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  • Project Mercury was the first human spaceflight program of the United States led by its newly created space agency NASA. It ran from 1959 through 1963 with the goal of putting a human in orbit around the Earth, and doing it before the Soviet Union, as part of the early space race. It involved seven astronauts flying a total of six solo trips. On May 5, 1961, Alan Shepard became the first American in space in a suborbital flight after the Soviet Union had put Yuri Gagarin into orbit one month earlier. John Glenn became the first American to reach orbit on February 20, 1962. He was the third person to do so, after Soviet Gherman Titov made a day-long flight in August 1961. When the project ended in May 1963, the Americans' NASA program was still behind the Soviet space program, but the gap was seen as closing. The space race started in 1957 with the launch of the Soviet satellite Sputnik I. This came as a shock to the American public and led to the creation of NASA to gather the efforts in space exploration already existing in the US. After the launch of the first American satellite in 1958, manned space flight became the next goal.