Manned Space Vehicles

Discovery liftoff

 X-15 rocket plane (1959–1968)

   One of the first space vehicles was the X-15 rocket plane. This design included a slender fuselage with fairings along the side containing fuel and an early computerized control system. Since the main objective of the "spacerace" at this time was to get people into space, a simple aircraft was the main goal. The X-15 was used for development of techniques and equipment that was of value for the space mission. The plane also included jets for changing the orientation of the spacecraft. Almost 200 flights were made between 1959 and 1968, the gathered information was vital to both the spacerace and the creation of the Spaceshuttle. Click here to see the official X-15 website.

  Project Mercury (1959–1963, manned missions from 1961)          

   Project Mercury was initiated in 1958. Alan Shepard, the pilot of the Freedom 7, became the first American in space on May 5, 1961.  At this time the Soviet Union had taken the lead in the space race. Three orbital flights were made by the Mercury project, the last in 1963.                                                                                                                                                                            

Project Gemini (1962–1966, manned missions from 1965)

Project Gemini focused on conducting experiments and developing practice techniques for lunar missions. The first Gemini flight, Gemini 3, was launched on March 23, 1965. Nine other missions followed. These missions gathered data on effects of weightlessness on humans. The Gemini missions also included the first space walk. The Gemini project managed to make a docking a year before the Soviet space program. The Gemini information could be used in two ways. A spacecraft could dock with a rocket stage in orbit around the Earth and use it for going to the Moon. The other possibility was a spacecraft together with a Moon lander that could be sent to the Moon by a single rocket and then separate and dock again after the lander had been down on the surface. The Soviet Union still managed to one-up the Gemini program by building a single big rocket to land on the moon. Due to this, the Gemini project was considered by many to be a waste. More on Gemini.

Apollo Program (1961–1972, manned missions from 1968)

The Apollo program was one of the most expensive American scientific programs ever. It is estimated to have cost 191 billion dollars in present day US money. It used Saturn rockets as launch vehicles which were much larger then the previously used rockets. It had two parts, the combined command and service module and the lunar landing module. The LM was to be left on the Moon and only the command module (CM) containing the astronauts would eventually return to Earth. Apollo set major milestones in human spaceflight. It is one of the few missions that has successfully gotten men beyond low earth orbit and placed humans on other celestial bodies. Apollo 8 was the first manned spacecraft to orbit another celestial body. Apollo sparked interest in many fields of engineering and left many physical facilities and machines developed for the program as landmarks. Many objects and artifacts from the program are on display at various locations throughout the world. More on Apollo 1, Apollo 11, Apollo 13, and Apollo 15.

Skylab (1973–1979)

Skylab was the first and only space station that the U.S. built independently. It was 169,950 lb and was launched on May 14, 1973 into a 235-nautical-mile orbit inclined at 50 degrees to the equator. Damaged during launch by the loss of its thermal protection and one electricity-generating solar panel, it was repaired to functionality by its first crew. It was occupied for 171 days by 3 successful crews in 1973 and 1974. It included a laboratory for studying the effects of microgravity along with a solar observatory. Apollo spacecrafts were used for bringing astronauts to and from Skylab. Three three-man crews stayed aboard the station for periods of 28, 59, and 84 days. More on Skylab.

Apollo-Soyuz Test Project (1975–1981)

The cold war was ending when the Apollo-Soyuz Test Project was introduced. It was a group of Soviet and U.S. space programs. It was the last U.S. Apollo flight in addition to being the last manned space launch until the Space Shuttle. Manned Skylab missions used the smaller Saturn IB with Apollo CSM and not the Saturn V. The mission included both joint and separate scientific experiments and provided useful engineering experience for future joint US–Russian space flights, such as the Shuttle–Mir Program and the International Space Station.

Space Shuttle program (1981–2011)

The Space Shuttle became a major focus of NASA in the early 1980's. It was originally thought of as a frequently launchable and mostly reusable vehicle. Four space shuttle orbiters were built by 1985. The first to launch was the Columbia which was launched on April 12, 1981. The major components were a rocket plane orbiter with an external fuel tank and two solid fuel launch rockets at its side. The external tank, which was bigger than the spacecraft itself, was the only component that was not reused. The missions could last from 5-17 days with crews of 2-8 astronauts. The program lasted for 30 years and sent over 300 astronauts into space.

International Space Station (1998–)

The international space station is a combination of the Russian Mir-2, the American Freedom, and the European Columbus projects. These projects merged in the 1990's. It is a joint project between Nasa, RKA, JAXA, ESA, and CSA. The station consists of pressurized modules, external trusses, solar arrays, and other components. The construction began in 1998 and the construction of the US Orbital Segment was completed in 2011 while operations are expected to continue until 2020. The station can be seen with the naked eye from earth and as of 2011, it is the largest artificial satellite in Earth orbit as well as the largest space station ever created.