The History of Space Exploration

The History of Space Exploration

During the time that has passed since the launching of the first artificial satellite in 1957, astronauts have traveled to the moon, probes have explored the solar system, and instruments in space have discovered thousands of planets around other stars.


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Earth Science, Astronomy, Social Studies, U.S. History, World History


Apollo 11 Astronauts on Moon

A less belligerent, but no less competitive, part of the Cold War was the space race. The Soviet Union bested its rival at nearly every turn, until the U.S. beat them to the finish line by landing astronauts on the moon.

NASA photograph
A less belligerent, but no less competitive, part of the Cold War was the space race. The Soviet Union bested its rival at nearly every turn, until the U.S. beat them to the finish line by landing astronauts on the moon.
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We human beings have been venturing into outer space since October 4, 1957, when the Union of Soviet Socialist Republics (U.S.S.R.) launched Sputnik, the first artificial satellite to orbit Earth. This happened during the period of hostility between the U.S.S.R. and the United States known as the Cold War.

Sputnik’s launch shifted the Cold War to a new frontier, space. The space race, a competition for prestige and spectacle, was a less-violent aspect of the Cold War, the often-deadly clash between the U.S.S.R. and the U.S. The endeavor was a soft-power ploy used to help win over potential nonaligned nations. Nonaligned nations were called the Third World — now seen as a disparaging term.

For several years, the two superpowers had been competing to develop missiles, called intercontinental ballistic missiles (ICBMs), to carry nuclear weapons between continents. In the U.S.S.R., the rocket designer Sergei Korolev had developed the first ICBM, a rocket called the R7, which began the space race. This competition became global news with the launch of Sputnik. Carried atop an R7 rocket, the Sputnik satellite sent out audio beeps from a radio transmitter.

After reaching space, Sputnik orbited Earth once every 96 minutes. The radio beeps were detected on the ground as the satellite passed overhead, so people around the world knew Sputnik was really in orbit. The U.S. was surprised that the U.S.S.R. had exceeded U.S. space capabilities. Furthermore, there was the fear the Soviets could now launch a bomb onto U.S. soil without a plane or a ship.

The origins of the space race began before the end of World War II. At the time, Germany was the world leader in rocket technology, creating the V2, the first operational, long-range rocket. This weapon of war pushed the U.S. and U.S.S.R. space exploration efforts, showing the dual nature of rocket technology. Prior to the launch of Sputnik, the United States was building its launch capability.

The United States made two failed attempts to launch a satellite into space before succeeding with a rocket that carried a satellite called Explorer on January 31, 1958. Explorer carried several instruments into space for conducting science experiments. One instrument was a Geiger counter for detecting cosmic rays. This was for an experiment operated by researcher James Van Allen, which, together with measurements from later satellites, proved the existence of what are now called the Van Allen radiation belts around Earth.

The team that achieved the first U.S. satellite launch consisted largely of German rocket engineers who had once developed ballistic missiles for Nazi Germany. Working for the U.S. Army at the Redstone Arsenal in Huntsville, Alabama, the German rocket engineers were led by Wernher von Braun, who had led the creation of Germany’s V2 rocket. His team used the V2 to build the more powerful Jupiter C, or Juno, rocket. Von Braun headed the U.S. rocket program, leading the Marshall Space Flight Center in Huntsville, Alabama, until 1970.

At the close of WWII, the U.S.S.R. and the U.S. scrambled to recruit German rocket engineers and scientists to improve their rocket programs. The motivation for both governments was to improve their respective military technologies. Von Braun and most of his top deputies sought out U.S. forces to surrender to, preferring to work for the U.S. to the Soviets. The German specialists and some of their missiles and designs were relocated to the U.S. in what became known as Operation Paperclip (originally Project Overcast).

While the U.S. brought in von Braun and his scientists, except for Helmut Gröttrup, an expert on the V2 guidance system. The U.S.S.R., however, got more of the German technical personnel than the U.S. Homegrown talent was more involved in the leadership of the Soviet space program than the U.S. space program.

Von Braun and others on his team were members of the German Nazi Party. Von Braun was an officer in the SS, the Nazi paramilitary wing. He managed the science operations at the Mittelwerk factory, which used the labor of enslaved people. U.S. leadership was less concerned with their Nazi membership than using their technical expertise to defeat Japan, and later to gain an advantage over the Soviet Union. U.S. government officials lied about many of the Germans’ Nazi pasts to make working with them more acceptable to the American public.

