The U.S. Naval Institute’s 2013 annual history conference, “Past, Present, and Future of Human Space Flight” at Alumni Hall on the grounds of the U.S. Naval Academy opened with the morning keynote presented by astronaut and retired Lt. Gen. Thomas P. Stafford.

Stafford, a veteran of the Gemini and Apollo programs and the Apollo-Soyuz Test Project, opened his remarks by expressing his pleasure at returning to his alma mater. “I’ll be talking fast today because there’s a lot of history to cover,” he said. Stafford explained that the launch of Sputnik 1 in October 1957 had a galvanizing political effect in the United States that led to a push across the country to boost science, technical, and math (STEM) education, and inspired Senator Lyndon Johnson to push for a manned space program. Stafford summarized the subsequent creation of the Mercury program, explaining that the Mercury spacecraft suffered from limitations largely imposed by the limited size of the available launch vehicles. For example, while astronauts were able to change the Mercury spacecraft’s attitude, they were not able to affect its vector — a factor that would play a significant role in the design of the subsequent two-person Gemini spacecraft.

When Yuri Gagarin made mankind’s first manned space flight on April 12, 1961, it spurred the United States to respond by launching Alan Shepard on a suborbital flight President Kennedy to make his famous speech before Congress a month later in which he called for a man to be landed on the moon and safely returned to Earth. “I’m glad he used the words, ‘safely returned,’” Stafford quipped. A little-known fact about the speech was that Kennedy had already informed, and secured the support of, key Congressional leaders prior to the speech. “So while the speech came as a surprise to many of those in Congress, to the power brokers, the deal was already done,” said Stafford. “This is a lesson in political history.”

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