Yes. The first American in space was Al Shepard, who went aloft on “Freedom 7” on May 5, 1961. He was not the first human being in space; that was Yuri Gagarin, who the Soviets had launched into orbit a few weeks earlier. Although the manned space programs of both the United States and the Soviet Union had strongly political components, with the Cold War going on at the time, both countries had prepared for manned spaceflight for some time–the Mercury program was begun in 1958, not long after the United States had launched its first unmanned satellite. Competition to become a Mercury astronaut was fierce, and the training program long and intense. One of the best books written about the preparation for manned spaceflight was Tom Wolfe’s “nonfiction novel” The Right Stuff (which was made into an Academy Award-winning film by Philip Kaufman in 1983), in which it is stated of manned spaceflight that “never before has any human being been so thoroughly prepared for an event in advance.”
Before sending humans into space, both the U.S. and Soviet space programs sent animals to see what the effects of space travel would be on living things. The Soviets sent dogs, and the U.S. sent several different animals, starting with fruit flies in the 1940s.
Ham the chimpanzee, returning from a successful space flight in 1961
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