Into The Unknown



The First 20 Years In Space


Between 1957 and 1977 humanity took its historic first steps into space. With each new challenge overcome, grander conquests beckoned us forward. The successes of the Soviet and American space programs transformed us into a space-faring civilization. This is their story.


 
 

1957



 

The race is on


Soviet Union launches Sputnik satellite.

In October 1957 the Earth received its first artificial satellite - Sputnik. Sputnik was quite basic - a metal sphere the size of a beachball with four radio antennas. It circled the planet in Low Earth Orbit, transmitting a radio signal to friends and foes alike.

The West’s reaction was of complete shock! How had the Soviet Union managed such a huge feat without any warning? But they had been working in secret for years, overseen by Sergei Korolyov, the legendary Chief Designer of the Soviet space program.

And they were just getting started! Only 32 days after Sputnik, the USSR launched another satellite, this time carrying the first living being in space: Laika the dog. Both launches were from Baikonur Cosmodrome in Kazakhstan, which would become the main launching pad for all future Soviet space projects, even to this day.



 

Sergei Korolyov

Wernher Magnus Maximilian Freiherr von Braun (March 23, 1912 – June 16, 1977) was a German, later American, aerospace engineer[3] and space architect credited with inventing the V-2 rocket for Nazi Germany and the Saturn V for the United States.[4][5] He was the leading figure in the development of rocket technology in Germany and the father of rocket technology and space science in the United States.

Following World War II, he was secretly moved to the United States, along with about 1,600 other scientists, engineers, and technicians, as part of Operation Paperclip, where he developed the rockets that launched the United States' first space satellite Explorer 1, and the Apollo program manned lunar landings.

In his twenties and early thirties, von Braun worked in Nazi Germany's rocket development program, where he helped design and develop the V-2 rocket at Peenemünde during World War II. Following the war, von Braun worked for the United States Army on an intermediate-range ballistic missile (IRBM) program before his group was assimilated into NASA. Under NASA, he served as director of the newly formed Marshall Space Flight Center and as the chief architect of the Saturn V launch vehicle, the superbooster that propelled the Apollo spacecraft to the Moon.[6] In 1975, he received the National Medal of Science. He continued insisting on the human mission to Mars throughout his life.

1958



America plays catch-up


NASA is established to
coordinate space efforts

Still reeling from the shock of being beaten to space by the USSR, Congress moved to consolidate all space efforts under a single agency. NASA was born.

Many programs were brought under NASA control, including Wernher von Braun’s team working on the Redstone rocket. Von Braun was a brilliant scientist who had worked on advanced rockets for Germany during WWII, and he’d go on to play a pivotal role in getting America into space. Known not only as an engineer but a shrewd politician and persuasive salesman, von Braun’s shepherded the fledgling space program from shaky beginnings to its greatest successes.


 

1959



 

Lunar probes


USSR send Luna probes to the Moon, US responds with Pioneer

The Space Race was now in full swing! Both sides were busy launching new satellites into Earth’s orbit, some of them scientific and others used for spying. By 1959 they also felt confident enough in their abilities to attempt sending probes to the Moon’s vicinity.

The USSR shot first with Luna 1. It missed the Moon, but as it sailed off into space it became the first man-made object to leave Earth’s orbit. A few months later they succeeded, when the Luna 2 probe impacted the Moon carrying two metal pennants inscribed with “USSR January 1959”. Less than a month later came Luna 3, this time transmitting the first photograph of the far side of the Moon.

Not to be outdone, the United States launched its Pioneer series of probes. Two months after Luna 1, Pioneer 4 conducted its own fly-by of the Moon. These probes were crucial to understanding whether space was safe for living beings. At the time it was believed that the Van Allen radiation belts surrounding Earth might present a barrier to manned exploration.

1960



 

Cosmodogs & Astrochimps


Animals prepare the way for humans in space

Could living beings survive in space? Scientists had theories but no one knew for sure. Before risking humans on that dangerous journey, both rival space programs wanted assurances that it was safe. Animals would have to pave the way.

Laika was the original Soviet spacedog, a stray who became the first living being in space (though unfortunately her voyage was a one-way trip). A few years later followed two more dogs, Belka and Strelka, and this time they returned!

