation experience in the military. And they all had what writer Tom Wolfe immortalized as 'the right stuff.' As Asif Siddiqi has shown in Challenge to Apollo, although the Soviets considered individuals from aviation, the Soviet navy, rocketry and car racing backgrounds, their Air Force physicians insisted that the initial pool be limited to qualified Air Force pilots. By the end of 1959 they had chosen 20 cosmonauts, formally approved on March 7, 1960.

In the United States, in 1962 the Johnson Space Center in Houston became the home of the astronauts, where they underwent (and still undergo) rigorous training. The Soviet/Russian counterpart is the legendary Cosmonaut Training Center in Star City, near Moscow, where training began in 1965. At these two locations the vast majority of space explorers have prepared for their journeys, prior to launch from their countries' respective spaceports into the "new ocean". Some have become heroes, some have met their deaths; the vast majority did their countries proud by simply performing the duties in which they had been meticulously trained – often accompanied by the unexpected events that are the hallmark of exploration.

Project Mercury Astronauts, whose selection was announced on April 9, 1959, only six months after the National Aeronautics and Space Administration was formally established on October 1, 1958.   Despite the iconic status of this image, the site of the photograph has been uncertain.  According to a recent communication from Wally Schirra, the photo was taken at a meeting of the Space Task Group at Langley, sometime prior to Alan Shephard's flight in May, 1961.  Schirra notes that he was the spacesuit expert, and was wearing the only one fitted and eligible for flight.   Front row, left to right, Walter H. Schirra, Jr., Donald K. Slayton, John H. Glenn, Jr., and Scott Carpenter; back row, Alan B. Shepard, Jr., Virgil I. Gus Grissom, and L. Gordon Cooper.
Project Mercury Astronauts, whose selection was announced on April 9, 1959, only six months after the National Aeronautics and Space Administration was formally established on October 1, 1958. Despite the iconic status of this image, the site of the photograph has been uncertain. According to a recent communication from Wally Schirra, the photo was taken at a meeting of the Space Task Group at Langley, sometime prior to Alan Shepard's flight in May, 1961. Schirra notes that he was the spacesuit expert, and was wearing the only one fitted and eligible for flight. Front row, left to right, Walter H. Schirra, Jr., Donald K. Slayton, John H. Glenn, Jr., and Scott Carpenter; back row, Alan B. Shepard, Jr., Virgil I. Gus Grissom, and L. Gordon Cooper.

Since the initial famous "Mercury astronauts" were selected in 1959, 18 additional official groups of astronauts have entered the corps in the United States, most recently in May, 2004. They include five groups (groups 2-6) of pilot and scientist astronauts who flew for both the Apollo and Shuttle programs; one (group 7) selected for the Air Force Manned Orbiting Laboratory in 1969, never deployed; eleven groups (groups 8-19) of pilot and mission specialists for the Space Shuttle program, later including the International Space Station; and one (group 19) for the next generation to go back to Station, the Moon and maybe even on to Mars. In addition to the pilots and mission specialists in the last group, Group 19 also included three astronauts designated educator mission specialists and three astronauts from Japan designated international mission specialists.

Since the first group of cosmonauts was announced in 1960, there have been 14 selections of Soviet/Russian Air Force pilots and engineers, as well as numerous others in miscellaneous categories, including medical doctors and scientists. The first group of five women was chosen in 1962. Rex Hall and his co-authors have recently told their stories in Russia's Cosmonauts. They flew aboard the Vostok, Voshkod, and Soyuz spacecraft, and the Salyut and Mir space stations. They undoubtedly had the right stuff too, even if some in the West were loath to admit it in the midst of the Cold War. Representatives of numerous countries also flew on both Soviet and American missions.

One could not begin to characterize in a single essay these ordinary men and women who went on to make extraordinary contributions. Each cosmic voyager had his or her own motivations, triumphs, frustrations and tragedies, each a colorful and often very personal story. In April, 1961 Yuri Gagarin became the first human in space; he died during a training flight in 1968 at the age of 34. Just a few weeks after Gagarin's flight, Alan B. Shepard made the first Project Mercury suborbital flight for the Americans. He was grounded for a while due to health reasons, but was destined to become the only Mercury astronaut to land on the Moon as part of the Apollo program (Apollo 14 in 1971). Among other things he is famous on the latter mission for his 400-yard golf shot. John Glenn became the first American into orbit (February 1962), and the only Mercury astronaut to fly in the Space Shuttle (1998). At age 77, he was the oldest person ever to fly in space. He became both a Senator and a genuine American hero.

"Each cosmic voyager had his or her own motivations, triumphs, frustrations and tragedies, each a colorful and often very personal story."

Soviet cosmonauts had their own stories, tied, as personal stories often are, to their own culture. Valentina Tereshkova became the first woman in space in 1963 as part of the Soviet space program. Despite an early but ultimately unsuccessful astronaut selection program for women Americans predating even the Mercury 7 (recently detailed by Margaret Weitekamp in her book Right Stuff, Wrong Sex), it was 20 years before the Americans put Sally Ride into space. At Khrushchev's urging and undoubtedly with publicity in mind, a few months after her flight Tereshkova married the only bachelor cosmonaut, Andrian Nikolayev. Their unhappy marriage ended in divorce, but Tereshkova became a prominent member of the Soviet government; Nikolayev died in 2004. Aleksei Leonov was the first person to walk in space, for 12 minutes in 1965, and almost died trying to squeeze back into his spacecraft. Ten years later he achieved fame again for his famous handshake with astronaut Tom Stafford when their Apollo and Soyuz spacecraft docked together, a symbolic image in the midst of the Cold War.

