Space Race
author Paul Boșcu, April 2017

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The space race was a competition between the United States and the Soviet Union for domination in spaceflight. Although the space race pioneered some outstanding space exploration moments, it was primarily motivated by the political climate of the cold war. In the beginning the Soviet Union dominated the United States in the space race. Later the USA gained lost ground and eventually surpassed the Soviets with the Apollo program, the American moon landings.

Following the end of World War II, two nations rivaled each other for global dominance: the Soviet Union and the United States. One of the major areas in which the two countries sought to outdo each other was in the area of space exploration.

The Space Age truly began when the Soviet Union launched a satellite into orbit in 1957. This event amazed the world but also sent shock waves throughout the United States. If it was possible to send a satellite into orbit, how long before a warhead? Further successes by the Russians, and some failed rocket launches by the Americans, only increased these concerns.

The Soviet space program, especially during its heyday in the late 1950s and 1960s, has presented problems to specialists who have tried to write its history. Work was carried out under conditions of extraordinary security within secret programs in hidden facilities and closed towns. The flow of information was, at best, strictly on a need-to-know basis. People involved at the highest levels often had little knowledge of what was going on beyond their own immediate domains, or even within them. In recent times, taking advantage of relatively improved access to Soviet archives, several important new studies have been undertaken, especially by Russians.

Would-be cosmonauts trained rigorously for missions the nature of which they could only guess at. Yuri Gagarin, the famous first person in space, learned only days beforehand of the flight he was to make. His wife learned at the same time as the rest of the Soviet public—when Gagarin was already in orbit!

Even when crowing loudly about their greatest achievements, the Soviet authorities remained vague and evasive, fudging on questions such as how or where its cosmonauts had landed, the nature of the technology involved, and so on. The identities of key space personnel were closely guarded secrets—ostensibly to prevent “enemy agents” from getting to them. Not surprisingly, in the West and in Russia, conspiracy theories still plague aspects of the program.

More recent studies have filled in many blanks and corrected earlier errors. They stand in stark contrast to some of the Soviet era hagiographies written about the program—and particularly about its chief architect, Sergei Pavlovich Korolev.

The opening act of the Space Race was the competition to put a satellite into orbit around the Earth. Both superpowers were invested in being the first nation to send a satellite into Earth’s orbit, but the first achievement of the Space Race went to the Soviet Union. The chief architect of the soviet space program, Sergei Korolev proposed a daring plan to Nikita Khrushchev: using existing rocket technology the USSR would launch a satellite into Earth's orbit. Eager to exploit the benefits of such an undertaking Khrushchev agreed. Sputnik was launched from the Baikonur cosmodrome in Kazakhstan.

During the month prior to launch, Korolev, never one to take things easy, outdid himself in sheer hard work, spending endless hours intensely micromanaging every stage and facet of the program. Supposedly, he even obsessed about the need to polish to perfection both the actual Sputnik and its duplicate—the former bound, hopefully, for heavenly glory, the latter for high-profile tours and museum displays.

Later Korolev and a small group took off from Baikonur for Moscow. Most were exhausted and slept throughout the flight. After take-off the pilot of the airplane, Tolya Yesenin, came over to say to Korolev that “the whole world was abuzz” with the launch. Korolev was invited into the pilot’s cabin. When he returned he said: “Comrades, you can’t imagine—the whole world is talking about our satellite. It seems that we have caused quite a stir.”

It was in something like this spirit that the world’s media first greeted the announcement of Sputnik’s successful launch back in October 1957. Around the globe, reports, whether in newspapers, on radio or television, verged on hysteria. Korolev later described the month following the launch as the happiest time of his life, a time of vindication for his science and a glimpse of incredible possibilities ahead. But if Korolev and his team were feeling good, Khrushchev was ecstatic. Like nothing before it, Sputnik seemed to confirm everything he had ever claimed and wished for about the supposed superiority of the Soviet system over capitalism and the West.

Sputnik 1, the world’s first satellite, was a relatively simple device that looked very different from modern satellites . It was a metallic sphere that measured 58.5 centimeters across and was covered with a bright, shiny heat shield made from aluminum, magnesium, and titanium. Four long antennae extended nearly 3 meters from one side of the sphere. The satellite’s design was primarily chosen for its simplicity, strength, and ease of construction; the spherical shape was echoed in many future Soviet and Russian spacecraft, such as Soyuz.

