How the space race launched an era of exploration beyond Earth

Cold War tensions between the United States and the Soviet Union fueled a technological sprint to space—which culminated with a historic landing on the moon.

Tensions ran high at the Baikonur Cosmodrome on the morning of April 12, 1961, as the Soviet Union prepared to launch the first human into space. Of the 16 previous attempts to propel the U.S.S.R.’s Vostok rocket into orbit, half had failed. Two of the space program’s top engineers reportedly had to take tranquilizers that day as they waited for liftoff at the Kazakh launch site.

But Yuri Gagarin remained calm in the capsule atop the rocket. After months of rigorous physical and technical training, the 27-year-old cosmonaut had been chosen for the historic flight in part for his unflappability. Intelligent, diligent, and well-liked among his comrades, one memo written by Soviet Air Force doctors and obtained by historian Asif Siddiqi noted that Gagarin “understands life better than a lot of his friends.”

At 9:07 a.m., Gagarin called outPoyekhali!”—Russian for “Off we go!”—as the rocket lifted off. He narrated his experiences to those on the ground as the rocket’s acceleration to 17,000 miles an hour pushed him back into his seat. “I see the Earth. The g-load is increasing somewhat. I feel excellent, in a good mood. I see the clouds. The landing site ... it's beautiful. What beauty.”

Moments later, the Soviet cosmonaut became the first person in space and, 89 minutes after launch, the first person to orbit the planet. It was a pivotal moment in the space race between the United States and Soviet Union that would put a man on the moon by the end of the decade. But it isn’t where the story of human spaceflight truly begins: That trajectory was charted years earlier by another Soviet success.

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The space race begins

Despite being allies during World War II, the U.S. and U.S.S.R. grew increasingly suspicious of one another as the war drew to a close in 1945. The U.S. had just demonstrated its ability to destroy entire cities by dropping atomic bombs on Hiroshima and Nagasaki to force Japan’s surrender. Thus began the Cold War, in which the U.S. and U.S.S.R. jockeyed for world dominance.

To prove their superior technological capabilities, both countries began to build massive nuclear arsenals and rockets capable of hitting targets across the world. In the mid-1950s, both countries announced plans to use these rockets to propel artificial satellites into space. While the U.S. scheduled a 1958 launch for its Project Vanguard, the Soviets quietly resolved to beat the Americans to the punch.

On October 4, 1957, the world was taken by surprise when the Soviet Union announced that it had launched a satellite called Sputnik, Russian for “traveling companion,” into orbit. Although it was no larger than a beach ball and had limited technical capabilities, Americans were frightened as they heard its radio signature “beep, beep, beep” as it passed overhead.

President Dwight Eisenhower had his own concerns. White House officials fretted over whether the world would see the Soviet Union as the more sophisticated superpower, writing in one report that Sputnik’s launch would “generate myth, legend and enduring superstition of a kind peculiarly difficult to eradicate or modify, which the U.S.S.R. can exploit to its advantage.”

Unwilling to concede space to the Soviet Union, the U.S. established the National Aeronautics and Space Administration (NASA) in July 1958 and began its own pursuit of spaceflight in earnest.

Earliest human flights to space

Human space travel was not a novel concept in the 1950s. The U.S. had been launching rockets with animalsincluding fruit flies and rhesus macaques—into suborbital space since the late 1940s, while the U.S.S.R. began launching dogs in 1951. Just weeks after Sputnik’s 1957 launch, the Soviets famously sent a dog named Laika into orbit. (Laika died within hours of the flight from heat and stress.)

(Subscriber exclusive: See a visual timeline of every animal ever sent to space.)

But the true goal was to send humans to space. In 1958 NASA launched Project Mercury with three specific goals: Launch an American into orbit around Earth, investigate the human body’s ability to tolerate spaceflight, and bring both the spacecraft and astronaut home safety. The unstated goal: Accomplish all of this before the Soviets.

Yet once again the U.S.S.R. proved a step ahead. Gagarin’s historic flight took place a month before astronaut Alan Shepard became the first American in space on May 5, 1961. Although Shepard’s 15-minute suborbital flight aboard Freedom 7 was a key milestone—watched by millions of television viewers—it was overshadowed by Gagarin’s journey all the way around Earth.

Weeks after Shepard’s flight, President John F. Kennedy stood before a joint session of the U.S. Congress. Acknowledging that the country hadn’t treated space exploration with enough urgency, he declared his intention to make it a priority and issued a new challenge: Put an American on the moon by the end of the decade.

“No single space project in this period will be more impressive to mankind, or more important for the long-range exploration of space; and none will be so difficult or expensive to accomplish,” he said. “In a very real sense, it will not be one man going to the moon—if we make this judgment affirmatively, it will be an entire nation.”

Reaching for the moon

Before NASA could venture to the moon, however, its scientists and engineers had much to learn. The space agency pushed forward with Project Mercury, making astronaut John Glenn the first American to orbit Earth in February 1962. In May 1963 Gordon Cooper completed a 22-orbit flight, a journey that took about 34 hours and 20 minutes. A month later, though, cosmonaut Valery Bykovsky spent four days and 23 hours in space—still the record for the longest solo spaceflight—and Valentina Tereshkova became the first woman to fly to space.

