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  Mercury - Gemini - Apollo
  What if Shepard beat Gagarin into space?

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Author Topic:   What if Shepard beat Gagarin into space?
garymilgrom
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Posts: 1719
From: Atlanta, GA, USA
Registered: Feb 2007

posted 03-12-2014 10:23 AM     Click Here to See the Profile for garymilgrom   Click Here to Email garymilgrom     Edit/Delete Message   Reply w/Quote
I've just finished reading a book about Project Gemini. This book is discussed here.

At the end of the book the author David Harland makes an interesting comment. Quoting from the book (pg. 281):

If NASA had managed to launch Al Shepard a few weeks before the Soviet Union flew Yuri Gagarin, Kennedy may well not have challenged America to land a man on the Moon before the decade was out. The fact that Shepard's flight had been only suborbital would probably not have mattered, as the world's first 'spaceman' would have been an American. ... The early months of 1961 therefore serve to illustrate that history is not an irresistible tide, it is extremely sensitive to the outcome of regular events.
I find this sensational. I agree with the observation. It's just amazing to me that if Al had flown first, which he easily could have, the entire Apollo program may not have happened. I'd be interested in what other cS'ers think. Thank you.

Michael Davis
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From: Houston, Texas
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posted 03-12-2014 10:37 AM     Click Here to See the Profile for Michael Davis   Click Here to Email Michael Davis     Edit/Delete Message   Reply w/Quote
I completely disagree. The early manned space program was in large part an offshoot of the Cold War military competition between the USSR and USA. The factors driving that competition would still have been present if Shepard had made his 15 minute flight first. Gagarin's orbit would still have made the US's effort look small and technologically inferior in contrast.

David C
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From: Pasadena
Registered: Apr 2012

posted 03-12-2014 11:00 AM     Click Here to See the Profile for David C     Edit/Delete Message   Reply w/Quote
If NASA had managed to launch Al Shepard a few weeks before the Soviet Union flew Yuri Gagarin, Kennedy may well not have challenged America to land a man on the Moon before the decade was out.
I concur. A degree of competition would have remained but of no where near the same level or duration. Public embarrassment and shock were the initial impetus for Apollo, it simply wouldn't have existed if Shepard was first.

Robert Pearlman
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From: Houston, TX
Registered: Nov 1999

posted 03-12-2014 11:16 AM     Click Here to See the Profile for Robert Pearlman   Click Here to Email Robert Pearlman     Edit/Delete Message   Reply w/Quote
Given the benefit of hindsight, a more interesting question might be what would have happened if Vanguard (or Explorer) had orbited before Sputnik.

We now know that Khrushchev wasn't sold on Korolev's space efforts and only entertained the program in so much as it continued development of the R-7 Semyorka ICBM. It was the worldwide attention paid to Sputnik that changed Khrushchev's mind and had him embrace the space race as a point of Soviet pride.

Without Sputnik launching first, the entire space race may have ceased to be, among other concerns. (How would the Soviets respond to the overflight of a satellite if the U.S. was first?)

By the time Shepard and Gagarin were jockeying to be the first man in space, Khrushchev was sold on the political benefits of the space race, so I think it would have just resulted in the Soviet's using Gagarin's orbital flight as a means to trumpet over Shepard's suborbital hop.

moorouge
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posted 03-12-2014 11:34 AM     Click Here to See the Profile for moorouge   Click Here to Email moorouge     Edit/Delete Message   Reply w/Quote
Weren't America's early space efforts geared to the IGY? This must have been a factor.

Headshot
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From: Streamwood, IL USA
Registered: Feb 2012

posted 03-12-2014 11:45 AM     Click Here to See the Profile for Headshot   Click Here to Email Headshot     Edit/Delete Message   Reply w/Quote
Both the Soviet Union and the United States were aiming their space efforts towards IGY. But I believe that it was all the way back in 1953 or 1954 that the Soviets publicly stated their intention to launch and artificial satellite during IGY. I do not recall when the U.S. announced its intentions.

A big part of Sputnik's impact was our general misconception that the Soviet Union was populated by little more than farmers and tractor drivers. Some in Eisenhower's administration and our military knew different, but they were not telling John Q. Public.

garymilgrom
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From: Atlanta, GA, USA
Registered: Feb 2007

posted 03-12-2014 01:24 PM     Click Here to See the Profile for garymilgrom   Click Here to Email garymilgrom     Edit/Delete Message   Reply w/Quote
Initial unmanned flights were aimed at the IGY 1955.

Source: Spaceflight and the Myth of Presidential Leadership, pg.29.

Headshot
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From: Streamwood, IL USA
Registered: Feb 2012

posted 03-12-2014 01:43 PM     Click Here to See the Profile for Headshot   Click Here to Email Headshot     Edit/Delete Message   Reply w/Quote
Funny, I just picked that book up, but have not started reading it yet.

onesmallstep
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From: Staten Island, New York USA
Registered: Nov 2007

posted 03-12-2014 04:34 PM     Click Here to See the Profile for onesmallstep   Click Here to Email onesmallstep     Edit/Delete Message   Reply w/Quote
History never unfolds in a vacuum; it has a context and impetus surrounding events. The Soviets announced their satellite plans early, and shortly before launch published the frequency of the radio signal to listen to. For reasons that can take up more space here, Eisenhower and his advisors decided that the US IGY contribution should be launched on a 'civilian' booster, the Vanguard, instead of a military rocket. If von Braun's submission to use the Redstone/Juno booster would have been followed, history could have been different.

