After NASA’s announcement of their plans to visit the Moon again in 2025, many of us may be reminded of the Space Race – which began in the late 1950s and ended with the first humans in space and on the Moon.

Far beyond a milestone in human achievement, the Space Race was part of the Cold War, which was a power struggle between the world’s two most powerful countries – the democratic, capitalist United States of America and the communist Soviet Union.

Both countries wanted to prove their power and superiority over one another – and the domination of space became a key area of competition. This almost 20-year power struggle resulted in technological advances that led to the first Moon landing, space shuttle, and International Space Station, which still orbits Earth today.

With that said, here are 11 key moments in the race to the Moon.

1. The Space Race begins with the launch of Sputnik 1 – October 1957

On 4th October 1957, the first-ever Earth-orbiting satellite, Sputnik 1, was successfully launched by the Soviet Union, known officially as the Union of Soviet Socialist Republics (USSR).

This creation of this 85kg basketball-sized satellite was a huge step for spacecraft technology and engineering because it became the first manmade object to orbit Earth. Sputnik 1 was launched by a huge rocket and orbited Earth in 98 minutes at 18,000mph. When it finally fell out of orbit on 4th January 1958, Sputnik 1 had travelled 43.5 million miles.

The launch of Sputnik 1 took America (which was working on launching its own artificial satellite at the time) by surprise. As a result, many historians cite it as the official trigger of the Space Race because it encouraged America to take a more serious approach to the space programme and catch up with the USSR.

Sputnik 1 also provided scientists with valuable information about the Earth’s atmosphere and ionosphere.

2. The USSR launches Sputnik 2 – November 1957

Less than one month after the successful launch of Sputnik 1, the USSR’s space programme took another massive leap.

On 3rd November 1957, Sputnik 2, was launched into Earth’s orbit. However, unlike its predecessor, Sputnik 2 was carrying a live animal – a female stray dog named Laika, from the streets of Moscow.

Laika became the first living being to orbit the Earth. However, the technology was not yet advanced enough, and Laika died a few hours after the launch of Sputnik 2 due to panic and overheating in the spacecraft.

Despite Laika’s death, Sputnik 2 provided yet more valuable data to scientists. It proved that, with the help of suits and tweaks in technology, it would be possible to survive in the Earth’s orbit. Sputnik 2’s mission motivated America to take further strides in the Space Race.

3. America joins the Space Race with the launch of Explorer 1 – January 1958

After the launch of Sputnik 1 and 2, America stepped up its efforts and officially joined the Space Race with the successful launch of its own satellite, Explorer I, on 31st January 1958.

Besides cementing America’s place in the Space Race, Explorer 1 provided further valuable information to scientists. Among other things, it played a key role in the discovery of the Van Allen radiation belts (a zone of energetic-charged particles surrounding Earth).

This data ultimately led to the development of the kind of rockets and spacecraft needed to carry astronauts to the surface of the Moon and bring them back home safely.

Explorer 1 provided data for almost four months before its batteries ran out – but it continued orbiting the Earth until 1970. As well as being the first American satellite, Explorer 1 was also the first in a series of over 90 Explorers, the latest of which (TESS) was launched on 18th April 2018.

4. NASA is created – July 1958

On 29th July 1958, a year after the launch of Sputnik 1, American President Dwight Eisenhower created the National Aeronautics and Space Administration (NASA). NASA officially opened for business on 1st October 1958.

Intending to generate more jobs, funding, time, and technological research, the launch of NASA confirmed America’s commitment to winning the Space Race. NASA replaced the National Advisory Committee on Aeronautics (NACA), established in 1915.

5. President Eisenhower broadcasts from space – 18th December 1958

The world’s first communications satellite, SCORE (Signal Communications by Orbital Relay Equipment), was launched by America on 18th December 1958.

SCORE captured the world’s attention when it broadcasted a pre-recorded Christmas message from US President Dwight D. Eisenhower.

