Jan 31: Ham, a chimpanzee, survives a sub-orbital flight on an American mission, Mercury 2.
The American press pokes fun at American astronauts for doing a job that could be accomplished by a monkey. Experienced test pilots deride the astronauts as "Spam in a can."
April 12: Vostok 1 carries Soviet cosmonaut Yuri Gagarin into orbit; he is the first human in space. The Soviets refer to Gagarin as a "cosmonaut." The Americans had considered "cosmonaut" as a title for their space travelers but have already settled on "astronaut." When telephoned for comment at 4 a.m., the NASA press liaison, John "Shorty" Powers, mumbles, "We're all asleep down here," -- and is quoted widely, to his dismay.
May 2: Alan Shepard commands Freedom 7 on the first Mercury mission, becoming the first American in space. His ballistic trajectory during the 15-minute flight takes him to a maximum height of 116.5 statute miles.
NASA announces, "The astronaut reports that he is A-OK," introducing a new phrase into the American lexicon.
May 25: President John F. Kennedy, in his first State of the Union address, accelerates the space program and sets as a goal a moon landing within the decade.
July 21: American astronaut Gus Grissom's sub-orbital flight is marred when, after splashdown, the hatch of his capsule blows open and the capsule sinks. The blown hatch cannot be replicated later in hardware tests, but the emergency hatch detonator requires a strong hammer blow by the fist and Grissom doesn't show the bruise that would accompany such action. Despite scarce evidence for either theory about what happened, the press puts the blame squarely on the astronaut.
September 12: President Kennedy gives a speech at Rice University, future home of the Manned Spacecraft Center (which later will be renamed Johnson Space Center): "We choose to go to the moon in this decade and do the other things, not because they are easy, but because they are hard, because that goal will serve to organize and measure the best of our energies and skills, because that challenge is one that we are willing to accept, one we are unwilling to postpone, and one which we intend to win, and the others, too."
November: The Space Task Group is renamed the Manned Spacecraft Center, to be relocated to Houston, Texas.