A brief history of human spaceflight—1961 to present

two photographs next to each other; one of human in spacesuit, another of monkey.

1961

NASA astrochimp Ham, left, bares his teeth on January, 31, 1961, as a Mercury flight propels him 156 miles above Earth. Ham and other high­-flying animals blazed a trail for U.S. astronauts like John Glenn, right, who braved the rigors of liftoff a year later. Glenn’s flight took him around the world three times in under five hours. A film camera recorded both Ham and Glenn’s every move during their flights. Since Ham’s flight, 566 humans have been to space. NASA astronauts Doug Hurley and Bob Behnken, who have both flown to space before, hope to make the next trip on a launch planned for May 27 at 4:33 p.m. ET, flying a SpaceX Crew Dragon spacecraft launched by a Falcon 9 rocket.

Photograph by NASA
man standing in car and saluting crowd.

1961

Cosmonaut Yuri Gagarin was celebrated around the world after becoming the first man in space on April 12, 1961. A crowd welcomes him upon his arrival at the Soviet Embassy in Kensington Palace Gardens, London, in July 1961. Winston Churchill’s daughter, Sarah, far left wearing a white head scarf, cheers with the crowd.

Photograph by PA IMAGES VIA GETTY IMAGES
person in aluminized pressure suit carrying a box.

1961

Man and missile meet at dawn on Pad 5 at Cape Canaveral. Floodlights glare down on Alan Shepard, the first American to launch to space, who carries a portable air conditioner to cool his aluminized pressure suit. Plastic overshoes prevent his flight boots from tracking grit into the space capsule. Evaporating liquid oxygen streams from the poised Redstone rocket.

Photograph by WILLIAM TAUB, NASA
technicians shutting the hatch of spacecraft cap

1961

Eyes on the prize, Alan Shepard watches technicians shut the hatch of his Freedom 7 capsule. "Are you really ready?" a friend at the control center asked him privately. Shepard laughed and replied, "Go!"

Photograph by Robert Special, NASA
Astronaut by his landing capsule on the ship deck

1961

A jubilant Alan Shepard, on board the USS Champlain in the Atlantic Ocean, May 5, 1961, after the recovery of the Mercury capsule that he rode safely into space and back. His suborbital flight took him to an altitude of 116.5 miles and lasted just 15 minutes.

Photograph by NASA, Dean Conger
reflection of shaving man in the mirror

1962

John Glenn shaving on the morning of his launch on February, 20, 1962. Years later he was asked what he was thinking at that moment: “Well, I suppose I was just concentrating on not cutting myself,” he said. “That would have been a lousy start to what I hoped was going to be a great day.”

Photograph by NASA
a woman in headband attached to testing equipment.

1963

The first woman in space, Russian cosmonaut Valentina Tereshkova trains at Moscow's space center. On June 16, 1963, she traveled onboard the Vostok 6 spacecraft and orbited Earth 48 times in 70 hours. After her achievement, she received the title of Hero of the Soviet Union.

Photograph by Alexander Mokletzov, from Roscosmos State Corporation archives
two side-by-side photographs of men in open space.

1965

Alexei Leonov, left, became the first human to conduct a spacewalk on March 18, 1965, exiting his capsule during the Voskhod 2 mission for 12 minutes and 9 seconds. Floating 100 miles above Earth, Edward White, right, became the first American to perform a spacewalk on June 3, 1965. Maneuvering with a handheld gas gun, White traveled 6,000 miles, from over Hawaii to above Bermuda, in just 21 minutes.

Photograph from Roscosmos State Corporation archives (left), NASA (right)

1965

Mourners pay their respects to cosmonaut Vladimir Komarov at his grave during his funeral on April 26, 1967. During the first flight of a new Soyuz vehicle, a parachute failure caused the capsule to crash into the ground after reentry on April 24, 1967, making him the first human to die in a spaceflight.