In 1958, Though NASA leadership was almost entirely composed of White men, many of those doing the work as mathematicians, physicists, and engineers to put astronauts and machines into space were from underrepresented ethnicities and women of all ethnicities. Some examples of people of color who played important roles at NASA include mathematicians Katherine Johnson and Josephine Jue, engineers Miguel Hernandez and Walter Applewhite.

SEE HERE: Women of NASA and NASA’s West Area Computers

Space exploration activities in the United States were consolidated into a new government agency, the National Aeronautics and Space Administration (NASA). When it began operations in October of 1958, NASA absorbed what had been called the National Advisory Committee for Aeronautics (NACA), and several other research and military facilities, including the Army Ballistic Missile Agency (the Redstone Arsenal) in Huntsville, Alabama.

Korolev’s R7 was the basis for the rocket family that would be the basis for the first launch successes and even the still-used Soyuz. Soviet’s space program had rival teams that worked on competing designs.

Von Braun’s influence extended far beyond the world of rocket scientists and space enthusiasts. He became well known after participating in three Disney-produced TV specials about space in the mid 1950s. Meanwhile, the role and accomplishments of von Braun’s Soviet counterpart, Korolev, were largely hidden by his government.

Both Korolev and von Braun shared a desire and commitment to exploring space, even though their governments preferred using rocket technology for military applications.

Despite the fact that Korolev drove the Soviet Space program’s early successes, he became a victim of one of Soviet Premier Josef Stalin’s political purges and was recalled from prison to head the rocket development program in 1944. After learning of the United States’ plan to launch an artificial satellite into space, it was Korolev who convinced and pushed the U.S.S.R. government to beat the U.S. in this endeavor, building the N1 rocket.

The U.S.S.R.’s win streak didn’t end there. A month after Sputnik’s launch, on November 3, 1957, the U.S.S.R. achieved an even more impressive space venture. This was Sputnik II, a satellite that carried a living creature, a dog named Laika.

The first human in space was Soviet cosmonaut Yuri Gagarin, who made one orbit around Earth on April 12, 1961, on a flight that lasted 108 minutes. A little more than three weeks later, NASA launched astronaut Alan Shepard into space, not on an orbital flight, but on a suborbital trajectory, a flight that goes into space but does not go all the way around Earth. Shepard’s suborbital flight lasted just over 15 minutes.

In addition to launching the first artificial satellite, the first dog in space, and the first human in space, the U.S.S.R. achieved other space milestones ahead of the United States under Korolev’s leadership. One of these milestones was Luna 2, which became the first human-made object to hit the Moon in 1959. Soon after that, the U.S.S.R. launched Luna 3. Less than four months after Gagarin’s flight in 1961, a second Soviet human mission orbited a cosmonaut around Earth for a full day. The U.S.S.R. also achieved the first spacewalk and launched the Vostok 6 mission, which made Valentina Tereshkova the first woman to travel to space.

Korolev was gearing U.S.S.R. to send a cosmonaut to the moon. The goal of sending a human to the moon became the final stage of the space race. Three weeks after Shepard’s flight, on May 25, U.S. President Robert F. Kennedy challenged the United States to an ambitious goal, declaring: “I believe that this nation should commit itself to achieving the goal, before the decade is out, of landing a man on the moon and returning him safely to Earth."

During the 1960s, NASA made progress toward John F. Kennedy’s human moon landing goal with a program called Project Gemini, in which astronauts tested technology needed for future flights to the Moon, and tested their own ability to endure many days in spaceflight. Project Gemini was followed by Project Apollo, which did take astronauts into orbit around the Moon and to the lunar surface between 1968 and 1972.

In 1969, on Apollo11, the United States sent the first astronauts to the moon, and Neil Armstrong became the first human to set foot on its surface. During the landed missions, astronauts collected samples of rocks and lunar dust that scientists still study to learn about the Moon. As the U.S. manned space program rose, the Soviet program began to falter. There was internal disagreement about trying to send a human to the moon. Perhaps more importantly was Korolev’s death after a fumbled surgery in 1966. Today, the U.S. and the Russian Federation still have active space programs.

Media Credits

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Tyson Brown, National Geographic Society
Freddie Wilkinson
Production Managers
Gina Borgia, National Geographic Society
Jeanna Sullivan, National Geographic Society
Program Specialists
Sarah Appleton, National Geographic Society, National Geographic Society
Margot Willis, National Geographic Society
Clint Parks
Last Updated

June 12, 2024

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