Today, April 12, marks the day that humanity began its first tentative steps off of its home planet. Soviet Cosmonaut, Yuri Gagarin, completed a single orbit in Vostok 1 on this day, giving the Soviet Union a lead in what is today known as “The Space Race” of the Cold War Era.
In the United States, Project Mercury had been initiated after the Soviet’s success at placing an artificial satellite, Sputnik, into orbit in 1957. Project Mercury's goal was to get an American astronaut into space ahead of the Soviet Union. Here in St. Louis, the McDonnell Aircraft Corporation won the contract to build the first American spacecraft. Seven test pilots were chosen to become the first American Astronauts after an exhaustive testing program. These men, known as “The Mercury Seven” became frequent visitors to St. Louis and the McDonnell factory just next to Lambert Airport as they worked with employees at McDonnell to build their ships. After Alan Shepard went into space on May 5, 1961, the nation and the people of St. Louis had cause to be proud as the Mercury spacecraft finally flew on a mission with a human pilot. The Mercury astronauts were now in the game and got plenty of attention when they came to St. Louis.
McDonnell Aircraft and its successors would go on to continue to build all or part of all of the space ships that followed Mercury as a Prime or sub-contractor for NASA. Shown here are just two of the photos from the St. Louis Globe-Democrat Collection that covered the early days of the Space Race here in St. Louis.