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Visit all the space race capsulesVisit all the space race capsules

Seeking Mercury, Gemini, and ApolloSeeking Mercury, Gemini, and Apollo

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.

The Apollo 14 command module spacecraft, flown to the moon in 1971, displayed at the Visitor Complex at NASA's Kennedy Space Center, Florida. Photo by Dennis K. Johnson.

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.

If you’d like to view space capsules from the historic quest to reach the moon, here’s where you’ll find them.

Project Mercury

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.

Freedom 7—John F. Kennedy Presidential Library and Museum, Boston

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—Cosmosphere, Hutchinson, Kansas

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—Smithsonian National Air and Space Museum, Washington D.C.

Friendship 7 carried Glenn on the first U.S. orbital spaceflight, Feb. 20, 1962, and made him a national hero.

Aurora 7—Museum of Science and Industry, Chicago

On May 24, 1962, Scott Carpenter piloted Aurora 7 for a three-orbit flight and conducted scientific experiments.

Sigma 7—Kennedy Space Center Visitor Complex, Merritt Island, Florida

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.

Faith 7—Space Center Houston

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.

Project Gemini

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.

Gemini 3, Molly Brown—Virgil I. Grissom Memorial Museum, Mitchell, Indiana

On March 23, 1965, Grissom became the first person to fly in space twice, with John Young as pilot.

Gemini 4—Smithsonian National Air and Space Museum

Commanded by James McDivitt, pilot Edward White made America’s first spacewalk on June 3, 1965.

Gemini 5—Space Center Houston

Gordon Cooper and Pete Conrad captured the world record for space flight duration, previously held by the Soviet Union, on Aug. 26, 1965.

The Gemini 8 spacecraft flown by Apollo astronaut Neil Armstrong, an the Armstrong Air and Space Museum, Wapakoneta, Ohio.

Gemini 6—Stafford Air and Space Museum, Weatherford, Oklahoma

Schirra and Thomas Stafford achieved the first manned rendezvous with another spacecraft, Gemini 7, Dec. 15 and 16, 1965.

Gemini 7—Smithsonian National Air and Space Museum Steven F. Udvar-Hazy Center, Chantilly, Virginia

Frank Borman and Jim Lovell completed the longest U.S. space flight (Dec. 4 to 18, 1965) until the Skylab missions of the 1970s.

Gemini 8—Armstrong Air and Space Museum, Wapakoneta, Ohio

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.

Gemini 9—Kennedy Space Center Visitor Complex

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.

Gemini 10—Cosmosphere

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.

Gemini 11—California Science Center, Los Angeles

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.

Gemini 12—Adler Planetarium, Chicago

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.

Project Apollo

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.

Apollo 7—Frontiers of Flight Museum, Dallas

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.

Apollo 8—Museum of Science and Industry

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.

Apollo 9 ‘Gumdrop’—San Diego Air and Space Museum

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.

The Apollo 11 command module, used on the first space flight to land on the moon, being cleaned and maintained at the National Air and Space Museum in Washington, D.C.

Apollo 10 ‘Charlie Brown’—Science Museum, London

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.

Apollo 11 ‘Columbia’—traveling exhibit

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.

Apollo 12 ‘Yankee Clipper’—Virginia Air and Space Center, Hampton, Virginia

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.

Apollo 13 ‘Odyssey’—Cosmosphere

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.

Apollo 14 ‘Kitty Hawk’—Kennedy Space Center Visitor Complex

Shepard, Stuart Roosa, and Edgar Mitchell made the third exploration of the moon, Jan. 31 to Feb. 9, 1971.

Apollo 15 ‘Endeavour’—National Museum of the U.S. Air Force, Dayton, Ohio

Scott, Al Worden, and James Irwin were the first to drive a lunar rover on the moon, July 26 to Aug. 7, 1971.

Apollo 16 ‘Casper’—U.S. Space and Rocket Center, Huntsville, Alabama

Young, Ken Mattingly, and Charles Duke explored the moon’s Descartes Highlands, April 16 to 27, 1972.

Apollo 17 ‘America’—Space Center Houston

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.

After 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.

Dennis K. Johnson

Dennis K. Johnson is an aviation writer and pilot living in New York City.
Topics: US Travel

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