Inside the satellite were a battery-operated power supply, very basic environmental controls, and a radio transmitter for sending data back to Earth. The radio signal supplied useful information to Earth-bound scientists who used its strength to study the Earth’s ionosphere (the very top levels of the atmosphere) as well as atmospheric density. Scientists also monitored the temperature and pressure inside Sputnik 1, primarily to see whether the spacecraft had been hit by any meteorites.

Although Sputnik 1 didn’t return images or other visual data to Earth, the satellite did provide scientists with information about the temperature both inside the satellite and on its exterior surface. This data was downlinked after the satellite had orbited the Earth once, allowing scientists to gain a better understanding of temperatures in space.

The batteries on Sputnik 1 allowed transmission to continue for 22 days. The satellite’s orbit gradually deteriorated after that, and it burned up in Earth’s atmosphere, after spending about three months in orbit.

In 1958, a year after the success of the first Soviet satellite, U.S. president Dwight Eisenhower signed an act creating NASA. It had the task of developing a civilian space program. In December of that same year, NASA announced that its official manned space program would be called Project Mercury. The project had two goals. First, it was to investigate the ability of humans to survive and work in the environment of space. Second, it was to develop and test the basic hardware for future manned spaceflight programs.

In 1961 President John F. Kennedy told Congress, “I believe 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.” Kennedy’s announcement spurred the nation to create a systematic, step-by-step program that would end with a lunar landing. Project Mercury became the opening act for the new lunar landing program, which was to be called Apollo.

The United States realized that a manned spaceflight was the next big step. Coming round at last to the importance of spaceflight, President Dwight D. Eisenhower had assigned the National Advisory Committee for Aeronautics (NACA) to develop and carry out manned spaceflights. Two months later, in July 1958, the NACA became the National Aeronautics and Space Administration (NASA). Within a week its director T. Keith Glennan approved plans for a manned launch.

Almost immediately Khrushchev demanded a follow-up—a second Sputnik, timed to coincide with the fortieth anniversary of the Bolshevik Revolution. In fact, Sputnik-2 was launched ahead of even this crazy schedule. This time a dog, Laika, was on board. As the first living creature in space, she provided invaluable— and highly encouraging—information about the prospects for human life in space and under conditions of weightlessness. Unfortunately, no provision was made for bringing Sputnik-2 or its lonely occupant back, and so poor Laika also became the first earthling to die in space, succumbing to heat exhaustion after less than six hours.

Years before the launch of Sputnik 1, a 1951 rocket launch carried the world’s first two Soviet space dogs, Tsygan and Dezik, to the very edge of space. Their suborbital flight reached a maximum height of 100 kilometers before their capsule returned to Earth where the dogs were retrieved successfully, both alive.

Konstantin Feoktistov, a promising 32-year-old engineer later to become a cosmonaut himself and to play an important role in the design of the Salyut and Mir space stations, was placed in charge of the engineering details for the mission.

Laika was actually a stray who was trained for space travel. She rode in a specially designed harness that allowed her to change positions but not fully turn around inside the cabin. For five months Laika’s corpse orbited the earth inside Korolev’s tiny capsule (to the dismay of animal welfare activists, especially in the UK). Then, Laika and Sputnik-2 fell into the Earth’s atmosphere and burned up in a blaze of light in the night sky over Barbados.

Sputnik-2 was basically the same device as its predecessor, but by arranging for the first and second stages to go into orbit, the Soviets were able to claim a total orbiting weight of 500 kg—six times that of the first Sputnik.

Khrushchev was surprised and delighted with the worldwide reaction to Sputnik. He asked Korolev what else he could do. Korolev knew the answer. “We can launch a dog,” he replied. Air force doctor Vladimir Yazdovsky recalls: “Laika was a wonderful dog, quiet and very placid. I once brought her home and showed her to the children. They played with her. I wanted to do something nice for the dog. She had only a very short time to live.”

Scientists had planned to euthanize her with poisoned food. For years afterward it was reported that she died when her oxygen ran out, but in reality she succumbed very rapidly to heat stroke—an unpleasant death. Earth’s first space traveler had completed 2570 orbits. In 1998 Oleg Gazenko expressed regret at the mission: “The more time passes, the more I am sorry about it. We shouldn’t have done it. We did not learn enough from the mission to justify the death of the dog.”

