During the Cold War, the United States and the Soviet Union began to build powerful new rockets—which they would eventually use to send humans into space and, ultimately, to the moon.

In 1958 NASA launched Project Mercury with three specific goals:

  1. launch an American into orbit around Earth
  2. investigate the human body’s ability to tolerate spaceflight
  3. bring both the spacecraft and astronaut home safety
  4. the unstated goal: Accomplish all of this before the Soviets

Source: NASA