When I was young, my dad told me how the earliest astronauts were extraordinarily brave to willingly, “strap themselves atop a big tank of explosive fuel.” The books he gave me about astronauts and the moon missions inspired me to learn to fly.
This summer, I’m making a pilgrimage to honor America’s pioneering astronauts by visiting every U.S. spacecraft that flew into space (carrying astronauts) during the race to the moon of the 1960s. I’ve already visited 14 of the capsules on display in museums in the United States.
Project Mercury launched the first U.S. space flights between May 5, 1961, and May 15, 1963. Six Mercury flights carried single astronauts on two suborbital flights, the first orbital flight piloted by John Glenn, and three more culminating in Gordon Cooper’s 34-hour flight. The Mercury capsules were each given names selected by their pilot, the most famous being Glenn’s Friendship 7. The “7” in each capsule’s name denoted the seven Mercury astronauts.
On May 5, 1961, the Freedom 7 Mercury capsule carried Alan Shepard on the first U.S. spaceflight, a 15-minute suborbital jaunt. The Freedom 7 capsule is on display at the John F. Kennedy Presidential Library and Museum until Dec. 31, 2019.
Liberty Bell 7 carried Virgil I. "Gus" Grissom on the second U.S. space flight, July 21, 1961. The flight became infamous when the capsule sank to the ocean floor after the hatch blew off. The capsule was discovered and raised to the surface in 1999. Check for availability.
Friendship 7 carried Glenn on the first U.S. orbital spaceflight, Feb. 20, 1962, and made him a national hero.
On May 24, 1962, Scott Carpenter piloted Aurora 7 for a three-orbit flight and conducted scientific experiments.
Astronaut Walter Schirra made six orbits in the Sigma 7 spacecraft on Oct. 3, 1962. The mission focused on technical and engineering aspects of the capsule and space flight.
Cooper made the final and longest flight of the Mercury program on May 15 and 16, 1963. He became the first American to spend an entire day in orbit, the first to sleep in space, and the last U.S. government astronaut to fly solo.
The two-man Project Gemini space capsules were allowed to be referred to only by mission numbers, after Grissom christened Gemini 3 Molly Brown, a reference to his sunken Mercury capsule.
On March 23, 1965, Grissom became the first person to fly in space twice, with John Young as pilot.
Commanded by James McDivitt, pilot Edward White made America’s first spacewalk on June 3, 1965.
Gordon Cooper and Pete Conrad captured the world record for space flight duration, previously held by the Soviet Union, on Aug. 26, 1965.
Schirra and Thomas Stafford achieved the first manned rendezvous with another spacecraft, Gemini 7, Dec. 15 and 16, 1965.
Frank Borman and Jim Lovell completed the longest U.S. space flight (Dec. 4 to 18, 1965) until the Skylab missions of the 1970s.
Neil Armstrong and David Scott made the first docking of two spacecraft in orbit on March 16, 1966, but suffered a critical failure that required a mission abort.
On a three-day mission, June 3 to 6, 1966, Stafford and Eugene Cernan performed a rendezvous with an unmanned target, and Cernan made a two-hour spacewalk.
Young and Michael Collins achieved a rendezvous with an Agena target vehicle and used it to fly into a higher orbit. Collins performed two spacewalks during the mission, July 18 to 21, 1966.
Conrad and Richard Gordon flew to the highest Earth orbit yet achieved, approximately 850 miles, and Gordon performed two spacewalks during the Sept. 12 to 15, 1966, mission.
Commanded by Lovell, the last Gemini mission proved that astronauts could work outside of a spacecraft with successful spacewalks by Buzz Aldrin, Nov. 11 to 15, 1966.
NASA allowed spacecraft to be named again with the advent of the Apollo 9 mission, when names were needed to identify the two separate spacecraft, the command module and the lunar module. Only the command modules returned to Earth and are on display; the lunar landers all remained in space or crashed onto the moon.
Commanded by Schirra, with Donn Eisele and Walter Cunningham, the mission was the first test flight of the three-man Apollo command module, Oct. 11 to 22, 1968.
Borman, Lovell, and William Anders became the first astronauts to launch atop the Saturn V booster, escape Earth’s gravity, fly to the moon, and return, during a six-day mission in December 1968.
The Apollo 9 Earth orbital mission, March 3 to 13, 1969, was the first test flight of the lunar module. McDivitt, Scott, and Russell Schweickart tested its spaceworthiness and practiced the rendezvous and docking maneuvers needed to land on the moon.
Launched on May 18, 1969, Apollo 10 carried Stafford, Young, and Cernan on a dress rehearsal for the first moon landing. The crew tested the spacecraft and procedures, and descended to about 9 miles above the moon's surface.
Armstrong, Aldrin, and Collins made the first manned moon landing at the Sea of Tranquility, July 16 to 24, 1969. The command module is typically on display at the Smithsonian National Air and Space Museum in Washington, D.C., but is on display through Sept. 2 at the Museum of Flight in Seattle.
Conrad, Alan Bean, and Gordon make the second moon landing, in Ocean of Storms near the Surveyor 3 robotic lander, Nov. 14 to 24, 1969.
The third moon landing mission, crewed by Lovell, John Swigert, and Fred Haise, was forced to abort the landing and return to Earth, due to a “problem,” April 11 to 17, 1970.
Shepard, Stuart Roosa, and Edgar Mitchell made the third exploration of the moon, Jan. 31 to Feb. 9, 1971.
Scott, Al Worden, and James Irwin were the first to drive a lunar rover on the moon, July 26 to Aug. 7, 1971.
Young, Ken Mattingly, and Charles Duke explored the moon’s Descartes Highlands, April 16 to 27, 1972.
Cernan, Ron Evans, and Harrison Schmitt made the last moon landing on this mission, Dec. 7 to 19, 1972. Schmitt was the first scientist to travel to the moon.
Due to budget cuts, the moon exploration missions were cut from 10 to seven, with one (Apollo 13) failing to land. NASA used the leftover boosters and spacecraft to launch Skylab, America’s first space station. You can see Skylab capsules at the National Naval Aviation Museum in Pensacola, Florida; the Great Lakes Science Center in Cleveland; and the Smithsonian National Air and Space Museum in Washington, D.C.