Space Race: The Competition to Be First in Space

The competition to be the first in space began in 1945 and would last 30 years. The Space Race pitted the United States and Soviet Union against each other in a contest that extended from the Earth to the surface of the moon and beyond.

The race to be first in space began in Germany at the end of World War II. The American and Soviet military's engaged in a covert competition to secure V-2 rocket personnel and technology.

V-2 leader Wernher von Braun surrendered to the Americans along with the core of his team. They went to the United States along with a number of captured V-2 rockets. The Soviets, led by Sergei Korolev, recruited German rocket engineers to work on their program.

Von Braun's team ended up at Fort Bliss in Texas. They began firing V-2 rockets from the White Sands Missile Range in New Mexico. The team would add upper stages to the single-stage rockets, allowing the missiles to send payloads in space on suborbital flights.

Korolev developed an increasingly powerful series of rockets during the decade following World War II. After the Soviets had extracted as much expertise from the Germans as possible, they sent them home.

In 1955, President Dwight Eisenhower announced that the United States would orbit a satellite during the upcoming International Geophysical Year, an 18-month period that would begin in mid-1957. Von Braun proposed launching the satellite on an upgraded Redstone rocket; however, his proposal lost out to the Navy's Vanguard project.

It was a costly decision. On Oct. 4, 1957, the Soviets became first in space as Korolev's R-7 rocket boosted Sputnik 1 into orbit. The satellite's “beep beep beep” signal was heard all around the world.

America's humiliation was made worse in December when the first Vanguard launch attempt failed. Von Braun rescued American pride in January 1958 when his team launched the Explorer 1 satellite.

The two nations then competed to be first in space by sending spacecraft to the moon and planets as they raced to send the first man into space.

On April 12, 1961, Korolev bested the Americans again when he sent Yuri Gagarin into orbit. Alan Shepard got America back in the race three weeks later with a short suborbital flight.

Following Shepard's flight, President John F. Kennedy committed the United States to landing a man on the moon by the end of the decade. His advisers had assured him that this was a race that America could win using the large Saturn rockets that von Braun already had under development.

They were right. On July 20, 1969, Neil Armstrong and Buzz Aldrin landed their Apollo 11 lunar module Eagle on the Sea of Tranquillity. The United States was indisputably first in space.

The underfunded Soviet lunar program was plagued by numerous failures. By the early 1970's, the nation ended the effort and focused on their manned Salyut space stations.

In 1975, the two superpowers put aside their rivalry when they docked manned Soyuz and Apollo spacecraft in space. As astronauts and cosmonauts shook hands in Earth orbit, the first Space Race came to an official end.

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Space Race


Return from First in Space to Home


First Satellite in Space

On October 4, 1957, the world received stunning news: the Soviet Union had launched the first artificial satellite in space. People went outdoors to watch Sputnik 1 race across the night sky at 18,000 miles per hour. Short-wave radio operators tuned in to hear the 'beep beep beep' signal from the world's first artificial satellite.

First American in Space

Alan B. Shepard, Jr. was the first American in Space. He was a Navy test pilot selected to be one of the original seven Mercury astronauts. On May 5, 1961, a Redstone rocket launched his Freedom 7 spacecraft from Cape Canaveral, Florida. He flew a 15-minute suborbital flight that soared up to 116 miles and landed 302 miles out in the ocean. The flight went flawlessly and he became a national hero.

First Moonwalk

That's a small step for man, a giant leap for mankind, Armstrong declared as the first moonwalk in history commenced on the Sea of Tranquility.

First Dog in Space

Laika, the first dog in space, was launched aboard the USSR Sputnik 2 on Nov. 3, 1957. She was alive and eating her food during her early hours in orbit. However, all signs of life ceased about five to seven hours after liftoff. Laika had died of excessive heat and stress, causes that was not revealed publicly for 40 years. The Soviets originally claimed the dog had survived in orbit for daysA statue of Laika sits in Star City, where Russian cosmonauts train.

First African American in Space

Who was the first African American in space? Early in the morning of Aug. 30, 1983, Guion Bluford, sat strapped in his seat aboard the space shuttle Challenger, preparing to make history. Lightning flashed outside as controllers waited for a storm to pass.

First Animals in Space

First Animals in Space: When most people are asked about the first animal in space, they usually name the monkeys and dogs that tested out the space environment before Yuri Gagarin and Alan Shepard flew. Those are good guesses, but they are wrong.