Another significant Soviet canine spaceflight was that of Belka and Strelka. Aboard Sputnik 5, Belka and Strelka became the first dogs to survive an orbital launch into space and return home safe and alive. Thanks to this accomplishment, the Soviet space program was off to a flying start with acquiring the knowledge it needed to support human space travel.

Like Laika, these female dogs were also strays selected mainly for their temperaments (calmer females were the preferred choice for canine cosmonauts). They practiced wearing spacesuits, entered simulators and centrifuges to get accustomed to the feeling of riding into space, and were exposed to long periods of confinement to prepare them for the tiny cabins.

In the true spirit of Space Race competition, the United States was developing its own program for sending animals into space. The rationale was much the same as for the Soviet dog studies: engineers were eager to find out how living creatures would react to the pressures of microgravity and space travel, but they were far less eager to use humans as the first test subjects. The first primate-space-travel success story belongs to a pair of monkeys named Able and Baker. In 1959, they were launched on the Jupiter AM-18 rocket, made it into space, and returned home alive.

The first noninsect to board a U.S. spacecraft was Albert, a rhesus monkey who was launched on a suborbital flight in 1948 via a V2 rocket that made it up to 63 kilometers. Albert perished due to suffocation and was followed in 1949 by Albert II, whose flight reached a height of 134 kilometers, making him the first monkey in space. Albert II died on impact.

Able perished shortly thereafter due to surgery required to remove his medical electrodes, but the fact remained that living humanlike creatures had made it into space — and home again! NASA’s work continued.

For his great achievements with Sputniks-1 and -2 Korolev received absolutely no publicity whatsoever. Instead, his name was kept a strict secret—and not only at this time but for the rest of his life. Over the coming years, as the number of his achievements accrued the world, including the Soviet public, knew the architect of it all only by the vague appellation the “Chief Designer.” Adding insult to injury, until about 1960 the Soviet authorities sometimes even explicitly credited Korolev’s work to a minor colleague—the physicist L. I. Sedov. Other times the pseudonym “K. Sergeev” (nearly his real name backwards) was used instead.

At public gatherings and ceremonies, Korolev was kept to the side, out of the limelight—a silent spectator to his own achievements. Officially, Korolev’s anonymity was for his own protection—and that of the Soviet space program. Unable to compete fairly, the logic went, “enemy agents” would no doubt seek to find and kill him. One might see some irony in this situation, since it could be seen to suggest the Soviets’ own sense that their space successes were the result not of a superior system but of the towering genius and colossal efforts of one fragile individual.

Korolev resented the secrecy but carried on undeterred. What else could he do? Space rocketry was his lifelong dream and obsession. He was now making it a reality. After Laika he and his team put into orbit Sputnik- 3. It stayed up for nearly two years.

The failure of the first U.S. satellite launch, named Vanguard TV3 added to Khrushchev’s glee and further convinced millions of people in the USSR and around the world, even in the United States, of the superiority of Soviet space technology. The successful launching the following January of Explorer-1, the first U.S. satellite, did little to change this perception, even though the craft made an important discovery missed by Korolev’s Sputniks: the Van Allen radiation belts.

Explorer 1 was a much smaller satellite than Sputnik 1, because it was limited by the size of the available American launch vehicles. Explorer 1 was cylindrical rather than spherical and measured just 2 meters long by 15.9 centimeters in diameter; Its mass was about one-sixth of Sputnik 1’s mass. Explorer 1’s mission centered on making several key measurements, including reading temperatures, gauging cosmic dust impacts, and detecting cosmic rays. Antennae transmitted the spacecraft’s radio signals back to Earth.

The engineering for Explorer 1 came from the Jet Propulsion Laboratory at the California Institute of Technology. A group of scientists at the State University of Iowa, led by Dr. James Van Allen, designed and developed the satellite’s instrumentation.

Explorer 1 achieved orbit in 1958, formally cementing America’s participation in the Space Race. Its orbit ranged from 2,515 km above the Earth to 354 kilometers, and it managed to complete about 12 orbits around the Earth per day. The satellite remained in space until 1970 when it reentered the Earth’s atmosphere, burning up in the process.

