Explore 60 years of rockets

This graphic charts the history of spaceflight, from Russia’s reliable early vehicles to today’s privately engineered crafts.

This story appears in the July 2019 issue of National Geographic magazine.

Rapid advancements in spaceflight occurred during the space race between the U.S. and the Soviet Union. Ballistic missiles for warfare evolved into rockets destined for exploration. Now commercial space companies are also building spacecraft and selling tickets for future tourist flights.

Read more about past—and future—travels to the moon in our July cover story “50 years after Apollo 11, a new moon race is on.

SOVIETS IN SPACE

The Soviets’ Vostok (“East” in Russian) launched the first human, Yuri Gagarin, into one orbit around Earth. The R7 was first used for spaceflight to launch Sputnik. A third stage was added later; modified versions are still in use.

Spacecraft

VOSTOK 1

1961

Third stage

Launch vehicle

R7

1957-present

Second

stage

First stage,

four boosters

Numbers are averages for specific vehicles above.

0.58 million lb

TOTAL WEIGHT

88%

Fuel (%)

Spacecraft

11,000 lb (to low

Earth orbit)

PAYLOAD

(crew and cargo)

U.S. REACHES the MOON

The only rocket to carry humans past low Earth orbit had hydrogen-powered engines in its second and third stages.

Pressurized

section for

crew

Engine

Lunar

module

Spacecraft

APOLLO 11

1969

Launch

vehicle

SATURN V

1967-1973

Fuel tank

Third

stage

Interstage

Second

stage

First

stage

6.5 million lb

91%

100,000 lb

(to lunar orbit)

250,000 lb

ROUND-TRIP TICKET

The world’s first reusable spacecraft to carry humans into orbit could transport up to eight passengers. Solid rocket boosters could be refurbished after use if no damage was discovered.

Orbiter

COLUMBIA

1981-2003

External fuel

tank

Launch vehicle

SPACE SHUTTLE

1981-2011

Para-

chutes

Cargo

bay

First

stage

In-

orbit

fuel

4.5 million lb

84%

63,500 lb

U.S. Goes COMMERCIAL

NASA has contracted with SpaceX to bring astronauts as well as cargo to the International Space Station.

Spacecraft

CREW

DRAGON

2019

Launch

vehicle

FALCON 9

2010-present

Second stage

First stage

(reusable)

Landing

legs open

1.2 million lb

(proportions not available)

50,000 lb

FERNANDO G. BAPTISTA, KAYA BERNE, EVE CONANT, NGM STAFF; RONALD PANIAGUA. SOURCES: NASA; SMITHSONIAN’S NATIONAL AIR AND SPACE MUSEUM; SPACEX; THE SOYUZ LAUNCH VEHICLE, BY CHRISTIAN LARDIER AND STEFAN BARENSKY

U.S. REACHES the MOON

Pressurized section for crew

The only rocket to carry humans past low Earth orbit had hydrogen-powered engines in its second and third stages.

Engine

U.S. Goes

COMMERCIAL

Lunar module

Spacecraft

APOLLO 11

1969

NASA has contracted with SpaceX to bring astronauts as well as cargo to the International Space Station.

Launch

vehicle

SATURN V

1967-1973

Fuel tank

Third stage

Spacecraft

CREW DRAGON

2019

Interstage

Launch

vehicle

FALCON 9

2010-present

ROUND-TRIP TICKET

Second stage

The world’s first reusable spacecraft to carry humans into orbit could transport up to eight passengers.

External fuel tank

Second stage

SOVIETS IN SPACE

The Soviets’ Vostok (“East” in Russian) launched the first human, Yuri Gagarin, into one orbit around Earth.

The R7 was first used for spaceflight to launch Sputnik. A third stage was added later; modified versions are still in use.

Launch

vehicle

SPACE

SHUTTLE

1981-2011

Para-

chutes

Spacecraft VOSTOK 1

1961

Orbiter

COLUMBIA

1981-2003

Third stage

Launch

vehicle

R7

1957-present

First stage

(reusable)

First stage

Cargo bay

First stage

Solid rocket

boosters

could be

refurbished

after use if

no damage

was discov-

ered.

Second stage

FERNANDO G. BAPTISTA,

KAYA BERNE, EVE

CONANT, NGM STAFF;

RONALD PANIAGUA

SOURCES: NASA;

SMITHSONIAN’S

NATIONAL AIR AND

SPACE MUSEUM;

SPACEX; THE SOYUZ

LAUNCH VEHICLE, BY

CHRISTIAN LARDIER

AND STEFAN BARENSKY

In-orbit fuel

First stage, four boosters

Landing legs open

6.5 million lb

Numbers are averages for specific vehicles above.

4.5 million lb

1.2 million lb

(proportions not available)

0.58 million lb

TOTAL WEIGHT

91%

84%

88%

Fuel (%)

Spacecraft

100,000 lb

(to lunar orbit)

63,500 lb

50,000 lb

11,000 lb (to low

Earth orbit)

PAYLOAD

(crew and cargo)

250,000 lb