First Spaceship on Venus

First Spaceship on Venus: It was not until the 1960’s when space probes were sent to Venus that scientists realized that conditions on the surface were much worse than anyone imaged. Venus is a planet with a greenhouse effect run amok.

First Space Tourist

First Space Tourist: When Dennis Tito plotted rocket trajectories at NASA’s Jet Propulsion Laboratory during the Apollo era, he probably never imagined that he would someday ride one by becoming the first tourist in space.

The First Man in Space

Yuri Gagarin of the USSR was the first man in space. On the morning of April 12, 1961, Gagarin slid into the Vostok 1 space capsule at the Tyruatam spaceport. Ten minutes later, he was in orbit traveling faster than anyone in history at 17,000 miles per hour. The flight lasted 108 minutes. Gagarin returned to Earth to international acclaim and was named a Hero of the Soviet Union. He traveled abroad frequently, serving as a goodwill ambassador for the Soviet Union. Sadly, the first man in space never flew into space again.

First American Woman in Space

NASA was about to make Sally Ride the first American woman in space. Soon, a line from the song’s chorus, "Ride, Sally, ride" was on everyone’s lips. Launch day came on June 18, 1983 -- 20 years and two days after Soviet cosmonaut Valentina Tereshkova became the first woman in space.

First Black Woman in Space

Mae Jemison owes her status as the first black woman in space, in part, to a splinter she got as a young girl - learn why! Jemison always had a dream of flying in space. One of her role models growing up was Nichelle Nichols, who played Lt. Uhura on 'Star Trek.'

First Man on the Moon

The dream that made Neil Armstrong the first man on the Moon began on May 25, 1961, when President John F. Kennedy proclaimed: 'I believe that this nation should commit itself to achieving the goal...of landing a man on the Moon...." Apollo 11 Astronaut Armstrong’s seating position necessitated that he exit the lunar module before Buzz Aldrin, originally chosen to be the first on the lunar surface.

The First American Space

Who was the first American in Space? On April 9, 1959, NASA introduced seven astronauts selected for the upcoming manned Mercury spaceflights. The pilots, drawn from the U.S. Air Force, Navy and Marine Corps, included: Malcolm Scott Carpenter; Leroy G. 'Gordo' Cooper; John Glenn; Virgil I. 'Gus' Grissom; Walter 'Wally' Schirra; Alan B. Shepard, Jr.; and Donald K. 'Deke' Slayton.

The First Man in Space

The competition to become the first man in space was an intense battle waged on two continents. While the United States and Soviet Union raced to put the first person in space, astronauts and cosmonauts competed intensely with each other. Ultimately, the selection came down to skill, luck and which program was ready to fly first.

The First Satellite in Space

It appeared the U.S. would put the first satellite in space. U.S. President Dwight Eisenhower had announced that the United States would orbit a satellite during the International Geophysical Year, an 18-month period that would begin in mid-1957.

First Lunar Lander

The first lunar lander descends as a billion people around the world hold their breath, astronauts Neil Armstrong and Buzz Aldrin maneuver their tiny Lunar Module toward the first moon landing as their fuel begins to run out. Suddenly, Armstrong makes a stunning announcement that crackles over 240,000 miles of space.

First Woman in Space

Who was the first woman in space? She was a 24-year-old textile worker when she heard that the Soviet space program was recruiting female cosmonauts. Normally, a textile worker wouldn't qualify for such a job. Cosmonauts were typically pilots. But Tereshkova jumped at the chance to do what Yuri Gagarin had just accomplished.

First Space Shuttle Launch

Before the first space shuttle launch, Commander John Young was asked if he ever got scared during a launch. He responded that if you're sitting on that much explosive fuel and don't get a little nervous, you don't really understand what you're doing.

First Man to Walk on the Moon

Who Was the First Man to Walk on the Moon, Buzz Aldrin or Niel Armstrong? As the Lunar Module Eagle descended toward the Moon on July 20, 1969, Neil Armstrong didn't like what he saw. The automated landing program was carrying the fragile vehicle toward a field strewn with dangerous boulders. Taking over manual control, Armstrong methodically flew the tiny spacecraft toward a clear spot.

First Chimp in Space

First Chimp in Space: Ham was strapped inside a Mercury capsule and blasted into space by a Redstone rocket on a short, 15-minute suborbital flight. Ham performed like a champ, pulling the levers at only a fraction of a second slower than he did on Earth.

First Space Flights

First Space Flights: There have been a number of historic first space flights in history. Below is a list of the major milestones ranging from the first space flight with animals to the first Chinese space station.