Credit: NASA – Sputnik 1 replica

Early beginnings

Scientific astronomy began in the 16th century, after that, ideas about space travel began. Many popular science fiction stories stories were written about space travel such as “From the Earth to the Moon”, by Jules Verne’s in 1865 and “The War of the Worlds”, by H G Wells’ in 1898 and “Exploration of Outer Space by Means of Rocket Devices”, by  Konstantin Tsiolkovsky in 1903.

Early experiments with rockets started in the 1920s by the USA and Russia and during the World War 2 (1939-1945) rocket technology progressed massively as part of the race to make international missiles.

The US USSR Space Race

The Soviet Union (USSR, Russia and its allies), launched Sputnik 1, as the first artificial Earth satellite into space in October 1957, which orbited for three weeks before its batteries died, then silently for two more months before falling back into the atmosphere.  Sputnik 1 was a 58 cm diameter metal sphere, with four external radio antennas that broadcast radio pulses. This successful surprise triggered the Space Race, a part of the Cold War and was the beginning of a new era of political, military, technological, and scientific developments in space.

Sputnik 2 was then launched in November 1957, and the first to carry a living animal, a Soviet dog called Laika. It was a 4-meter high cone-shaped capsule with a base diameter of 2 meters and contained several compartments for radio transmitting, scientific instruments and a sealed one for Laika.

Credit: NASA – Sputnik 1

The US quickly responded by launching Explorer 1, in 1958 which was the first spacecraft to detect the Van Allen radiation belt. Following that, the launch of Vanguard 1, in the same year, which was the first satellite to have solar electric power and was designed to test the launch capabilities of a three-stage launch vehicle, the effects of the space environment on a satellite in Earth orbit and was used to obtain geodetic measurements through orbit analysis.

Through the 1960s, the USSR led the space race with many notable firsts such as the first manned space flight by the Soviet Yuri Gagarin in Vostok 1 in 1961, the first controlled moon landing by the Soviet Luna 9 and the first probe to touch down on another planet (Venus) by the Soviet Venera 7.

However, Neil Armstrong, the commander of the American mission Apollo 11, became the first person to walk on the Moon in July 1969, despite the 6 missions initiated to travel to the moon.

The US then invented the US Space shuttle in 1981, which made working in orbit much easier to mankind with this reusable space plane. While the USSR set up Mir – the first large orbiting long-term human station in 1986, with Russian astronaut,  cosmonaut Valeri Poliakov having spent the longest continuous stay in space with 437 days in 1994. The Mir was succeeded by the International Space Station (ISS) after its orbit decayed in 2001.

Article adapted from Encyclopedia of Space, by Miles Kelly

Credit NASA – Neil Armstrong