The United States opted to use apes because of their close resemblance to human biology. In 1961, Ham the Space Chimp hitched a ride on a Mercury-Redstone rocket, becoming the first primate in space. He proved that not only could we survive in zero-G, but perform complex tasks just as well as on Earth.

1961



Leaving Earth


Yuri Gagarin becomes the first human in space

The ultimate goal had always been to send human explorers to space, and in 1961 that goal was achieved. Soviet cosmonaut Yuri Gagarin became the first man in space when his Vostok craft completed a single orbit of the Earth. It was a short journey - less than two hours from launch to landing. But those brief moments changed the world forever!

He came back to a hero’s welcome, with huge parades in his honor. The USSR quickly capitalized on Gagarin's fame by sending him on a world tour. Korolyov and the Soviet space program were racking up success after success, and this was perhaps their greatest achievement.

The United States was again left to play catch-up. It wouldn’t be until a year later that John Glenn became the first American to orbit the Earth (Alan Shepard was first into space, but didn’t complete an orbit) aboard Friendship-7.

 

1962



We choose to go to the Moon


Kennedy commits to landing on the Moon by end of decade

President Kennedy had originally been skeptical of investing into the space program, but with the Soviet Union scoring victory after victory it was now all or nothing.

Before a crowd of 35,000 at Rice University, Kennedy delivered his famous “We choose to go to the Moon” speech. It framed space as the ultimate frontier, tying the Space Race to America’s pioneering past. The speech galvanized the nation behind a clear, ambitious goal: the Moon.

But getting there wouldn't be cheap - NASA’s budget quadrupled over the next few years. A new Manned Spacecraft Center in Houston was being built and the new Saturn rockets then under construction would be the largest ever built.

 

1963



aaa

Cosmonaut


Valentina Tereshkova becomes the first woman in space

Flying aboard Vostok 6, Tereshkova orbited the Earth over 40 times on her three-day journey. Her flight was the last of the Vostok missions that had put six Soviet citizens into space. Next would come the Voskhod program, with a larger crew vehicle allowing for multi-person missions. The American counterpart, Project Mercury, had also put six astronauts into orbit. It was winding down as well, to be replaced by Project Gemini.

It would be another 20 years before the Soviet Union had their next female cosmonaut, Svetlana Savitskaya in 1982. A year later came the first American, Sally Ride, and since then women have had a continual presence beyond Earth.

At the United Nations, President Kennedy called on the Soviet Union to consider a joint expedition to the Moon. The offer (if it was sincere) was rejected and the two superpowers continued on with their individual programs.

1964



Think really big


As humanity ventures into space, scientists contemplate our place in the universe


The Kardashev Scale
Humans are by far the dominant species on planet Earth, but Soviet physicist Nikolai Kardashev wanted to consider the possibility of life-forms more advanced than us. So he proposed a scale and put us at the bottom.

A Type 1 civilization can harness all the energy on their planet, a Type 2 all the energy of their star and a Type 3 all the energy of their solar system. Right now we're at roughly 0.7 on that scale, and will soon reach Type 1 unless some catastrophe happens.



The Drake Equation
How many alien species are out there? So far we have evidence of zero, but Frank Drake wanted to use math to make an educated guess. The Drake equation is a way of calculating how many alien races SHOULD exist in our galaxy, given known variables.

The Fermi Paradox
Closely related is the Fermi Paradox, which asks the question, "If there should be many alien races, where are they? Did something happen to them? Will the same fate befall us?



 

1965


 

Let's go for a walk


Alexei Leonov performs first spacewalk. Ed White follows shortly after

The race was on for which nation would be the first to perform a space-walk. Despite an explosion during an unmanned test, the Soviets couldn't afford any delays. They decided to go ahead. Alexei Leonov ascended safely aboard Voskhod 2 and climbed out of the inflatable airlock into the cold vastness of space.

But things started to go wrong. His spacesuit had inflated and Leonov couldn't fit back inside the airlock. He quickly decided to partially depressurized his suit, alloing to just barely squeeze back in the capsule and complete his mission. Three months later, Ed White became the first American to walk in space aboard Gemini 4.

1966



A Sci-Fi Renaissance


The space age ushers in a golden era of science fiction

With manned launches to space now happening regularly, suddenly everyone was thinking about exploration, aliens, distant worlds and the future of humanity.

