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The Navy's Role in Space Exploration

Gemini 11 Spacecraft Recovery

Crewmembers from USS Guam stand on deck to watch the recovery of the command module of Gemini 11.



“The utilization of space truly has been a national effort; the talents of the military services have been invaluable through these years. The United States Navy has played a particularly important part in the development and final realization of that enterprise.”

Captain Alan B. Shepard Jr., USN
NASA Astronaut
From the foreword to Space and the United States Navy


Even before NASA was established in 1958, the U.S. Navy had been involved in atmospheric and high-altitude research through the Naval Research Laboratory and Office of Naval Research. U.S. Navy contributions to space exploration continued with NASA’s manned space flight programs, starting in the early 1960s. Navy personnel served as astronauts in space missions, and Navy ships supported recovery of astronauts at sea until the development of the space shuttle. The first American in space, Alan Shepard, was a Navy officer. A Marine helicopter, HUS1 helicopter of HMR(L)-262, and the antisubmarine warfare support aircraft carrier USS Lake Champlain (CVS-39) were involved in recovery of Shepard and his space capsule in 1961. Neil Armstrong, the first man to set foot on the moon, was a naval aviator who served in the Korean War. From pilots to Underwater Demolition Team (UDT) Frogmen to researchers and engineers, Navy personnel have been involved in many facets of the space program. Learn more about the Navy’s role in space exploration by exploring the links, below.

Chronology of Space Missions Involving the U.S. Navy and Marine Corps, 1961-1981

5 May 1961. Launch of Freedom 7 (Mercury 3).

20 February 1962. Launch of Friendship 7 (Mercury 6).

24 May 1962. Launch of Aurora 7 (Mercury 7).

3 October 1962. Launch of Sigma 7 (Mercury 8).

23 March 1965. Launch of Gemini 3.

21 August 1965. Launch of Gemini 5.

15 December 1965 Launch of Gemini 6.

4 December 1965. Launch of Gemini 7.

16 March 1966. Launch of Gemini 8.

3 June 1966. Launch of Gemini 9.

18 July 1966. Launch of Gemini 10.

12 September 1966. Launch of Gemini 11.

11 November 1966. Launch of Gemini 12.

27 January 1967. Fire in Command Module at Cape Kennedy during simulation countdown. Lunar Module Pilot LCDR Roger B. Chaffee and two other crewmembers died.

11 October 1968. Launch of Apollo 7.

21 December 1968. Launch of Apollo 8.

18 May 1969. Launch of Apollo 10.

20 July 1969. Apollo 11 completes mission to moon.

19 November 1969. Launch of Apollo 12.

11 April 1970. Launch of Apollo 13.

5 February 1971. Launch of Apollo 14.

21 April 1972. Launch of Apollo 16.

7 December 1972. Launch of Apollo 17.

25 May 1973. Launch of Skylab 2.

28 July 1973. Launch of Skylab 3.

16 November 1973. Launch of Skylab 4.

17 July 1975. Docking in space of the U.S. Apollo and Soviet Soyuz spacecraft.

1 October 1979. President Jimmy Carter awarded the Congressional Space Medal of Honor to the following astronauts: former naval aviator Neil Armstrong, Captain Charles Conrad, Jr., USN (Ret.), Colonel John Glenn, USMC (Ret.), and Rear Admiral Alan Shepard Jr., USN (Ret.).

12 April 1981. Launch of Columbia (STS-1).


1. Numerous Space Shuttle missions after STS-1 have included U.S Navy and Marine Corps crewmembers. A list of these missions, including the names of crewmembers, through July 2011, is available from the Naval History and Heritage Command publication, United States Naval Aviation 1910-2010, Volume II, Part II; please see chapter 16. Download Part II (PDF, 1.2 MB).

2. Operational details of all manned U.S. space flights are available from the National Aeronautics and Space Administration (NASA).

3. COL John Glenn, USMC (RET) returned to space on shuttle mission STS-95.


Chapter 16 of United States Naval Aviation 1910–2010, Volume II includes:

  • List (as of March 2011) of members of naval aviation who have become astronauts
  • List (as of March 2011) of U.S. space flights with Navy/Marine Corps/Coast Guard pilots/astronauts aboard.

Research guide for Mercury 3 records

Space Flight Recovery

Space-Related Programs & Technology

From the Sea to the Stars: Chronicle of U.S. Navy’s Space and Space-Related Activities, 1944–2009
Publication sponsored by Deputy Undersecretary of the Navy (C3I & Space) and edited by the Applied Research Laboratory, Penn State University. Provides a detailed look into the Navy’s involvement in the evolution of space-related programs and technology, such as development of satellites for navigation and communication. Chapter 2 includes a summary of Navy participation in the manned space programs of the 1960s and Navy Spacecraft Recovery Force (Task Force 140).

Artifacts & Exhibits

The Apollo 12 astronauts

The Apollo 12 astronauts stand before a mock-up of their space capsule at Cape Kennedy, Florida, September 1969. From left: Commander Charles Conrad, Jr.; Commander Richard F. Gordon, Jr.; and Lieutenant Commander Alan L. Bean. Catalog #: USN 1140809. Photo courtesy of NASA.
Published: Wed Jul 19 17:30:09 EDT 2023