In 1942 an A4 rocket, a prototype for the German V2 rocket bomb, became the first successful launch of an object into space. Four years later the first organisms were launched into space. Far from being humans or even monkeys, they were fruit flies and corn seeds aboard a US-launched V2 rocket in 1946!
Birth of the Space Race
Following these successes, the next stage for scientists was to keep their spacecraft in space: they had to achieve orbit. The first successful orbital launch was of the Soviet unmanned Sputnik I mission in 1957.
By now the US and the Soviet Union had emerged as the sole rivals in this field and this spectacular triumph provoked the Americans to boost their space program, and an undeclared ‘Space Race’ between the two superpowers emerged.
At first it looked as though the Russians had got the jump on their American rivals; later in ’57, they struck gold again, by sending the first animal in orbit - a dog named Laika, the only crew of Sputnik 2. Realistically, the two nations were actually neck and neck in this hugely expensive two-horse race. The US took the first photo of the Earth from space in August ’59, while in September of the same year the Soviets launched Luna 2, the first probe that went to the moon.
Then another huge Soviet victory came in 1961 when Vostok 1 successfully completed its orbital flight, this time carrying Yuri Gagarin - the first human being into space. Then in ’65 they did it again, launching Venera 3, the first space probe sent to explore another planet.
Venera 3 crashed on the surface of Venus the following year, and although its communications systems failed before it could return any information about the planet, it was seen as a success. Now the gauntlet had been thrown down. America had to act.
One Small Step For Man…
These words are now some of the most famous ever uttered. They came in 1969 when the US trumped the USSR like never before, by making astronaut Neil Armstrong the first man on the moon. As Apollo 11 landed on the rocky surface, millions watched the event on their TV sets. It was one of the defining moments of the last century as mission commander Neil Armstrong and pilot Edwin ‘Buzz’ Aldrin became the first humans to set foot on the Moon. But spare a thought for Michael Collins, who was also part of the team and must be pretty annoyed that he never gets remembered!
Although the Russians scored another victory in 1971 with Salyut 1 - the first human-made space station of any kind, as the decade drew to a close it seemed that the US was pulling away from its only rival. This was confirmed as space exploration moved into ‘the shuttle era’.
The first reusable spacecraft, commonly known as the space shuttle, was launched by the US on the 20th anniversary of Gagarin’s flight, on April 12, 1981. During the ‘shuttle era’, six were built in total. The first was named The Enterprise, but this was only used for approach and landing tests, launching from the back of a Boeing 747 and gliding back down to an airstrip in California. The first space shuttle to fly into space however was the Columbia, followed by the ill-fated Challenger, Discovery, Atlantis, and the Endeavour, built to replace the Challenger when it was lost on that fateful day in 1986.
While it seems that the US had a monopoly on reusable spacecraft during the ‘shuttle era’, the first - and so far only - reusable spacecraft from the Soviet Union came in ‘88. The Buran - meaning ’snowstorm’ - launched on November 15, although it made only one flight. This ‘space plane’ was designed for a crew and strongly resembled the U.S. space shuttle, although lack of funding and the dissolution of the USSR, prevented the Buran from flying ever again.
Infinity and Beyond
Well, not quite. Recent years has seen unmanned missions to many of the other planets in our solar system, as well as joint efforts by the US and the former Soviet Union, who finally realised that two heads were indeed better than one. However, we are still years away from successfully launching manned missions to distant planets!
Possibly the most recent milestone came in 2004 when Civilian Space eXploration Team launched the GoFast Rocket on a suborbital flight. This became the first amateur space flight. Following this success, SpaceShipOne became the first privately-funded manned spacecraft. Its successor, the imaginatively-named SpaceShipTwo was funded by our very own Richard Branson. The billionaire entrepreneur also founded Virgin Galactic, a spaceline that forms part of his Virgin Group, which plans to offer suborbital spaceflights to the paying public by 2008.