It was the first broadcast of a human voice from space and the first time an entire Atlas missile had made it into Earth’s orbit. Among other things, SCORE proved that satellites could receive signals from one location on Earth and immediately retransmit to another.

6. First animals return from space alive – May 1959

On 28th May 1959, two monkeys, Able and Baker, became the first animals to survive a space flight. Able, a female rhesus monkey, and Baker, a female squirrel monkey, took off into space on an American Jupiter missile.

While the monkeys weren’t the first animals to be sent on a space mission (Laika the dog was in 1957), they were the first to survive.

7. The first human travels into space on Vostok 1 – April 1961

On 12th April 1961, the USSR achieved their greatest triumph in the Space Race with the launch of Vostok 1. Vostok 1 took off from the Baikonur Cosmodrome in Kazakhstan with Yuri Gagarin (1934-1968) on board. Gagarin became the first human in history to travel into space.

He orbited the Earth for around two hours before parachuting safely back down from his capsule after reaching a safe altitude.

The success of Vostok 1 pushed the USSR back into the lead in the Space Race – but it didn’t last for long.

8. The second successful human spaceflight – May 1961

On 5th May 1961, just a few weeks after Vostok 1’s successful mission, NASA’s Mercury-Redstone 3 (also known as Freedom 7) took off from Cape Canaveral in Florida with astronaut Alan Shepard (1923-1998) on board.

Mercury-Redstone 3 officially marked the launch of Project Mercury – America’s first human spaceflight programme to take astronauts to space.

Unlike Gagarin, Shepard didn’t enter the Earth’s orbit but instead carried out a 15-minute long suborbital flight. He became the second person in the world and the first American to make a successful human spaceflight.

The Mercury-Redstone 3 mission paved the way for future American space flights and also helped to ease the blow inflicted on the American space programme by Vostok 1.

According to Brian C. Odom, acting Chief Historian for NASA, “Following Shepard’s flight in May 1961, it became very clear that the Space Race was continuing. President Kennedy committed to the lunar programme and once that commitment was made, the resources came with it. NASA’s attention for the next seven or eight years was focused on putting a man on the Moon.”

9. The first woman in space – June 1963

On 16th June 1963, former textile worker Valentina Tereshkova became the first woman launched into space by the USSR.

Valentina circled Earth 49 times during her three days in space. She was reportedly injured during the landing.

10. The first space walk – March 1965

On 18th March 1965, Soviet cosmonaut Alexei Leonov, pilot of the Voskhod 2 mission, became the first person to leave a space capsule. Tethered to it, he floated freely in orbit, space-walking.

Leonov’s spacewalk wasn’t without difficulties. Despite only being outside his craft for around 12 minutes, Leonov’s suit ballooned when outside of the spacecraft’s internal atmosphere, meaning he was unable to re-enter.

Desperately working the suit to make it more flexible, Leonov made it back inside. He later noted that he’d sweated so much that it sloshed around inside his suit.

11. Apollo 11 and the first man on the Moon – July 1969

On 16th July 1969, NASA’s Apollo 11 took off from the Kennedy Space Center. Four days later, the Lunar Module separated from the Command module and took Neil Armstrong and Edwin ‘Buzz’ Aldrin to the Moon.

Armstrong became the first person to step foot on the Moon – closely followed by Buzz Aldrin. The two of them walked around on the Moon’s surface for around three hours; collecting material and taking photos – before placing the American flag on the Moon’s surface. The event was televised around the world and watched by 723 million people.

Armstrong famously declared, “That’s one small step for man, one giant leap for mankind.”

Realising that the race to the Moon was lost, the USSR cancelled their programme and began focusing on building a space station instead. On 19th April 1971, the Soviets successfully launched the world’s first-ever space station, Salyut 1.

Final thoughts…

The Space Race was a fascinating period of competition over space exploration that resulted in some of the most significant milestones in the history of technological development.

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