In the 1950’s and 1960’s, the USA and the Soviet Union raced each other to be first into space. The Soviet Union won.
On 4 October 1957, the Soviets launched Sputnik 1, the first spacecraft to circle the world in space orbit.
America was immediately abuzz with conjecture: Were the Commies spying on the US from space? Would they launch a nuclear attack from the Moon? and why hadn’t the US – the most technologically advanced nation in the world – been able to get into space before them?
Embarrassed US scientists struggled to find answers to these questions while frantically making plans to send up a satellite of their own.
Then on 12 April 1961, 27-year-old Soviet astronaut Major Yuri Alexeyvich Gagarin became the first man to fly in space.
In a 4½ ton Vostok (“East”) spaceship he orbited the Earth and returned safely after a flight lasting 108 minutes.
Cosmonaut Gagarin completed a single orbit of the Earth, reaching a height of 190 miles, and then fired braking rockets. After orbiting, his spacecraft returned to Earth by parachute.
Gagarin’s flight proved that prolonged exposure to weightlessness causes no immediate harm. He also survived the tremendous acceleration of launch and deceleration of re-entry to the atmosphere, withstanding five to ten times the normal force of gravity without damage.
In the United States the reaction was resigned and admiring. Gagarin’s flight was “a fantastic, fabulous achievement,” said the NASA chief, James Webb.
The ‘space race’ was one of tragedy and triumph, from the time the Russians catapulted the heroic Gagarin and his Vostok spacecraft into orbit for 108 minutes – although the Sputnik 2 satellite, launched in 1957, carried the first traveller in space – a Russian dog called Laika.
At the time it was reported that Laika had survived for several days in orbit, but it was revealed in 2002 that she died of overheating and panic not long after takeoff.
But she had by then served her purpose in proving that a living being could survive takeoff, and opened up the possibility of humans undertaking space travel.
Less than a month later, on 5 May 1961, Alan Shepard captivated US television audiences when he became the first American astronaut in space aboard Liberty Bell 7.
Capitalising on space exploration as a propaganda tool, President Kennedy committed $9 billion to sending the first man to the moon before the end of the decade.
On 20 February 1962 the US found a new space hero in John Glenn, who became the first American in orbit. In 4 hours 55 minutes he orbited the earth three times aboard Friendship 7.
On his return, New Yorkers took to the streets in welcome as he was paraded through the city under a deluge of ticker tape. 36 years later, Glenn returned to space as part of a study on the human body and the ageing process.
Valentina Tereshkova became the first woman to travel into space on 16 June 1963. She made 49 orbits of the Earth in the Vostok 6 spacecraft before landing in the Soviet republic of Kazakhstan. During her flight she spoke to Soviet Premier Nikita Khrushchev.
Throughout the 1960s, US government resources were pumped into NASA, enabling it to accelerate the space program. On 31 July 1964, the first detailed photographs of the Moon were received from Ranger 7, one of a series of unmanned probes sent to the Moon by NASA.
Ranger 7 became the first American spacecraft to reach the Moon, crash-landing on its surface as planned. The photographs unravelled many mysteries about the Moon such as its age, the characteristics of its soil and its general history.
Soviet cosmonaut Alexei Leonov left his Voskhod 2 spacecraft and walked through space in his orange spacesuit on 18 March 1965, attached to his craft by a cord. While his colleague Pavel Belyaev watched from inside the Voskhod 2, Leonov tested tools, took pictures and turned a somersault. His excursion – the first space walk – lasted 10 minutes.
On 3 June 1965, Gemini 4 took US astronaut Edward White 100 miles above the earth for the first US space walk. He stayed outside Gemini 4 for 20 minutes, tied to it by a nylon line and using a jet-gas gun to move himself around. While outside, White travelled 6,000 miles at a speed of 17,500 mph.
White did not want it to end – when he re-entered the spacecraft he said it was the saddest moment of his life. Tragically, White died in the Apollo spacecraft fire of January 1967 which threatened for a while to block America’s attainment of the goal to land on the moon in the Sixties.
In order to practice the delicate manoeuvring of spacecraft, on 15 December 1965, Wally Schirra and Thomas Stafford in Gemini 6 steered to within one foot of Gemini 7, piloted by Frank Bormann and James Lovell. Gemini 6 then chased Gemini 7 for 100,000 miles.
The first docking of craft in space was between Gemini 8 and an Agena rocket on 17 March 1966. Later in 1966 Gemini 11 set an altitude record of 850 miles and NASA landed Surveyor 1 on the moon. It sent back data showing that the lunar surface was smooth enough for the landing of a manned spacecraft.
In 1967 NASA began the Apollo program, and in 1968 astronauts Broman, Lovell and Anders orbited the moon in Apollo 8.
The ultimate achievement came on 21 July 1969 when Apollo 11 carried astronauts to the moon and Neil Armstrong became the most famous human in history, being the first to set foot on its surface.
A second successful mission to the moon followed in November with Apollo 12, when astronauts Charles Conrad and Alan Bean walked on the moon.
The third planned moon landing in April 1970 was aborted when an oxygen tank onboard Apollo 13 exploded. James Lovell, John Swigert and Fred Haise nursed the damaged spacecraft around the moon and back to Earth, splashing down safely on 17 April.
On 31 July 1971, David Scott and James Irwin of Apollo 15 were the seventh and eighth men to walk on the moon, but the first to drive there in the Luna Rover – A vehicle invented by the Boeing company which could speed across the moon’s surface at 37 mph (60kph) and could be completely folded up and stored in the spaceship.
In 1972 the astronauts of Apollo 16 spent a record 71 hours on the moon.
Apollo 17, launched in December 1972, was the last mission in the Apollo program. The Luna Rover was used again by the astronaut and an accompanying geologist who travelled 22 miles across the surface of the moon, exploring the Taurus-Littrow Valley region.
The Russians launched the first space station, Salyut 1, on 19 April 1971. The Americans followed two years later with Skylab (a 100-ton manned space research laboratory) launched on 15 May 1973. Orbiting the earth for 84 days, Skylab broke all previous endurance records.
In July 1975, the Soyuz and Apollo spacecraft, launched independently from their bases in the USSR and the USA, linked up 140 miles above the Atlantic Ocean. The two crews moved freely around both ships for two days before finally separating for the return journey to Earth.
In April 1981, a new kind of spacecraft took off from Cape Canaveral. The initial flight of the reusable Space Shuttle, Columbia, put the new spacecraft to the test. Manned by two astronauts, Columbia orbited the Earth 36 times before landing safely, like a conventional aircraft, at an airbase in California.
The first American woman in space was physicist Sally Ride who flew onboard the Challenger Space Shuttle on 18 June 1983.
Tragedy struck in 1986 when the Space Shuttle Challenger ignited just 72 seconds after lift-off, killing its crew of seven as the world watched in horror on live television. Onboard was schoolteacher Christa McAuliffe, the first person to be chosen for America’s Civilians In Space Program.
And the race goes on. What happens next? Is there life on Mars? Will the human race inhabit another planet? Only time will tell.