A History of Space Travel

By Tim Lambert

The beginning of space travel

The pioneer of space travel was a Russian, Konstantin Tsiolkovsky (1857-1935). He realized that only a rocket could provide propulsion in the near-vacuum of space. He also proposed that a rocket should be built in stages so it would dump each stage when its fuel was exhausted. In 1926 Robert H. Goddard (1882-1945) launched the first liquid-propelled rocket. Then in Germany in 1930 Johannes Winkler (1897-1947) founded a Society for Space Travel, which experimented with rockets.,

During World War II a German, Wernher von Braun (1912-1977) developed a rocket that was used as a weapon against the British. The V2 rose to over 100 km above the Earth’s surface. After the war ended von Braun went to the USA and continued to experiment with rockets.

The first steps into space were taken in the late 1950s. It was the Russians who first launched an artificial satellite. Sputnik I was launched on 4 October 1957. On 3 November 1957, the Russians launched a dog called Laika into space in a satellite.


In January 1959 the Russians launched the first space probe, Luna I. It flew within 5,000 miles of the Moon. Also in 1959 Luna 2 crashed onto the Moon. In October 1959 Luna 3 took the first photos of the dark side of the Moon. America’s first artificial satellite was Explorer 1, which was launched in January 1958.

Space travel in the 1960s

Echo, the first communications satellite was launched in 1960.

The first man in space was a Russian, Yuri Gagarin who was launched on 12 April 1961. He made a single orbit of the Earth and landed the same day. The first American in space was Alan Shepard on 5 May 1961 (though he did not orbit the Earth). The first American to orbit the Earth was John Glenn on 20 February 1962 in Mercury 6. The first woman in space was Valentina Tereshkova, who orbited the Earth 48 times between 16 and 19 June 1963. On 18 March 1965, Aleksei Leonov became the first person to walk in space. On 16 March 1966, the first space docking took place. The US spacecraft Gemini 8 docked with an unmanned rocket.

Meanwhile, the first probe to reach another planet was Mariner 2, which was launched by the Americans in August 1962. In December 1962 it flew within 22,000 miles of Venus. In 1967 Mariner 5 flew by Venus.

In 1967 a Russian probe called Venera 4 launched a capsule into the atmosphere of Venus. It analyzed the atmosphere, finding it to be almost all carbon dioxide with tiny amounts of oxygen and water vapor. It also measured atmospheric pressure and measured the temperature before it stopped transmitting. (It was crushed by the atmospheric pressure). Russian probes Venera 5 and Venera 6 carried out further measurements of the atmosphere of Venus in 1969.

In 1964 the Americans launched Mariner 4. In July 1965 it flew past Mars. Mariner 6 and Mariner 7 sent back more photos of Mars in 1969. Meanwhile, in 1964 Ranger 7 sent back detailed photos of the Moon before crashing into its surface. Finally, in February 1966 the Russian probe Luna 9 made the first soft landing on the Moon.

However, tragedy struck on 27 January 1967 when 3 astronauts Virgil I Grissom, Edward H White, and Roger B Chaffee were killed in a fire in a spacecraft on the ground. The same year Russian cosmonaut Vladimir Komarov was killed when his spacecraft crashed after re-entry.

Meanwhile, in 1961, President Kennedy proposed to land a man on the Moon ‘before the decade is out’. The first step was Apollo 8, which was launched on 21 December 1968 carrying 3 astronauts. The spacecraft orbited the Moon 10 times and returned safely to Earth. Further preparations followed with Apollo 9 and Apollo 10 in 1969.

There were 3 astronauts on the Apollo 11 mission, Neil Armstrong, Edwin (Buzz) Aldrin, and Michael Collins. The Apollo 11 mission was launched on 16 July 1969. It went into Lunar orbit on 19 July 1969. On 20 July the Lunar module, Eagle separated from the Command module, Columbia piloted by Collins. The lunar module landed the same day. Neil Armstrong became the first man to walk on the Moon on 21 July 1969. The astronauts returned to Earth on 24 July 1969. Apollo 12 landed in the Ocean of Storms in November 1969.

Space travel in the 1970s

Apollo 13 was launched in April 1970. However, the mission was aborted after an oxygen tank exploded.

The next mission to the Moon was Apollo 14 in February 1971. Apollo 15 followed it in July 1971. It carried a lunar roving vehicle. Apollo 16 landed on the Moon in April 1972 and finally, Apollo 17 landed in December 1972.

In 1970 China launched its first satellite, Dong Fang Hong 1. The same year Japan launched its first satellite Osumi.

In 1970 Russian probe Venera 7 landed on Venus and transmitted data from the surface. Venera 8 landed on Venus in 1972. In 1974 Mariner 10 flew past Venus on its way to Mercury and took close-up images of the planet. In 1975 Venera 9 went to Venus. It was followed by Venera 10 1975. Then in 1978 Venera 11 and Venera 12 reached Venus. Pioneer Venus 1 and Pioneer Venus 2 reached Venus in 1978. In March 1974 the American probe Mariner 10 flew past Mercury.

In December 1973 Pioneer 10 flew past Jupiter. Pioneer 11 reached Jupiter in December 1974 and it reached Saturn in September 1979. n Meanwhile on 19 April 1971 the Russians launched the first space station, Salyut I. On 14 May 1973, the USA launched a space station named Skylab.