Likewise, Shepard's flight would have occurred earlier if not for teething problems with, ironically, the Redstone booster that caused an extra test launch to be made; a manned flight could therefore not be launched before April 25th at the earliest. But if even both the first beep-beep or words from a capsule would have been American, Kennedy would have seized both successes to push for more, in order not to cede ground to the Soviets in the new arena of space.

Don't forget, also, the Bay of Pigs fiasco happened around the same time, and tensions surrounding Berlin still hovered in the air. If not in 1961, who's not to say Kennedy would have declared a moon landing goal in 1962, after Glenn's flight, or even more dramatic, a few months later after the Cuban missile crisis - perhaps adding that the 'new frontier' of space should be open to peaceful exploration and maybe even international cooperation.

Headshot
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From: Streamwood, IL USA
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posted 03-12-2014 04:55 PM     Click Here to See the Profile for Headshot   Click Here to Email Headshot     Edit/Delete Message   Reply w/Quote
A lot of people do not know how deeply the Bay of Pigs fiasco affected the rhythm of Kennedy's young administration. This is emphasized in both Sorenson's and Schelsinger's almost contemporary accounts of Kennedy's presidency.

Taking this one step further, another fair question to pose would be: If there had been no Bay of Pigs fiasco at all, or had the invasion succeeded, would Kennedy have championed what would become Project Apollo?

These question are fun, but in the end all answers are mere speculation.

Robert Pearlman
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From: Houston, TX
Registered: Nov 1999

posted 03-12-2014 04:55 PM     Click Here to See the Profile for Robert Pearlman   Click Here to Email Robert Pearlman     Edit/Delete Message   Reply w/Quote
quote:
Originally posted by onesmallstep:
...in 1962, after Glenn's flight, or even more dramatic, a few months later after the Cuban missile crisis...
Apropos of nothing, the mention of these two events together reminded me of "Operation Dirty Trick," a real Department of Defense-proposed plot to blame Castro if Glenn's flight had failed.
The objective is to provide irrevocable proof that, should the MERCURY manned orbit flight fail, the fault lies with the Communists et al. Cuba... This to be accomplished by manufacturing various pieces of evidence which would prove electronic interference on the part of the Cubans.

Mike Dixon
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From: Kew, Victoria, Australia
Registered: May 2003

posted 03-12-2014 05:41 PM     Click Here to See the Profile for Mike Dixon   Click Here to Email Mike Dixon     Edit/Delete Message   Reply w/Quote
Given Russia knew the Mercury launch date in advance, could they not have simply have amended their own schedule to ensure they were first? I've read articles that have suggested Vostok 1 was ready well before April 12th.

mach3valkyrie
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From: Albany, Oregon USA
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posted 03-13-2014 12:03 AM     Click Here to See the Profile for mach3valkyrie   Click Here to Email mach3valkyrie     Edit/Delete Message   Reply w/Quote
If Shepard had launched on March 24, 1961, instead of it being an unmanned booster development flight that von Braun wanted, I think we would still have had the moon goal announced by President Kennedy and proceeded the way things played out anyway.

The Russians still had been first in space in 1957, and the need for U.S. superiority in space was in the forefront.

Lasv3
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From: Bratislava, Slovakia
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posted 03-13-2014 01:31 AM     Click Here to See the Profile for Lasv3   Click Here to Email Lasv3     Edit/Delete Message   Reply w/Quote
I fully agree with Mike Dixon´s above point. The Soviets had an advantage of knowing the US plans well in advance due to the open publicity of these plans. And they were very skillful to use this fact to their benefit.

Sergei Korolyov was a man who went for the firsts and was ready to take the risks. I am pretty sure he would do anything to beat America even if Shepard would fly earlier.

The same happened with Gemini 4 where the original plan for Ed White was just to open the hatch and wave the hand out of the capsule. The Soviets came quickly with the Voskhod 2 full spacewalk, which of course was planned and prepared, but they managed to be first again. The real Gemini 4 EVA was added to the plan only after that, if I remember well.

Another skillful usage of the American plans was the flight of Svetlana Savitskaya to Salyut in July 1984. I am not far from the truth when I say this flight was driven by the planned STS-41G mission with Sally Ride and Kathy Sullivan, where Sally Ride was to become the first woman to fly into space the second time and Kathy Sullivan was to become the first woman to perform the EVA. Sending Savitskaya into space before this could happen robbed the US from these two firsts — she was the first twice in space and she was the first to perform the EVA.

There is another interesting question regarding Korolyov and his starving for the space firsts — would the Apollo 8 flight be the first manned lunar mission or would the Soviets achieve it earlier with a simple circumlunar flight with two cosmonauts on board if Korolyov was still alive? It is known they were (nearly) ready, just Mishin was scared to take the risk (nobody can blame him after the the Soyuz 1 disaster a year earlier). I think Korolyov would have sent the crew to the Moon to beat the US one more time even with the risks involved.

All times are CT (US)

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