Perhaps the most-important result of Explorer 1’s success was the formation of the National Aeronautics and Space Administration, more commonly known today as NASA. The agency’s original mission was “to provide for research into the problems of flight within and outside the Earth’s atmosphere and for other purposes.” Since 1958, NASA has been responsible for worldwide innovations in satellites, probes, orbiting telescopes, space stations, and observatories — not to mention human spaceflight.

The United States had also scored three successful launches, following Explorer- 1 with Vanguard-1 and Explorer-3 (Explorer-2 did not reach orbit). Nonetheless, world opinion remained convinced America was behind. In fact, the Soviet lead was partly illusory. Designed primarily for delivering propaganda coups, the first two Sputniks had not been equipped for serious scientific work. Though the United States was far from immune to similar motivations, all of its satellites had also been outfitted to perform basic research. By the end of the 50’s, the U.S. had many more orbiting satellites than the USSR, most of which were also of greater scientific value.

Vanguard-2 ascertained the pear-shaped form of the Earth. Explorer-3 collected important data on solar radiation and micro-meteoroids.

The Soviets’ cluster-rocket design was far from ideal. Yet frustratingly, for the Americans, the world’s publics remained more easily impressed by headline-grabbing “firsts.” And this was precisely what Korolev continued to provide. In fact, the anonymous Chief Designer had hardly begun.

With three Sputniks to his credit, Korolev began to think bigger still. In particular, the moon beckoned. But this was a very different target from the near-earth orbits so far attained. Luna-1 (Moon-1) did nearly everything it was supposed to, sweeping across sublunar space and eventually missing its target by only 6000 km—a cosmic hair’s breadth. Korolev had fought successfully to get scientific instrumentation on Luna-1 and was rewarded also with the significant discovery that the moon lacks a magnetic field. The craft became the first man-made object to settle into solar orbit. Luna-2 reached the moon surface. Luna-3 took the first photographs of the Moon’s dark side.

Although human visitation of the Moon was a major goal for both participants in the Space Race, the Americans and Soviets recognized that robotic missions (also known as unmanned missions) were a necessary first step.

The Sputniks had traveled about 240 km above the earth. The moon, by contrast, was nearly a quarter of a million miles away. Korolev redesigned the R-7 rocket, adding an extra stage that would ignite once the rocket was already in space, thus providing the necessary thrust for breaking Earth orbit and carrying an unmanned probe much further. He called the resulting craft Mechta (Dream) and thought of it as a steppingstone to his own greatest dream—that of sending a man to the moon. One after another, three Mechtas were launched—and failed.

It was on virtually all counts a great achievement, yet the Soviet authorities, embarrassed about having missed the moon (not that they had announced such a goal beforehand), felt it necessary to declare emphatically, just in case anyone was wondering, that a direct hit had never been intended. And when Korolev scored a perfect bull’s-eye with Luna-2 the Soviets coolly announced they had hit the moon on their first try.

Working almost nonstop, Korolev and his team kept up the momentum. During the second anniversary of Sputnik-1, he launched Luna-3. This was an even greater success than the first two. Passing behind and around its target, Luna-3’s cameras not only took the first ever photographs of the dark side of the moon, but even processed the film automatically and showed the images to an on-board television camera which relayed them to Earth. This mission in particular helped Korolev—who continued to face competition for funds and support from other designers—into Khrushchev’s good favors.

In all, during 1958–1959 the Soviets tried eight times to reach the moon and succeeded thrice. The United States, with its Pioneer program, tried and failed seven times (or six if one counts as successful Pioneer-4, which missed the moon by 60.000 km). Despite the relatively large number of failures and no-shows, the Soviet Luna Program accomplished many significant achievements in space exploration.

Luna 9, launched in 1966, was the first spacecraft to successfully land on the Moon. After touchdown, the lander could then right itself and open a series of petals that housed telecommunications equipment and cameras. The Luna 9 cameras took a series of photographs (later assembled into a panoramic view) that became an instant part of the world’s historical record.

The next wave of Luna spacecraft had the lofty goal of sending a little bit of the Moon back home to Earth. These Luna missions had landers onboard that were capable of gathering a soil sample from the Moon and launching a capsule containing that sample back to Earth. These landers were able to drill down into the Moon’s surface, fill the hollow arm of the drill with soil, and send that arm home in the return capsule.

