Although it was only in 1942 that the first rocket reached the outer edges of Earth’s atmosphere, physicists and philosophers had dreamed of leaving our planet and exploring the cosmos for centuries before that. We take a tour of 51 milestones in space travel.
1st century AD
Greek mathematician and engineer Hero of Alexandria is the first to explain jets of steam as thrust.
In China, saltpeter-based incendiary devices are described and rockets (“fire arrows”) developed.
One of the most famous sightings of Halley’s Comet is reported. It is depicted on the embroidered Bayeux Tapestry, which is over 68 m in length, which was completed in 1077 and portrays William the Conqueror’s invasion of England.
German philosopher, astronomer and theologian Johannes Kepler writes his novel Somnium, considered the first work of science fiction. His book, (not published until after his death) describes human spaceflight and description of the Earth as seen from the Moon.
With his Philosophiae Naturalis Principia Mathematica (Mathematical Principles of Natural Philosophy), Isaac Newton lays down the foundation of classical mechanics and spurs on far-reaching developments in astronomy.
French novelist Jules Verne publishes From the Earth to the Moon, describing a cannon with a 270m long barrel.
In his short story “The Brick Moon”, Edward Everett Hale imagines a crewed space station built of bricks and is today considered the great-grandfather of the ISS as well as GPS.
Written by Austrian Max Valier, The Advance into Space is the first book of science writing on the subject for a popular audience to be published in Germany. It takes its cue from spaceflight pioneer Hermann Oberth’s 1923 publication By Rocket into Planetary Space. The book had initially been rejected as a Ph.D. thesis.
After takeoff in Augsburg, Germany, Swiss scientist Auguste Piccard and his assistant Paul Kipfer achieve a stratospheric rise in a pressurized capsule attached to a hydrogen balloon—reaching an altitude of almost 17 km.
On October 3, an A4, long-range missile is launched from Usedom Island off Germany’s Baltic coast and reaches a height of 84.5 kilometers—making it the first man-made object to reach the boundaries of space. From 1944, the rocket is referred to as the V2.
4 October 1957
While the first episode of the American sitcom Leave it to Beaver is being broadcast, a Soviet rocket carries Sputnik 1—an aluminum ball just under 60 cm in diameter and the first satellite—into orbit around the Earth. The Sputnik crisis triggers the space race, as the Soviet Union and U.S. compete for dominance in space. Sputnik 1 orbits the Earth 1,400 times in 92 days
2 November 1957
The Soviets launch Sputnik 2—and this time, a dog named Laika is on board. She is the first living creature to leave Earth but dies a few hours into her journey from overheating and stress. The mission is nevertheless regarded as a success and serves as an important stepping stone toward the first human space flight, undertaken by Yuri Gagarin.
6 December 1957
Intended as the Americans’ first launch vehicle for a satellite, the Vanguard rocket loses thrust, falls back onto the pad and explodes. The national press enters into a game of one-upmanship in coining scornful names for the failure, riffing on the Soviet success—flopnik, goofnik, kaputnik, nullnik, oopsnik, stallnik and stayputnik.
1 February 1958
With the Explorer 1, the U.S. successfully puts its first artificial satellite into orbit around the Earth. It is the world’s third satellite following Sputnik 1 and 2. A two-meter-long cylinder, Explorer 1 is very different from the spherical Sputnik design. What’s more, it’s also significantly lighter. After spending 12 years in space, Explorer 1 burnt up on re-entry on March 31, 1970 about 100 kilometers above the planet’s surface.
29 July 1958
U.S. President Eisenhower signs the National Aeronautics and Space Act, which provides for the creation of the National Aeronautics and Space Administration (NASA). The new agency commences work on October 1, 1958. NASA’s vision is “To improve life here, to extend life to there and to find life beyond.”