Photograph from Roscosmos State Corporation archives
man in spacesuit floating in pool water

1966

A buoyant Neil Armstrong relaxes in the Naval Training Tank in Pensacola, Florida, after a simulated water landing. At the time, the 35-year-old astronaut was preparing for his first spaceflight, Gemini 8, which lifted off on March 16, 1966. Three years later Armstrong became the first human to walk on the moon.

Photograph by NASA
two side-by-side photos of launching rocket

1969

The Saturn V rocket leaves NASA’s Kennedy Space Center, Launch Complex 39, Pad A, at 9:30 in the morning on July 16, 1969, launching for the surface of the moon with the Apollo 11 crew: commander Neil Armstrong, command module pilot Michael Collins, and lunar module pilot Edwin "Buzz" Aldrin. Only eight years earlier, Soviet cosmonaut Yuri Gagarin had become the first human to venture into space.

Photograph by NASA
people waiving and looking up into skies.

1969

Saluting the space age, witnesses of the launch of moon-bound Apollo 11 mission shield their eyes from the Florida sun on July 16, 1969. Former President Lyndon B. Johnson and Ladybird Johnson stand shoulder to shoulder in the crowd as the giant Saturn V rocket thunders into the sky over the Kennedy Space Center.

Photograph by OTIS IMBODEN for NASA
two side-by-side photograph of launching rocket

1969

The 363-foot-tall Saturn V rocket is propelled by the rocket’s first stage, powering five F-1 rocket engines with 203,400 gallons of kerosene fuel and 318,000 gallons of liquid oxygen. A similar rocket, the Space Launch System (SLS), is being built by NASA to take humans back to the moon and to Mars.

Photograph by NASA

1969

The lunar module Eagle carried Neil Armstrong and Edwin “Buzz” Aldrin safely to the moon’s surface and back to lunar orbit.

Photograph by NASA
two side-by-side photos; one of astronaut on moon, another human footprint

1969

Neil Armstrong and Edwin “Buzz” Aldrin were the first humans to walk on the moon on July 20, 1969. Armstrong and the lunar module are reflected in the visor of Aldrin, left, as he explores the Sea of Tranquility region of the moon. Armstrong took this photograph with a 70mm lunar surface camera. Aldrin photographed a footprint in the dust, right, which resembled powdered charcoal.

Photograph by NASA
color photograph on moon surface.

1972

Apollo 16's lunar module pilot Charles Duke found a way to take the family along to the moon in April 1972.

Photograph by NASA
man with dirty face

1972

Lunar grime and fatigue color Eugene Cernan’s face after a moonwalk during Apollo 17 in December 1972, the last of the six moon landings. With that mission, the astronauts spent a record three days on the surface and 22 hours outside the lunar module. What had been one small step for Armstrong had turned into a routine stroll for 11 others.

Photograph by NASA
space shuttle in hangar.

1980

Columbia, the first space shuttle to fly into orbit, underwent final preparations at NASA’s Kennedy Space Center in 1980 before its maiden flight in April 1981.

Photograph by JON SCHNEEBERGER/NATIONAL GEOGRAPHIC MAGAZINE

1984

The first to float untethered in space, Bruce McCandless II drifts 217 miles above Earth outside of the space shuttle Challenger using a nitrogen-propelled backpack in February 1984.

Photograph by NASA
two side-by-side photograph of man in shock and smock spiral in the sky.

1986

Disbelief darkens the expression of flight director Jay Greene, left, seconds after the space shuttle Challenger exploded on January 28, 1986, killing all seven crew members. His stunned colleague Alan Briscoe stares at a monitor screen inside Houston’s Mission Control as the orbiter is consumed by a ball of flame and smoke 73 seconds after launch, right, its solid rocket boosters careening away wildly. The disaster was triggered by an eroded O-ring in the right booster that allowed hot gases to escape and ignite the main fuel tank.

