The Space Race The Race to Manned Spaceflight Towards this end the US conducted the Mercury program, a cramped capsule barely big enough for a single person put into orbit by one of several proven rockets in the US missile arsenal. The program started in 1959 with a series of unmanned test launches that eventually graduated to launching a monkey and a chimpanzee as precursors to putting a man in orbit. On may 5th, 1961, Alan Sheppard became America's first real astronaut, riding a Mercury capsule dubbed "Freedom 7" into space for a brief 17 minute suborbital flight. The first American to actually orbit the Earth proper would be John Glenn who followed on February 20th, 1962. His "Friendship 7" capsule made three Earth orbits before landing successfully. The Mercury program conducted several more manned flights and was a source of valuable experience, but one thing it did not accomplish, was doing it first. On April 12, 1961, one month before Sheppard's flight, cosmonaut
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