In 1961, the Soviet Union successfully sent astronaut Yuri Gagarin into space with a Vostok spacecraft. Just three weeks later, the United States launched Alan B. Shepard Jr. 116 miles above earth. The space race captured the attention and imagination of millions, and astronauts were proclaimed heroes. Spaceshots and Snapshots of Projects Mercury and Gemini: A Rare Photographic History aims to capture this magic using rare and otherwise unpublished photographs. 

John Bisney and J. L. Pickering—a former correspondent who covered the space program for CNN and a space-flight historian, respectively—brought this rich history to life with rare images from NASA’s first two missions to space: Projects Mercury and Gemini. Between the two of them, they have collected an impressive selection of photographs. The book’s massive assortment comes from NASA archives, fellow collectors, retired NASA and news photographers, and auction houses, and does a wonderful job of illustrating the culture and experience of the space race. You can pre-order the book here to see of all the stunning photographs and learn more about America’s journey to the final frontier. Here's a preview of what you can expect, with captions by the authors.

The second shift of McDonnell Aircraft workers pose with Freedom 7 in the white room at LC-5 on April 28, 1961. Ed Sieblist, assistant foreman, is first-row center. McDonnell won the Mercury spacecraft contract over the Grumman Corp. in 1959 largely because the federal government knew Grumman would have its hands full with a number of critical US Navy projects.

A television cameraman perched atop a Chevrolet station wagon provides TV network pool coverage at LC-5 early on July 19, 1961—the second launch attempt, which, like the first on July 16, was called off due to bad weather.

Glenn in the white room at LC-14 on January 20, 1962 (one month before the eventual launch). The “J” numbers on the spacecraft identified umbilical cable connections.

A CBS-TV cameraman on launch morning at the Mercury Press Site. He operates an RCA TK-31 black-and-white camera with turret-mounted telephoto lenses. A white ABC-TV camera can be seen just below the CBS camera. On the roof (right) is a pool camera shared by the three broadcast television networks.

Cooper with his suit ventilator in front of Hangar S at Cape Canaveral. His Mark IV Goodrich suit incorporated many changes from Shepard’s suit, including boots, improved gloves, and new shoulder construction.

White’s helmet is equipped with a detachable visor assembly with two separate over visors. The gold film-coated outer visor offers protection against visible sunlight (which is blinding when unfiltered by Earth’s atmosphere) and ultraviolet rays. An inner visor provides protection against micrometeoroids and heat. His chest pack contains an emergency oxygen supply and a ventilation control unit for cooling. The open hatch and its window are reflected in his visor.

Earth view: Florida’s east coast

Gemini VII seen from a few feet away. The two spacecraft remained three hundred feet apart or less for more than three revolutions of the Earth over five hours. The two small gold protrusions from the white adapter section are cryogenic spectrometer/interferometers, a USAF experiment to obtain spectral irradiance information about terrestrial features and celestial objects.

The Titan II’s two first-stage engines belch smoke down the two-hundred-foot-long concrete flume after ignition at 11:41 a.m. (EST) on March 16, 1966, in this view looking south. The flume leads directly to the obscured flame bucket and can handle 25,000 gallons of water per minute sent through the bucket for cool­ing and propellant residue neutralizing. Robert Goddard successfully launched the first liquid-fueled rocket forty years to the day earlier from a relative’s Auburn, Massachusetts, farm.

In the white room at LC-19, Cernan and Stafford prepare to enter Gemini IX-A on the morning of June 3, 1966: their launch day. Backup Pilot Aldrin is behind Stafford, with backup Command Pilot Lovell and McDonnell pad leader Guenter Wendt to the right. The legs of Cernan’s suit are covered with Chromel-R, a cloth woven from stainless steel fibers to protect the astro­naut and suit from the hot exhaust thrusters of the AMU. A blue cover protects his EVA helmet visor. Beginning with this mission, Gemini helmets were made from multiple layers of epoxy-impregnated fiberglass cloth and visors were made of polycarbonate, providing far better impact protection than Plexiglas used previously. Each crewman has two gray life preservers on his parachute harness.

The space­craft is covered with its bridle and parachute lines after the eighty-four-foot-diameter main chute settled around the spacecraft because of the lack of wind.

The ATV recedes from twenty-five to sixty feet away from Gemini XII during a station-keeping exercise on the third orbit from 8:31 to 8:35 p.m. after the first series of docking tests. This sequence was over the Atlantic Ocean.

Gemini XI’s view of the ATV at a distance of twenty-five feet after the astronauts caught up with it over the California coast about an hour and twenty minutes after launch. The docking cone is to the far left and one of the ATV’s horizon sensors is at the bottom edge (center left). The crewmen (who’d been watching the ATV’s acquisition lights in darkness) donned sunglasses when it flashed into sunlight over the Pacific.