The new sci-fi literature of the 1960s was more mature, dealing with complex issues like politics, gender, philosophy and religion. Some of the all-time best sci-fi books dates from this time: Frank Herbert's Dune, Ursula Le Guin's The Left Hand of Darkness, Stanislaw Lem's Solaris, Robert Heinlein's The Moon Is A Harsh Mistress, Larry Niven's Ringworld and Arthur C. Clarke's Rendezvous With Rama.

Star Trek premiered in 1966, showing audiences an optimstic vision of a spacefaring human society. In 1968 came the epic 2001: A Space Oddysey by director Stanley Kubrick, still renowned to this day.

 

1967



Bigger, better rockets


A new generation of heavy-lift rockets with one goal: the Moon

To even have a shot at reaching the Moon, the US and USSR had to create a whole new kind of launch vehicle.

For the United States this was the Saturn V - the rocket that could finally deliver them the ultimate prize. It was the culmination of years of refinement, from Redstone to Mercury-Redstone, to Mercury-Atlas and finally the all-new Saturn family. To this day it remains the largest, most powerful rocket ever built.

The USSR had placed their hopes on the N1 - a giant new rocket that would be their answer to Saturn. But development was rushed and after four failures in testing, including one resulting in a deadly explosion, the project was cancelled. That detour would haunt the Soviet space program forever, allowing the Americans to get the upper hand.

 

1967

 

Disaster strikes


Fatal accidents claim lives of Soyuz & Apollo crew

With both sides under tremendous pressure to produce results - and quickly! - disaster almost seemed inevitable. In 1967 it struck.

During a launch test of Apollo 1, a cabin fire claimed the lives of three veteran astronauts inside: Gus Grissom, Ed White and Roger Chaffee. NASA suspended manned flights for over a year, while the incident was investigated and adjustments made.

In the Soviet Union, the maiden launch of the Soyuz program likewise ended in catastrophe when a parachute failure caused Vladimir Komarov's capsule to crash into the ground. Fellow cosmonauts placed the blame on program leader Vasily Mishin, who kad replaced Korolyov after his death.

1968



Getting close


Apollo 8 orbits the Moon, paves the way for a landing attempt

Humans are by far the dominant species on planet Earth, but Soviet physicist Nikolai Kardashev wanted to consider the possibility of life-forms more advanced than us. So he proposed a scale and put us at the bottom.

A Type 1 civilization can harness all the energy on their planet, a Type 2 all the energy of their star and a Type 3 all the energy of their solar system. Right now we're at roughly 0.7 on that scale, and will soon reach Type 1 unless some catastrophe happens. Speaking of which....



 

1969



One giant leap for mankind


O'Neill, Aldrin and Collins become the first humans on the Moon

Humans are by far the dominant species on planet Earth, but Soviet physicist Nikolai Kardashev wanted to consider the possibility of life-forms more advanced than us. So he proposed a scale and put us at the bottom.

A Type 1 civilization can harness all the energy on their planet, a Type 2 all the energy of their star and a Type 3 all the energy of their solar system. Right now we're at roughly 0.7 on that scale, and will soon reach Type 1 unless some catastrophe happens. Speaking of which....



 

1970



Unmanned exploration


USSR and US send probes to explore Mars, Venus, Mercury and Jupiter, and a rover to the Moon

Amidst the drama and romance of blasting humans into space, an army of probes was being assembled to explore places too distant for people to reach.

The USSR landed the Venera 7 probe on Venus, becoming the first man-made object to touch down on another planet. Despite a shaky landing it transmitted 20 minutes of data back to Earth, another first. In the same year, the Lunokhod 1 rover landed on the Moon and spent over 10 months exploring - mankind's first remote-controlled craft on another celestial body. It remains there to this day.

On the American side, the Mariner probes completed fly-bys of Mars and Venus, sending back lots of useful information about atmospheric conditions.

 

1971



 

A home in space


Soviet station Salyut 1 becomes the first permanent habitat in space

The Soviet Union had failed to reach the Moon, so they concentrated their efforts into orbital stations instead. Six Salyut stations went up between 1971 and 1986, conducting scientific experiments. These early experiments would pave the way for the more ambitious Mir station (1986-2001) and finally the International Space Station.

