Who orbited the earth first?
Ham the Chimp John Glenn Yuri Gagarin Laika the Dog
Did you guess Laika? I did, and I was right. Laika was the first living creature to orbit the earth. She was launched on November 3, 1957, two years before I was born. Her achievement was also the beginning of the Space Race between the US and the USSR.
Spaceships back then weren’t well built. We have more than 60 years of experience so we build better spaceships now. We even have a space station where people can live for months at a time.
Poor Laika! She only lived a couple hours after launch. This is a model of Sputnik 2. It doesn’t look very comfortable. I hope Laika was treated well before becoming a dog-o-naut. Before that Laika was a stray living in the streets of Moscow. Russian scientists thought a stray dog would have an easier time living in the harsh conditions in space. If you visit Star City, Russia, you’ll find a statue and plaque that honors Laika and her contributions to space science. Her statue is next door to where she trained for her space adventure and where Russian cosmonauts still train today.
Now, can you guess who was 2nd to orbit the earth?
Ham or John or Yuri
I hope you guessed Ham. He won 2nd place, but only by a couple months. Ham was born in Cameroon in 1957, captured by trappers, and sent to a Rare Bird Farm in Florida. Really! The US Air Force bought him in 1959. He and 39 other chimps were sent to the Holloman Air Force Base. Ham made the top 18, then the top 6, then 1st prize. Back in 1959 he was known as #65 because the air force didn’t want a chimp, with a name, dying in space.
Ham blasted off January 31, 1961 and returned 17 minutes later. I was almost 2 by then. The biggest difference between Ham’s flight and those of previous chimps was his ability to push levers. Ham was a fraction of a second slower in space than on earth. That was a big deal because he showed scientists that astronauts could work in space. Ham’s flight led to the launch of the first American astronaut. Alan Shepherd blasted off May 5, 1961. Thanks, Ham!
Best of all, Ham lived to tell, another 22 years, first at the National Zoo in Washington DC, then at a zoo in North Carolina. If you’d like to visit Ham, go to the International Space Hall of Fame in Alamogordo, New Mexico.
So, who was 3rd? Was it John Glenn, the American?
Or was it Yuri Gagaran, the Russian? Good Luck!
Yuri came in 3rd. He orbited the Earth on April 12, 1961 in Vostok 1. He instantly became a world-wide celebrity, winning both medals and titles. Yuri never made it back into space again. He died in 1968 when his training jet crashed. It was only 7 years after his historic flight.
I didn’t know that in 1969 Neil Armstrong and Buzz Aldrin honored Yuri. They left a memorial satchel with Yuri Gagarin and Vladimir Komarov’s medals on the moon. In 1971 David Scott and James Irwin from Apollo 15 left the Fallen Angel Memorial behind. They didn’t tell anyone until they returned to earth.
This is the Fallen Angel Memorial. It honors 14 American and Russian astronauts.
Theodore C. Freeman - 1964 aircraft accident
Charles A. Bassett III and Elliott M. See Jr. - 1966 aircraft accident
Virgil I. Grissom, Roger B. Chaffee, and Edward H. White II - 1967 Apollo 1 fire
Vladimir M. Komarov - 1967 Soyuz I re-entry parachute failure
Edward G. Givens Jr. - 1967 car accident
Cliffton C. Williams Jr - 1967 aircraft accident
Yuri Gagarin - 1968 aircraft accident
Pavel I Belyayev - 1970 illness
Georgily T Dobrovolsky, Viktor I. Patsayev, and Vladislav N Volkov – 1971 Soyuz 11 re-entry pressurization failure
And, last but not least, John Glenn. Sometimes it’s good to be last . . . John lived to the age of 95.
Meet John Glenn, the 4th to orbit the earth, but the first American. John was ready to go in January of 1962, but his flight was delayed 11 times because of equipment malfunctions, improvements, and the weather. John didn’t worry. He flew 70 more missions in the simulator and reacted to 189 simulation system failures. John was ready to go!
Finally on February 20, 1962, Friendship 7 lifted off. Would you believe there were two failures during the flight? The automatic control system had problems. John had to manually control the 2nd and 3rd orbit and the reentry into the earth’s atmosphere. Sensors also said that the heat shield was loose. John talked with the ground controllers at NASA. They decided to leave a retrorocket pack in place, and John lived to tell. If the shield had been loose, Friendship 7 would have burned up on the way into the atmosphere, but John returned a national hero. He got a ticker tape parade in New York City. Confetti rained down on John to celebrate his 4 hour and 55-minute flight.
John was such a hero he wasn’t allowed to go up into space again. After he retired from the military, John got interested in politics. He served Ohio in the United States Senate from 1974 until 1999. He ran for president once but didn’t win the Democratic nomination.
But he was successful in returning to space. In 1995 John read a book by NASA doctors about bone and muscle mass loss in space. That happens to older people too so John started lobbying NASA to let him return to space. He said they could experiment on him. NASA agreed, but John had to have a scientific reason to go, and he had to pass the same physical exam that the younger astronauts did.
John did the research and passed the exam. In January of 1998 John got the announcement that at 77, he’d be the oldest person to fly in space. On October 29, 1998 John blasted off as a payload specialist on the Space Shuttle Discovery. In 2012 John said his biggest regret was that NASA didn’t continue to research aging by sending additional senior citizens into space.
John died on December 8, 2016. The phrase, “Godspeed, John Glenn,” was given to him by Scott Carpenter back in 1962. It followed him through his life and was part of his funeral too. When John died, he was the last of the Mercury Seven Astronauts. They were NASA’s founding space team.
Here are the Mercury 7 from their photo taken on April 9, 1959. That was a month before I was born.
Front row, left to right: Walter M. Schirra, Jr., Donald K. "Deke" Slayton, John H. Glenn, Jr., and M. Scott Carpenter;
Back row, Alan B. Shepard, Jr., Virgil I. "Gus" Grissom, and L. Gordon Cooper, Jr.
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