It is remarkable that only 20 years separated the two events, and that so little has changed in the most recent 30 years. In that short initial span of time, space technology advanced at an incredible pace.
Yuri Garagin flew one orbit of the earth on April 12, 1961 (Vostok-1). So little was known about space at the time that the controls of his capsule were locked to prevent him from operating them – it was thought that zero-G would induce madness.
About three weeks later, Alan Shepard became the first American in space, although with a sub-orbital, 486 km flight (Mercury-Redstone 3 aka Freedom 7). Less than three weeks later, US President John F. Kennedy publicly set the goal to putting a man on the moon before the end of the decade. It was an incredible challenge. The US had less than 16 minutes of manned space flight experience at the time of the speech.
The American manned space programs moved at a breakneck pace. The Mercury program completed 2 years later. There was a 2-year gap before the first Gemini flights, which saw the first American two-man crews, the first American space walk, the first spacecraft rendezvous and docking, and much longer flights (Gemini VII was 13 days, 18 hours). The Gemini program wrapped up at the end of 1966, making way for the Apollo program.
The first manned Apollo flight, Apollo 7, was 2 years after the end of the Gemini program. Part of the reason for the gap was the deadly cabin fire on Apollo 1 in January 1967, which was being tested for a possible first flight in February. The fire and investigation, combined with program challenges for the Apollo CSM and LM landers, led to the delay. Boldly, the Apollo 8 mission actually reached moon orbit – a daring objective for only the second manned flight of the program.
With the goal of a manned landing on and returning from the moon accomplished on July 16, 1969, winning the moon-landing race against the Soviets, the funding for Apollo was drawn down. It was only 8 years and 3 months from Gagarin’s flight to the touchdown of Apollo 11 in the Sea of Tranquility on the moon.
The final flight to the moon was Apollo 17 at the end of 1972. Some of the Apollo equipment was used for the Skylab space station, manned for 171 days in 1973 and 1974, followed by the mid-decade Apollo-Soyuz flight. From that point, there were no manned American space flights until STS-1 on April 12, 1981.
The early designs of the Space Shuttle systems date back even before the moon landing. President Nixon approved the program in 1971. It took 10 years to build and test the first two Shuttles – Enterprise, which was only used for approach and landing tests from a converted Boeing 747, and Columbia which was a fully functional orbiter. It looks less time to move from the first manned suborbital space flight to landing on the moon.
Since the start of the Shuttle era, I feel the US manned space program has stagnated. For 30 years, the US has entirely depended on the shuttle for all manned flights. Again, that’s three times longer than it took to go from Yuri’s flight to landing on the moon. I feel that the US should have been spending more on trying out new technologies.
While I am fully supportive of the International Space Station, and feel that it should be the springboard for any future above-low-orbit manned missions, it hasn’t really pushed forward the manned program. It has provided a workspace for research of course, but it’s not about manned flight really. It’s about a zero-G research facility. It’s also not the first space station – it’s been done before.
Without producing any new vehicles for the past 30 years, it would be like the aviation industry stopping creating new planes with the Boeing 707, or if computer science stopped once IBM created the System/360.
In the future, I would like to see the US exploring new ways and new vehicles for its manned program. Allowing private space companies to provide services is an interesting direction but I am concerned that NASA would be without any space program, should these private companies (who are doing it for a profit) either fail or decide that it is not financially viable for them to continue. Then what will NASA do? It seems directionless at the moment.
I have some strong opinions and I’m working on an essay about the future of NASA.