The author in front of the statue of Yuri Gagarin in Star City outside Moscow, home of the cosmonauts and site of their training since 1965.  The statue was unveiled in 1971.  Gagarin, the first human in space, remains an icon in Russia long after his death, and all crews lay flowers at the statue before and after their missions.  American astronauts also train here on joint missions.
The author in front of the statue of Yuri Gagarin in Star City outside Moscow, home of the cosmonauts and site of their training since 1965. The statue was unveiled in 1971. Gagarin, the first human in space, remains an icon in Russia long after his death, and all crews lay flowers at the statue before and after their missions. American astronauts also train here on joint missions.

The Apollo astronauts generated some of the most memorable stories of space travel. Neil Armstrong, a shy engineer who was a combat pilot in Korea and flew the X-15 at hypersonic speeds before being selected in the second official NASA group of astronauts, assured his place in history by being the first to step onto the surface of the Moon in July, 1969. Buzz Aldrin, the second to step out of the Lunar Module on that historic Apollo 11 flight, subsequently suffered from depression and wrote movingly about it in his book Return to Earth. Michael Collins, who remained in orbit while his two crewmates descended to the surface, wrote two excellent books about his experiences, Carrying the Fire and Liftoff. Three men have actually flown twice to the Moon. As a member of Apollo 8 and 13, Jim Lovell is among them. But he never landed on the Moon, since the first mission was a rehearsal flight in lunar orbit, and the latter mission a near disaster. Eugene Cernan flew on Apollo 10, and holds the distinction of being the last man on the Moon, as part of Apollo 17 in December, 1972. And John Young, during his remarkable 42-year career with NASA, flew Gemini 3 and 10, Apollo 10 and 16, Space Shuttle flights 1 and 9. He retired in 2004 at the age of 74.

The latest entries into human spaceflight are the taikonauts from the People's Republic of China, first selected in 1998. On October 15, 2003 Yáng Lìwěi orbited the Earth 14 times in the Shenzhou 5 "Divine Craft", a spacecraft based on the Soyuz design but larger. Following the early Soviet and American pattern, Yang had a military background as a Lt. Colonel (later Colonel) in the People's Liberation Army, where he graduated from the Aviation College of its Air Force branch. On October 12, 2005 Fèi Junlong and Niè Hăishèng were launched in Shenzhou 6, and completed a five-day mission. Like Yang, Colonels Fèi and Niè were also products of the PLA Air Force. The Chinese human space program, with its sights set on the Moon, promises to generate new discoveries and new tales of adventure in the context of Chinese culture.

The stories of each of these cosmic voyagers, and their fellow space travelers, are part of a long tradition of explorers venturing into new frontiers. For those who want to know what it's like to go through rigorous training, travel into space, and live with the consequences, numerous first hand accounts have been written by the astronauts themselves, ranging from Mercury astronauts (their collective book, We Seven, Carpenter's For Spacious Skies: The Uncommon Journey of a Mercury Astronaut, Wally Schirra's Schirra's Space, Glenn's John Glenn: A Memoir, Slayton's Deke!, and Cooper's wild Leap of Faith: An Astronaut's Journey into the Unknown, complete with space aliens), to Apollo astronauts (Jim Lovell's Apollo 13: Lost Moon and Gene Cernan's The Last Man on the Moon, among others) and the Space Shuttle astronauts (Mike Mullane's irreverent Riding Rockets: The Outrageous Tales of a Space Shuttle Astronaut, and Tom Jones' Sky Walking: An Astronaut's Memoir). A unique dual autobiography is David Scott and Alexei Leonov's Two Sides of the Moon: Our Story of the Cold War Space Race. A few astronauts have been the subject of full-scale biographies, including Neal Thompson's Light This Candle : The Life & Times of Alan Shepard--America's First Spaceman, Ray Boomhower's Gus Grissom: The Lost Astronaut, and James Hansen's definitive First Man: The Life of Neil Armstrong. Others have been the subject of biographies by relatives, as in Nancy Conrad's Rocketman: Astronaut Pete Conrad's Incredible Ride to the Moon and Beyond.

As we continue to move off the home planet and explore space at increasing distances from Earth, there will be more great stories of space travel. More importantly, along with the stories will come genuine accomplishments, as we unravel the mysteries of the universe and our place in it.

Further Reading

Chaikin, Andrew, A Man On The Moon: The Voyages of the Apollo Astronauts (New York, 1994). The basis for the HBO miniseries From the Earth to the Moon.

Chambers, Mary Jane, and Randall Chambers, Getting Off the Planet: Training Astronauts (Apogee Books Space Series, 2006)

Compton, William David. Where No Man has Gone Before: A History of Apollo Lunar Exploration Missions (NASA SP 4214: Washington, 1989), chapter 5, online at http://history.nasa.gov/on-line.html

D. K. Publishing, Space Shuttle: The First 20 Years -- The Astronauts' Experiences in Their Own Words

Hall, Rex, David Shayler and Bert Vis, Russia's Cosmonauts: Inside the Yuri Gagarin Training Center (Springer, 2005)

Hansen, James R. First Man: The Life of Neil A. Armstrong (Simon and Schuster, 1975).

Shayler, David J. and Colin Burgess, NASA's Scientist-Astronauts (Springer Praxis, 2006)

Weitekamp, Margaret, Right Stuff, Wrong Sex: America's First Women in Space Program (Johns Hopkins University Press, 2005)

Wolfe, Tom. The Right Stuff (1979)

Astronaut and cosmonaut biographies, and much related information, are found at

http://www.jsc.nasa.gov/Bios/index.html

http://www.hq.nasa.gov/office/pao/History/nautfb.pdf

Steven J. Dick
NASA Chief Historian