4 October 1959
The Soviet Union’s Lunik 3 provides the first images ever seen of the far side of the Moon. Automatically developed on board and then transmitted to Earth, the pictures represent another success for the Soviets in the space race
12 April 1961
Soviet cosmonaut Yuri Gagarin is the first person to travel into space. After entering Earth orbit, Gagarin reports via radio, “I can see Earth. I am looking at the clouds. Beautiful, so beautiful!” The cosmonaut passes over the Soviet Union, the Pacific, the southern Atlantic, Africa and, in skimming Turkey, the edge of Europe. In the U.S., the flight elicits similar reactions to the Sputnik crisis four years earlier. On return from space, Gagarin is given a hero’s welcome in the Soviet Union.
5 May 1961
Alan Shepard is the first American in space. Unlike Gagarin, however, his voyage is not an orbit of the Earth but merely a suborbital parabolic flight. He reaches a height of 187 km and splashes down safely in the Atlantic 15 minutes later.
25 May 1961
President John F. Kennedy announces the Apollo program to the U.S. Congress and the nation, saying: “I believe that this nation should commit itself to achieving the goal, before this decade is out, of landing a man on the Moon and returning him safely to Earth. No single project in this period will be more impressive to mankind, or more important in the long-range exploration of space; and none will be so difficult or expensive to accomplish.”
20 February 1962
John Glenn is the first American to orbit the Earth.
16 June 1963
Valentina Tereshkova is the first woman in space, completing 48 orbits of the Earth in three days. An amateur skydiver, she was recruited together with three other women for a special female cosmonaut corps.
18 March 1965
Soviet cosmonaut Alexei Leonov is the first person to perform a spacewalk, spending 10 minutes outside his ship. A tether of just under five meters secures him to his craft. But the extra-vehicular activity almost ends in disaster as Leonov’s suit balloons so badly out of shape in the vacuum of space that he initially cannot squeeze back inside the airlock. Only after releasing a valve on his suit can he get back in.
21 July 1969
“Contact Light” With these words, Neil Armstrong and Buzz Aldrin land Apollo 11 on the Moon. “Houston, Tranquility Base here. The Eagle has landed.” What follows is an even more famous line: “That’s one small step for a man, one giant leap for mankind.” Just a year earlier, Armstrong narrowly escaped death during training for the lunar landing. With the stars and stripes planted on the Moon, the United States won the race to the Moon. The Soviet Union turns its efforts toward building a permanently crewed space station.
19 April 1971
The first Soviet space station, Salyut 1 is launched.
14 May 1973
The first American space laboratory, Skylab, is launched into orbit.
17 July 1975
Earth is in the grip of the Cold War but above our atmosphere, international understanding reigns. An American Apollo capsule and Soviet Soyuz vehicle dock with one another in space. And it’s no spur-of-the-moment gesture. Right from the start, the joint mission involves high-level meetings between NASA and the Soviet space program officials as well as close cooperation between technical specialists and space ship crew.
22 October 1975
Following a successful landing on the planet, the Soviet Venera 9 probe transmits the first pictures of Venus’ surface.
20 July / 3. September 1976
The American Viking 1 and Viking 2 probes touch down on Mars. Although the search for signs of life is unsuccessful, the mission produces panoramic images of the planet.
5 September 1977
Voyager 1 embarks on its journey to the edge of our solar system. It carries on board gold-plated copper phonograph records, dubbed the Voyager Golden Records, which contain sounds and images relating to human life. Among other things, the record cover features instructions for playback and a map indicating the location of our sun. Sound recordings include spoken greetings in 55 languages. The final greeting is in English and was spoken by then six-year-old Nick Sagan, son of Carl Sagan, the astronomer who oversaw the records’ creation. He says, “Hello from the children of planet Earth.”
12 April 1981
The NASA’s space shuttle Columbia blasts off from Cape Canaveral. Capable of transporting both astronauts and a payload, it is the United States’ first space craft designed for re-use.
28 November 1983
An American space shuttle carries the European-built science platform Spacelab and German physicist Ulf Merbold into orbit. Largely given free rein by the NASA control center in Houston, the astronauts conduct over 70 experiments dedicated to solar physics, material as well as life sciences and more.
28 January 1986
Shortly after liftoff, the Challenger space shuttle explodes, killing all seven crew members on board.
