Fifty years ago today — February 21, 1961 — the Mercury Atlas-2 (MA-2) pathfinder vehicle launched from Cape Canaveral.
(Mercury Atlas-2 launch. NASA image.)
Launched, of course, on an Atlas rocket, Mercury Atlas-2 flew a suborbital test profile “designed to provide the most severe reentry heating conditions which could be encountered during an emergency abort during an orbital flight attempt.” This was a precursor, of course, to the first U.S. human spaceflight, which would take place about two months later.
Thirty-five years later, human spaceflight had become nearly routine. For example, on this date in 1996, the Russians launched Soyuz TM-23 from the Baikonur Cosmodrome on the 25th expedition to the Mir space station. Cosmonauts Yuri Onufrienko and Yuri Usachev docked with the station on the 23rd.
And, for a little bonus space history: 30 years ago today — February 21, 1981 — the Japanese launched the Hinotori to study solar flares. It rode atop an M-3S launch vehicle from the Uchinoura Space Center.by