The Soviet Union had failed to reach the Moon, so they concentrated their efforts into orbital stations instead. Six Salyut stations went up between 1971 and 1986, conducting scientific experiments. These early experiments would pave the way for the more ambitious Mir station (1986-2001) and finally the International Space Station.

1972



Goodbye to the Moon


After just 6 missions, manned exploration comes to a close with Apollo 17

Humans are by far the dominant species on planet Earth, but Soviet physicist Nikolai Kardashev wanted to consider the possibility of life-forms more advanced than us. So he proposed a scale and put us at the bottom.

A Type 1 civilization can harness all the energy on their planet, a Type 2 all the energy of their star and a Type 3 all the energy of their solar system. Right now we're at roughly 0.7 on that scale, and will soon reach Type 1 unless some catastrophe happens. Speaking of which....



 

1973



Hello Mars?


New proposals set their sights on the Red Planet

As early as the 1950s Wernher von Braun had been dreaming of Mars. But now America was riding a wave of optimism about its future in space, and the red Planet was seen as the logical next step.

In 1969 von Braun tried again, outlining a manned mission to Mars for launch 1981 (PDF). Carl Sagan proposed terraforming Mars to make it habitable.

The USSR had its own ideas. In 1956 Mikhail Tik proposed the MPK mission for 1976.

In the end, though, both the USSR and US had to abandon their overly ambitious plans for Mars. But the dream lives on, kept alive by people like Robert Zubrin and Elon Musk.

 

1974



Public interest


The Space Age spurs a wave of global interest is space exploration

With all the fancy rockets and records being set, it’s easy to overlook that perhaps the biggest achievement of the Space Race was invisible. It was in the minds of billions of people around the world who now considered it part of daily life to watch their fellow humans ascend into space. Routinely. Safely. This shift in perception manifested itself in art, architecture and even music. A generation of children had grown up never knowing a time when humans weren’t present in space.

There was no going back - we had truly become a spacefaring civilization!

In 1975 the National Space Insitiute was founded by von Braun, Buzz Aldrin, Michael Collins and others to promote public interest in space exploration. The L5 Society formed shortly after. Many organization continue that legacy today.

 

1975

 

The handshake in orbit


Soyuz and Apollo dock in space, signaling an easing of Cold War tensions

The Apollo-Soyuz Test Project was a historic docking of the Soviet and American capsules. For 44 hours they remained locked in their celestial embrace, the crew of two Russians and three Americans talking, exchanging gifts and conducting scientific experiments together.

The political significance was huge. Two rival superpowers who had nearly come to the brink of nuclear war had agreed to a period of detente. Such a move would have been unthinkable just a few years ago, yet here they were - mission commanders Leonov and Stafford exchanging a friendly handshake 230km above their mutual home.

1976



The High Frontier


A radical plan for colonies in space

Gerard O’Neill wanted to colonize space, and he had some interesting ideas for how to do it. His award-winning book The High Frontier lays out his vision of huge stations located on “Lagrange points” between the Earth and the Moon that could permanently house thousands of people.



 

1977



Message in a bottle


Voyager carries the Golden Record, our message to the cosmos

The Voyager probes, launched in 1977, were set to explore planets in our solar system and then continue out into interstellar space. NASA took the opportunity to send a quick "hello" to the universe - the Golden Record. It contained sounds and images of Earth - the music of Bach. Any sentient species encountering the probes, even many thousands or millions of years in the future, would get a little glimpse of life on our planet.

Not only were we sending messages, but receiving them as well! In 1977 Ohio State University’s SETI telescope picked up the “Wow!” signal, an unusual 72-second radio signal from the Sagittarius constellation. This remains our best evidence to date of intelligent life outside of Earth.

 

2017



Only the beginning


Voyager carries the Golden Record, our message to the cosmos

Humans are by far the dominant species on planet Earth, but Soviet physicist Nikolai Kardashev wanted to consider the possibility of life-forms more advanced than us. So he proposed a scale and put us at the bottom.

A Type 1 civilization can harness all the energy on their planet, a Type 2 all the energy of their star and a Type 3 all the energy of their solar system. Right now we're at roughly 0.7 on that scale, and will soon reach Type 1 unless some catastrophe happens. Speaking of which....