After Mercury, NASA advanced its spaceflight capabilities with Project Gemini. Considered a bridge to the moon, Gemini’s goals were to rendezvous and dock in orbit, test atmospheric reentry maneuvers, and determine how longer periods of space travel affected humans.

Meanwhile, the Soviets were still logging milestones. In March 1965 cosmonaut Alexei Leonov became the first person to exit an orbiting spacecraft. Lasting 12 minutes, the spacewalk was particularly harrowing: Leonov’s spacesuit was so rigid he had difficulty reentering the spacecraft and ultimately had to release some of his suit’s pressure to close the airlock behind him.

Ten weeks later Ed White became the first American to walk in space, spending 23 minutes floating at the end of a 25-foot umbilical line while he and astronaut James McDivitt in the Gemini 4 capsule circled Earth at 17,000 miles an hour. After that the U.S. began to gain on the Soviets: In December 1965 the astronauts aboard Gemini 7 set the record for the most time in space during a two-week mission. Gemini 8 achieved the first space docking in 1966—though a malfunction sent the spacecraft spinning out of control, to be narrowly recovered by a 35-year-old Neil Armstrong in the commander’s seat.

After 10 crewed flights in five years, the program ended with Gemini 12 on November 15, 1966—a mission during which Edwin “Buzz” Aldrin logged a record-setting five hours and 30 minutes exploring outside a spacecraft. At last it was time to go to the moon.

Footprints on the moon

As it conducted the Gemini missions, NASA had already begun developing the spacecraft for the Apollo program. The vehicle included a command/service module that would fly to the moon and enter orbit, and a lunar module that would undock for landing and then blast off to rejoin the command module for the return trip to Earth.

But the Apollo program got off to a tragic start. On January 27, 1967, astronauts Gus Grissom, Ed White, and Roger Chaffee were killed in a fire on the launchpad during a ground test for their planned February mission. An investigation concluded that the fire was sparked by a short circuit in the wires near Grissom’s seat, and that it spread quickly due to high oxygen levels and flammable materials in the cabin.

Following a lengthy reevaluation of the design and safety of the spacecraft, the first crewed Apollo mission launched on October 11, 1968, when Apollo 7 blasted into Earth orbit. On the first of 11 days in space, the three astronauts aboard came down with colds—learning the hard way that mucus cannot drain from the head in the weightlessness of space.

The mission was followed by the first flight all the way to the moon, more than 230,000 miles away. Before Apollo 8, the farthest humans had been from Earth was about 850 miles. The crew orbited the moon 10 times between December 24 and December 25, reading the opening lines of Genesis to a captivated audience of roughly a billion people—a quarter of the global population—during a Christmas Eve radio broadcast. The three astronauts were the first to see the far side of the moon with their own eyes and watch as Earth rose over the lunar horizon.

Apollo 9 was the first flight with the lunar module, testing the spacecraft in Earth orbit. Apollo 10 took the lunar module to the moon and descended to within 50,000 feet of the surface.

Finally on July 16, 1969, Apollo 11 blasted off. On the fifth day in space, astronauts Neil Armstrong and Buzz Aldrin began preparations to land the lunar module Eagle on the moon’s surface. They touched down at precisely 3:17 p.m. Houston time on July 20—and hours later, at 9:56 p.m., Armstrong became the first person to step on the moon, famously proclaiming: “That’s one small step for man, one giant leap for mankind.”

Over the next two hours, Armstrong and Aldrin collected soil and rock samples and set up experiments. They left an American flag planted on the moon’s surface and a plaque that reads, “We came in peace for all mankind.”

Subsequent lunar exploration

The U.S. would make five more successful crewed trips to the moon’s surface in the years that followed. Astronauts collected samples, ran scientific experiments, and tested a lunar rover. The program ended in December 1972 with Apollo 17, which saw astronauts Eugene Cernan and Harrison Schmitt spend more than three days on the moon.

(A brief history of moon exploration.)

After the successful missions to the moon, the U.S. and the Soviet Union began to collaborate. In 1975 the countries launched their first joint mission, Apollo-Soyuz, in which American and Soviet spacecraft successfully docked with one another while in orbit—allowing their crews to meet in space. Following the collapse of the Soviet Union in 1991, the U.S. and Russia continued their partnership in space, working together to build the International Space Station.

Several countries have since made uncrewed journeys to the moon, but the U.S. remains the sole country whose astronauts have set foot on the lunar surface. NASA intends to return astronauts to the moon by 2025 with its Artemis program, and other countries such as China also plan to send humans to the moon in the coming years or decades.

In the future, humans may venture all the way to Mars. Such a journey would require technologies that do not exist yet—but the same was true when the Apollo program was announced six decades ago.

“We choose to go to the moon,” Kennedy told the nation in a 1962 address. “We choose to go to the moon in this decade and do the other things, not because they are easy, but because they are hard, because that goal will serve to organize and measure the best of our energies and skills, because that challenge is one that we are willing to accept, one we are unwilling to postpone, and one which we intend to win.”

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