20 February 1986
Mir leaves the planet. Three weeks later, the Soviet Union’s space station receives its first crew. The largest man-made Earth-orbiting object of its time, the constantly crewed outpost ranks together with the Sputnik satellites launched from 1957 onward and Gagarin’s 1961 flight as the Soviet Union’s greatest aerospace achievements. It spends 5,511 days in orbit before burning up on reentry on March 23, 2001.
29 June 1995
Almost ten years later, the first U.S. space shuttle docks with the Mir. Between 1985 and 2011, the Atlantis completes a total of 33 missions.
4 July 1997
The American Pathfinder probe lands on Mars and activates the Sojourner robotic rover..
29 October 1998
In a follow-up to his 1962 flight, 77-year-old John Glenn boards the U.S. shuttle Discovery, setting a new record as the oldest astronaut to go into space.
20 November 1998
A Russian launch rocket propels the first module of the International Space Station (ISS) into orbit.
28 April 2001
The first space tourist, American Dennis Tito (born 1940) flies to the ISS. For a reported fee of $20 million, he blasts off from the Russian Baikonur Cosmodrome in Kazakhstan. On May 6, the investment manager returns safely to Earth.
1 February 2003
On re-entry into the Earth’s atmosphere, the Columbia space shuttle breaks apart, killing all seven people on board. Among the fatalities are two women and the first Israeli astronaut, Ilan Ramon.
28 September 2003
The European Space Agency sends Smart 1, its first lunar mission, to the Moon.
15 October 2003
Launched on a Long March 2F rocket from the Gobi Desert, the Shenzhou 5 space capsule carrying Chinese space traveler or taikonaut Yang Liwei is the People’s Republic’s of China’s first human spaceflight. After orbiting the Earth 14 times, Yang returns to terra firma in the region of Inner Mongolia on October 16.
25 January 2004
American Mars rovers Spirit and Opportunity land on opposite sides of the red planet and relay pictures of the surface back to Earth. Both rovers outlived their mission duration of 90 days. Spirit ceased communication in 2010, but (as of February 2017) Opporunity remains functional on Mars.
19 January 2006
On the back of an Atlas V launch vehicle, the NASA space probe New Horizons lifts off from Cape Canaveral, Florida. It is the first craft to undertake a roughly nine-year journey to Pluto. The dwarf planet and its moons are, however, only the first of its destinations.
4 July 2006
Thomas Reiter, a 48-year-old German physicist, flies to the ISS aboard the Discovery space shuttle. After 167 days in orbit, he has to get used to overcoming gravity when walking on Earth again. Adding this mission to the 179-day-long one in 1995, Reiter has spent almost a year in space. He still holds the record for the German astronaut who has spent the most days in space.
18 September 2006
Iranian-born American Anousheh Ansari, whose family immigrated to the States in the late seventies, is the first female space tourist to visit the ISS.
7 March 2009
The 95-megapixel digital camera on the Kepler space observatory is the most powerful photometer ever shot into space. Its roughly three-year-long mission is to search the Milky Way for Earth-like planets.
8 July 2011
Space shuttle Atlantis launches for the final time. The 30-year space shuttle programme comes to an end when she returns to Earth two weeks later. Supplies are sent to the ISS by other international partners while the US waits for a commercial space company to deliver cargo to the space station.
6 August 2012
Weighing almost a metric ton, the Mars rover Curiosity rover successfully landed on the surface of Mars. The complex entry, descent and landing system included a supersonic parachute and innovative ‘sky-crane’ to lower the rover to the surface. Launched on an Atlas V rocket from Cape Canaveral on November 26, 2011, the rover’s mission includes studying Martian geology and climate, as well as testing for conditions that might have supported life on the planet.
8 October 2012
Private Amercan space company SpaceX successfully launch their Dragon capsule for the first commercial resupply mission to the ISS.
14 December 2013
The Chinese rover Yutu – “Jade Rabbit”, part of the Chang’e 3 mission, touches down on the Moon making China the third nation after the U.S. and the former Soviet Union to land a rover on the moon.
28 May 2014
German astronaut Alexander Gerst blasts off from Baikonur, Kazakhstan, in a Soyuz spacecraft destined for the ISS. On November 10, 2014, he makes a safe return to Earth. Gerst is the 11th German to go into orbit.