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.


4 - 12


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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Humans have been venturing into space for over 60 years. The era of space travel officially began October 4, 1957, when the Union of Soviet Socialist Republics (U.S.S.R.), or Soviet Union, launched Sputnik. It was the first human-made satellite launched into orbit Earth.

The launch happened during the period of political hostility between the U.S.S.R. and the United States known as the Cold War. For several years, these two superpowers competed to develop missiles, called intercontinental ballistic missiles (ICBMs). These missiles were designed to carry nuclear weapons between continents. In the U.S.S.R., the rocket designer Sergei Korolev developed the first ICBM, a rocket called the R7. This began the space race.

The competition reached its height with the launch of Sputnik. Carried on top of an R7 rocket, the Sputnik satellite sent out beeps from a radio transmitter. Sputnik orbited Earth once every 96 minutes. Its radio beeps could be detected on the ground as the satellite passed overhead, so people around the world knew Sputnik was really in orbit.

NASA Is Born

The United States realized that the U.S.S.R. had capabilities that exceeded U.S. technologies. Officials worried these technologies could put Americans in danger. A month after Sputnik's launch, on November 3, 1957, the USSR achieved an even more impressive accomplishment. This was Sputnik II, a satellite that carried the first living creature into space. Its passenger was a dog named Laika.

Before the launch of Sputnik, the United States made two failed attempts to launch a satellite into space. Then, on January 31, 1958, the United States successfully launched its first satellite, the Explorer. Explorer rode into space on top of a powerful rocket called Jupiter C, which was designed by the rocket engineer Wernher von Braun. The satellite carried several instruments for conducting science experiments in space. They included a Geiger counter for detecting cosmic rays. These high-energy rays rain down on our solar system from space.

In 1958, the supervision of space exploration activities in the United States was assembled under a new government agency, called the National Aeronautics and Space Administration (NASA).

The Soviets Have Many Firsts in Space

Soviet successes in space continued. The first human in space was Soviet cosmonaut Yuri Gagarin, who made one orbit around Earth on April 12, 1961. This flight lasted 108 minutes. About three weeks later, NASA launched astronaut Alan Shepard into space on a suborbital flight. This flight went into space but did not fully orbit the planet. Shepard's flight lasted about 15 minutes. Three weeks later, President John F. Kennedy challenged the United States, 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."

The Soviet Union achieved several space goals ahead of the United States. In addition to launching the first satellite, the first dog, and the first human in space, in 1959 the Soviets launched the first human-made object to hit the moon: Luna 2. Less than four months after Gagarin's 108-minute flight, a Soviet mission orbited a cosmonaut around Earth for an entire day. The U.S.S.R. achieved the first spacewalk, in which a human first took steps outside a spacecraft in outer space, in 1965. The Soviet Union also sent the first woman to space.

The U.S. Space Program Takes Flight

During the 1960s, NASA made progress toward President Kennedy's goal of landing a human on the moon. They did this with a program called Project Gemini. In this program, astronauts tested technology needed for future flights to the moon and their own ability to spend days in spaceflight. Project Gemini was followed by Project Apollo, which took astronauts into orbit around the moon and to the moon's surface between 1968 and 1972.

In 1969, on Apollo 11, Neil Armstrong became the first human to set foot on the moon's surface. NASA had met President Kennedy's challenge and would eventually land a total of six missions on the moon.

During these landed missions, astronauts collected samples of rocks and dust that scientists still study today. During the 1960s and 1970s, NASA also launched a series of space probes called Mariner, which studied the Venus, Mars, and Mercury. Probes are robotic spacecraft that fly without pilots on board.

Space stations marked the next phase of space exploration. The first space station in Earth orbit was the Soviet Salyut 1 station, which was launched in 1971. This was followed by NASA's Skylab space station. This was the first orbital laboratory in which astronauts and scientists studied Earth and the effects of spaceflight on the human body. During the 1970s, NASA also carried out Project Viking in which two probes landed on Mars, took photographs, examined the chemistry of Mars' surface, and tested the dirt for microorganisms.

New Technology Is Taking Up Space

The Apollo Moon program ended in 1972. Since then space exploration has consisted largely of countries participating in research on the International Space Station. However, probes continue to travel throughout our solar system. In recent years, probes have made many discoveries. They have discovered oceans underneath the surface ice of a moon Jupiter and a moon of Saturn. Scientists think these oceans may contain life.

Meanwhile, instruments such as the Kepler Space Telescope have discovered thousands of exoplanets. These are planets outside of our solar system that orbit other stars. Advances in technology allow these instruments to collect and record new information about the atmospheres of some of these exoplanets.

Media Credits

The audio, illustrations, photos, and videos are credited beneath the media asset, except for promotional images, which generally link to another page that contains the media credit. The Rights Holder for media is the person or group credited.

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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