Photograph by NASA
man looking from window of spacecraft

1995

Cosmonaut Valery Polyakov gazes from the window of the Russian space station Mir in February 1995. Polyakov boarded Mir on January 8, 1994, and left the station on March 22, 1995, setting a record of 437 days and 18 hours of continuous time in space. Mir hosted more than a hundred visitors from 12 countries. Designed to last five years, the space station survived 15 before being abandoned and plunging to Earth on March 23, 2001.

Photograph by NASA
man in spacesuit carried by five men.

1995

Weakened but cheerful, cosmonaut Valery Polyakov catches a lift home on March 22, 1995, after spending a world record 437 days and 18 hours in space. A physician, Polyakov used his stay on Mir to study the effects of prolonged exposure to zero gravity on the body. Despite some bone density loss, he proved that, with exercise, space crews could manage the negative effects of weightlessness on a round­trip to Mars, which could take as long as three years.

Photograph by NASA
two men in spacesuit relieving themself on bus tire

2000

Upholding a tradition started by Yuri Gagarin in 1961, two cosmonauts relieve themselves on the tire of their transport bus, in April 2000, before their launch at the Baikonur Cosmodrome in Kazakhstan. Before his historic 1961 flight, Gagarin, the first human in space, did the same during an unplanned pit stop prior to liftoff. Since then, nearly every cosmonaut has honored the tradition.

Photograph from private collection
objects organized into shape of shuttle on hangar floor

2003

Some of the 84,000 recovered pieces of the space shuttle Columbia, which broke apart on reentry on February 1, 2003, killing all seven crewmembers, spread out inside a hangar at NASA’s Kennedy Space Center. More than 25,000 workers combed parts of Texas and Louisiana looking for debris. A seven-­month investigation found that super-heated air entered the left wing through a breach suffered during launch.

Photograph by NASA
man in uniform walking near rocket on railroad car.

2009

Since the termination of the space shuttle program in 2011, NASA astronauts depend on Russian rockets to the reach the International Space Station. As a Soyuz rocket is rolled out to the launch pad on September 28, 2009, Russian security officers walk along the railroad tracks at the Baikonur Cosmodrome in Kazakhstan. The rocket launched the Expedition 21 crew to the International Space Station on September 30, 2009.

Photograph by NASA/BILL INGALLS
spacecraft over blue Earth.

2011

Getting a ride home after 159 days in space, Italian astronaut and Expedition 27 crew member Paolo Nespoli captured this rare view on May 23, 2011—the photo first taken of a space shuttle docked to the International Space Station from the perspective of a departing Soyuz spacecraft. Nespoli landed in Kazakhstan later that day.

Photograph by NASA/ESA
space shuttle on platform passing by Lady Liberty

2012

The space shuttle Enterprise passes the Statue of Liberty on June 6, 2012, on its way to the Intrepid Sea, Air & Space Museum in New York City, where it is permanently displayed.

Photograph by NASA/BILL INGALLS
small rocket above ground hovering on four beams of light

2015

SpaceX’s Crew Dragon capsule ignites all eight of its SuperDraco engines during a propulsive hover test in Texas in November 2015. Engineers were testing the ability to hover and control the throttling of the engines for a controlled landing in case of an emergency. SpaceX Dragon capsules have been used to take cargo to and from the International Space Station. The first attempt to take humans—NASA Astronauts Doug Hurley and Bob Behnken—is scheduled for Wednesday, May 27, 2020.

Photograph by SPACEX
cosmonaut's face through the glass of his helmet with reflection of monitors on it.

2016

Like a scene out of Stanley Kubrick's film, 2001: A Space Odyssey (1968 MGM), cosmonaut Mikhail Kornienko, dressed in a space suit, concentrates on driving a rover on the surface of Mars in a simulation on March 6, 2016, at Star City in Moscow. Just four days after returning to Earth from a year aboard the International Space Station, Kornienko went through 15 to 20 minutes of training that involved simulations of landing on Mars, opening a capsule door opening, setting up an antenna—and then he overcame stairs in the real world with a plastic cane.