Meanwhile, in 1971 Mariner 9 photographed what seemed to be dried-up riverbeds on Mars. That suggested that the atmosphere of Mars was once thicker and there was liquid water on the planet. It raised the possibility that there was once life on Mars. The Americans sent probes to search for evidence of life on Mars. Two probes were sent, Viking I and Viking 2. Viking I landed in July 1976 and Viking 2 landed in September 1976. Neither found any evidence of life on Mars.

Space travel in the 1980s and 1990s

In 1980 India launched a satellite named Rohini.

On 12 April 1981, Columbia became the first space shuttle in space. Challenger flew its first mission in 1983 and Discovery flew its first mission in 1984. The space shuttle Atlantis flew its first mission in 1985. Disaster struck in January 1986 when Challenger exploded in January 1986 killing all on board. Space shuttle Endeavor was built to replace Challenger and it flew its first mission in 1992.

Launch of a space shuttle

On a brighter note, the spacecraft Voyager 1 reached Saturn in 1980. In 1981 Voyager 2 flew past Saturn. Then in 1986 Voyager 2 reached Uranus. It sent back detailed images of Uranus and its rings and discovered 11 new moons. On 25 August 1989, Voyager 2 reached Neptune and sent back images. It also closely approached the largest moon of Neptune, Triton.

More probes were sent to Venus. Venera 13 and Venera 14 reached Venus in 1982. Then in 1983 Venera 15 and Venera 16 reached Venus. Vega 1 and Vega 2 reached Venus in 1985.

Meanwhile, in 1984, Bruce McCandless made the first untethered spacewalk.

Then in February 1986, the Russians launched their Mir space station. In 1988 Vladimir Titov and Musa Manarov became the first human beings to spend a year in space. Mir fell back to Earth in 2001.

The Hubble Telescope was launched from the space shuttle Discovery in April 1990. In August 1990 the Magellan probe went into orbit around Venus and accurately mapped the surface of the planet. Also in 1990, Ulysses spacecraft was launched to study the Sun.

In 1991 Helen Sharman became the first British person in space.

In 1995 Galileo went into orbit around Jupiter. It sent a probe that descended through Jupiter’s atmosphere by parachute and sent back valuable information. Mars Global Surveyor was launched in 1996. It reached Mars in 1997. Then in 1999, the Chandra X-ray laboratory was launched.

In 1997 Lunar Prospector went into orbit around the Moon. In 1999 Lunar Prospector crashed near the South Pole of the Moon in an attempt to find water – it didn’t find any.

Meanwhile, in 1991 Helen Sharman became the first Briton in space. In 1995 American Eileen Collins became the first woman to pilot a space shuttle. In 1999 she became the first woman to command a space shuttle mission.

Space travel in the 2000s

In the 21st Century, the exploration of space continued apace. A spacecraft called Near Shoemaker was launched in 1996. It became the first craft to land on an asteroid (Eros) in 2001.

Also in 2001, Dennis Tito became the first tourist in space. Meanwhile, the Cassini probe was launched in 1997. It reached Saturn in 2004.

Mars Odyssey began orbiting Mars in 2002 in a mission to map and study the planet. Then in 2004, NASA landed 2 probes named Spirit and Opportunity landed on Mars.

In 2004 the Cassini-Huygens probe reached Saturn. A probe landed on Titan one of the moons of Saturn.

Meanwhile, the Chinese launched their first manned spacecraft in 2003.

Also in 2003, Smart 1 was sent into orbit around the Moon. It deliberately crashed onto the Moon in 2006. In 2007 China sent a probe called Chang’e 1 into orbit around the Moon. It was followed by Chang’e 2 in 2010. In 2008 India sent a probe to the Moon. It was called Chandrayaan-1.

In 2006, Venus Express reached Venus.

In 2008 a spacecraft called Phoenix reached Mars. Also in 2008, the first Chinese taikonaut walked in space. Also in 2008, India launched its first space probe, a lunar probe named Chandrayaan 1.

Lunar Reconnaissance Orbiter was launched in 2009. So was LCross (Lunar Crater Observation and Sensing Satellite).

Space travel in the 2010s

In 2010 a Japanese probe, Hayabusa brought back material from asteroid Itokawa.

Then in 2011, Messenger became the first probe to orbit Mercury. Also in 2011, a spacecraft called Dawn became the first to orbit an asteroid (Vesta). Then in 2012 Liu Yang became the first Chinese woman in space. Meanwhile, the International Space Station was built in stages between 1998 and 2011. (The first crew arrived in 2000).

Grail (The Gravity Recovery and Interior Laboratory) was launched in 2011 to orbit the Moon. In 2012 Curiosity Rover landed on Mars. Then in 2013, China landed a robot craft called Chang’e 3 on the Moon.

In 2014 India sent a probe that went into orbit around Mars. Also in 2014, the Philae probe landed on a comet. In 2015 the Messenger Probe crashed into Mercury. A probe called New Horizons reached Pluto and Charon in July 2015 sending back the first detailed images. Also in 2015, the first reusable rockets were launched.

Then in 2016, Juno spacecraft reached Jupiter. In 2019 a probe sent back photos from Ultima Thule at the edge of the Solar System. Also in 2019, China landed a spacecraft called chang’e 4 on the dark side of the Moon

Space travel in the 2020s

In 2021 the Perseverance Rover drove on the surface of Mars. Also in 2021, the Parker Solar Probe entered the Solar Atmosphere. In 2023 an Indian spacecraft Chandrayaan-3 landed at the South Pole of the Moon. Then, in 2024 Odysseus became the first privately owned spacecraft to land on the Moon.

Last revised 2024