1 Things were tense in America in the late 1950s and early 1960s. The Cold War chilled the nation?s blood. There?s no physical fighting in a ?cold? war, but it often seems like the war could turn hot at any time. America and its adversary the Soviet Union (Russia and several surrounding states, now separate countries) flexed their military power, each trying to strongarm the other into submission. Previous wars had taken place on the earth?s surface. The two World Wars had extended to the sky. Now, the cold war threatened to take it to another level: space.
2 In 1957, Soviet scientists launched the first artificial Earth satellite, Sputnik 1. The Soviets, still recovering from World War II, considered Sputnik a scientific triumph. Americans were not pleased to hear of this Soviet success. People assumed that America?s technology would always be one step ahead of the Soviet Union?s. Furthermore, America already had its collective eye on space exploration. Most Americans thought that their nation would lead the world into space. Beyond these assumptions, American leaders also saw Sputnik as a message: this war is not just for control of Earth, but of space as well. A country that can create such a satellite could also create a weapon that could strike from the opposite side of the earth.
3 American scientists responded by hurriedly completing their satellite projects in an attempt to surpass the Soviets? achievment. Several of these early attempts failed. Adding insult to injury, the Soviets soon launched Sputnik 2. Finally, four months after the first Sputnik launch, the American satellite Explorer 1 made it into orbit. American leaders also responded. President Eisenhower improved science education in the nation?s public schools, to ensure a steady pool of capable scientists. Texas Senator Lyndon B. Johnson led the charge that formed the National Aeronautics and Space Administration (NASA). The Space Race had begun.
4 In 1961, the Soviet Union upped the stakes once more by sending a spacecraft with a human pilot into orbit around the earth, making Yuri Gregarin the first human in space. NASA?s plan was to take small steps that would lead to putting humans in space, to compete with the Soviet achievements. That same year, NASA?s Mercury project sent a spacecraft called Freedom 7 into space, piloted by the first American in space, Alan Shepherd. The following year they launched another craft, Friendship 7, piloted by John Glenn, making him the first American to orbit the earth. These first trips were short and experimental, but Mercury achieved its goal: to send a manned spacecraft into orbit around the Earth, study the effects on the human body, and bring the pilot home safely. To do this, they needed a mission control center, so that scientists on the ground could communicate with the astronauts.
5 The Mercury missions (as well as the first few Gemini missions, an extension of the Mercury project) were launched and controlled from Cape Canaveral, Florida. In 1964, thanks to the efforts of Johnson and other Texan politicians in Washington D.C., Mission Control moved to Texas. That year, the Manned Spacecraft Center in Houston opened. It would later be renamed Lyndon B. Johnson Space Center, after the man whose efforts had helped make the space program and the Houston facility a reality..
6 From Building 30 at the new facility, scientists in the Mission Control Center assisted the astronauts involved in the Gemini project. The first mission controlled from Houston was NASA?s first extravehicular activity, commonly known as a spacewalk. For the first time, astronauts left the relative safety of the spacecraft, donning space suits to protect their bodies in the harsh void of space. This and other Gemini missions would take astronauts away from Earth for longer and longer missions. The Mercury and Gemini projects both prepared for a later project, Apollo. The Apollo project?s goal was to land American astronauts on the moon and bring them home again safely. After Apollo, the Skylab project installed the first American space station to compete with the Soviet station, Salyut. After Skylab fell out of orbit in 1979, the Space Shuttle missions continued sending Americans into space. None of these missions could succeed without capable scientists on the ground, coordinating with the astronauts above the sky.
7 The Mission Control Center at this new facility consisted of two large rooms called Mission Operations Control Rooms, or MOCRs. At the front of each MOCR was a large map screen which tracked the spacecraft?s location in space. Facing the map screen were four rows of consoles, each set up with the proper equipment for handling a small part of the mission. Mission Control operated from these two identical rooms for the next 44 years, through the Gemini missions that sent humans around the earth, the Apollo missions that culminated with the moon landing, the Skylab missions that put the first American space station into orbit around the earth, and nearly two decades of Space Shuttle missions. In 1998, when the International Space Station was built, NASA changed the way missions were controlled. There are still two control rooms, now called Flight Control Rooms (FCRs). One FCR is used to control Space Shuttle missions, the other for International Space Station missions. From this FCR, NASA scientists cooperate with scientists from other countries to operate the International Space Station.
8 One country that now works with NASA scientists is the same country with which NASA was meant to compete. After the waning of the Cold War and the collapse of the Soviet Union in 1991, NASA began to work alongside the Russian space program. Beginning at the Russian space station Mir, and continuing on board the International Space Station, American astronauts and Russian cosmonauts live side by side for weeks or even months at a time. The space race began during a time of tension, when America was involved in a high-stakes chess match with the Soviet Union. This fierce rivalry gave way, replaced by trust and shared goals between scientists. Today, the American and Russian scientific communities play for the same team.