Photograph by PHILLIP TOLEDANO
person in space suit through the fog behind glass wall

2016

Designer and engineer Pablo De Leon wears a prototype NDX-1 space suit being developed for Mars inside the “regolith bin” at Kennedy Space Center's Swamp Works during testing of the space suits’ design elements. The bin features simulated soil and can create dust storms, pictured, similar to storms astronauts would work in on Mars.

Photograph by PHILLIP TOLEDANO
rocket standing vertically in blue light under young moon on dark skies.

2016

Founded in 2002, Space Exploration Technologies, now known as SpaceX was the first to recover the first stage of an orbital rocket for reuse, rather than losing it to the sea. The recovered first stage of a Falcon 9 rocket rests on the drone ship "Of Course I Still Love You" at Port Canaveral, Florida, on May 9, 2016. The first stage landed on the drone ship in the middle of the Atlantic Ocean after launching the JCSAT-14 communications satellite into orbit on May 5, 2016.

Photograph by MICHAEL SEELEY
spacesuit

2016

Since 1972, humans haven’t ventured beyond Earth’s orbit. NASA plans to send humans back to the moon by 2024. Perhaps in the 2030s or 2040s, humans will travel to Mars. Taskin Padir, Associate Professor of Electrical and Computer Engineering at Northeastern University, believes that the first footprints on Mars might be those of robots like Valkyrie, being tested in his lab. Robots could build a base before humans arrive on the planet. Later they’d do chores, such as cleaning dust off solar panels.

Photograph by Max Aguilera-Hellweg. Photographed at New England Robotics Validation and Experimentation center, University of Massachusetts, Lowell
two test dummies in suites.

2016

In 2016, engineers suited up test dummies during drop tests at NASA Langley Research Center’s 20-foot-deep Hydro Impact Basin. The space agency was simulating the force of impact that astronauts would experience when splashing down in the Pacific Ocean. Two years earlier, NASA awarded a total of $6.8 billion in contracts to SpaceX and Boeing to launch astronauts to the International Space Station as part of the Commercial Crew Program.

Photograph by DAVID BOWMAN/ NASA
something looking like aurora borealis.

2018

SpaceX launches a Falcon 9 rocket with a payload for Argentina's space agency, the SAOCOM 1A satellite, on October 7, 2018.

Photograph by MLGXYZ, Getty Images
landing of spacecraft on parachute

2018

The Soyuz MS-06 spacecraft lands with Expedition 53 and 54 crew members, NASA astronauts Joe Acaba and Mark Vande Hei and cosmonaut Alexander Misurkin, near the town of Zhezkazgan, Kazakhstan, on February 28, 2018. The astronauts returned after 168 days in space.

Photograph by NASA/BILL INGALLS
launch of rocket at night

2019

All Soviet and Russian human launches have used essentially the same rocket design with modifications since the 1960s. Engines light up the pad as the Soyuz MS-15 spacecraft lifts off with Expedition 61 crew members Jessica Meir of NASA and Oleg Skripochka of Roscosmos, as well as astronaut Hazza Ali Almansoori of the United Arab Emirates, on September 25, 2019, from the Baikonur Cosmodrome in Kazakhstan.

Photograph by NASA/BILL INGALLS
blue line between black planet surface and black sky with bubble in it.

2019

The same Soyuz MS-15 launch shown in the previous photo was photographed by NASA astronaut Christina Koch from the International Space Station on the same day, September 25, 2019, as the Soyuz spacecraft enters orbit.

Photograph by NASA
two men in spacesuits reclined in chairs

2020

NASA astronauts Doug Hurley, foreground, and Bob Behnken don SpaceX space suits in the Astronaut Crew Quarters at NASA’s Kennedy Space Center in Florida on January 17, 2020, during a dress rehearsal for an uncrewed, In-Flight Abort Test. Hurley and Behnken are slated to fly on the company’s first crewed mission, Demo-2 on Wednesday, May 27.

Photograph by NASA/KIM SHIFLETT