In July 1958, in response to the Soviet challenge in space, the United States established the National Aeronautics and Space Administration (NASA). Project Mercury followed, and on May 5, 1961, following the January 1961 successful flight into space by a chimpanzee, Comdr. Alan B. Shepard became the first American to be sent into space when he rode the Freedom 7 space capsule on a sub-orbital trip. Other Project Mercury astronauts included naval aviators Scott Carpenter, Walter Schirra, and U.S. Marine John Glenn. Project Gemini followed in 1965 and 1966, and naval aviators were again prominent in the two-man missions, including Young, Conrad, Lovell, Armstrong, Cernan, Gordon, and the aforementioned Mercury astronaut Schirra.
Many of the Gemini astronauts were also heavily involved in the Apollo program of the late 1960s and early 1970s, during which James Lovell became the first to view the far side of the moon, and on July 20, 1969, naval aviator Neil A. Armstrong became the first man to walk on the moon during the Apollo 11 flight. The next U.S. space goal was to explore space in Skylab, a space laboratory in which astronauts could live and work for extended periods of time in space. In 1973, two of the three Skylab crews sent into space were all-Navy crews. Naval aviation continued to play a pivotal role in space exploration well in to the 21st century, with naval aviators participating in many of the space shuttle flights.