Luna 15 was launched in July 1969 — just three days before NASA’s Apollo 11 mission sent the first astronauts to the Moon. By this point, the Soviets had all but conceded the Space Race to the Americans, but they saw Luna 15’s ability to return a lunar soil sample to Earth before the Apollo 11 team returned as one last chance for glory. However, they lost contact with the spacecraft during its final descent to the lunar surface. Luna 15 most likely crashed into the side of a mountain on its way down.

Luna 16 successfully drilled for Moon dirt, landing and working near the Moon’s Mare Fecunditatis (Sea of Fertility) area. Samples of the lunar surface were successfully returned to Earth 12 days after the spacecraft launched. At this point, American astronauts had already brought back soil and rock samples from both the Apollo 11 and Apollo 12 missions, but this automated sample return was still a technological coup for the Soviets.

Another automated sample return mission in 1970, Luna 20, successfully returned a sample of the ancient lunar highlands. A final automated sample return mission in 1976 made Luna 24 the last Luna spacecraft to make a soft landing on the Moon.

The Luna soil samples were the first fully robotic sample return missions, a record that stood for decades. They also greatly increased the diversity of lunar sites from which samples were collected. Scientists back on Earth used the samples to learn about the geologic history of the Moon and study the differences in composition between the old lunar highlands and the younger volcanic plains.

In the true spirit of the Space Race, the Soviet Union’s Luna missions compelled the United States to simultaneously develop its own series of robotic lunar missions that could photograph the Moon’s surface. The spacecraft of the Ranger Program were intended to impact the Moon, taking pictures along the way with their six cameras. The first six Ranger spacecraft in the program all failed to return useful pictures for various reasons. Fortunately for the U.S. space program, the next few Ranger missions were much more successful.

The loss of six spacecraft in a row had to be discouraging for the Ranger team and the newly formed NASA. The failures were probably the result of a combination of different factors. One particular issue was discovered just before Ranger 6 was to launch: Tiny gold-plated diodes, which were used in many of the Ranger spacecraft’s systems, turned out to produce gold flakes that could peel off and float around in zero gravity, producing unwanted connections that caused the diodes to short-circuit. The diodes were replaced in subsequent Ranger missions, including Ranger 6, which was successful except for a failed camera switch due to a lightning strike during launch.

Ranger 7 made it into orbit as planned and was able to return more than 4,000 photos before crash-landing on the Moon’s surface. Ranger 8 sent home more than 7,000 photos. Last in the Ranger series, Ranger 9 completed its chief mission of impacting the Moon and sending 5,800 high-resolution photographs back home.

Although his earlier efforts captivated both the public and the scientific community, by far the greatest impression was made by Korolev’s crowning achievement of 1961—and probably of his life—the successful launch of the world’s first astronaut (or cosmonaut), Yuri Gagarin. Korolev was tiring of Sputniks and Lunas. It was, he felt, time to put a man into space. Selling the idea to Khrushchev as another important “first” proved relatively easy. Actually doing it was another thing. Whoever the man would be, Korolev was determined to do everything possible to secure his safe return.

From the start Korolev felt deeply the difference between sending up a machine (or even a dog for that matter) and launching a human being. Not just the inherent risks of space travel made this a stiff challenge. From the beginning, Soviet rocket and space programs had suffered greatly, compared to their American counterparts, from the general weakness of the Soviet economy and the backwardness of the Soviet industrial base. Despite Korolev’s successes at securing funding, the manned space program would also suffer from these shortcomings. Only extra effort, care, and imagination could offset them.

A Vostok spacecraft prototype carried a mannequin through sixty-four orbits before malfunctioning irreparably. A much better result came when two dogs, Belka and Strelka, completed eighteen orbits then returned safely to Earth by parachute after being automatically ejected. Then, at Baikonur a ballistic missile test went horribly wrong, exploding and killing more than 160 people. Though it was not directly connected to the manned space mission, still it cast a pall. Shortly thereafter, Korolev himself suffered a heart attack. Neither able nor willing to take the prescribed rest, he was back at work within a few weeks.

Launches—using dogs and dummies—carried out over a few months, proved successful. The last two in particular, during March 1961, convinced Korolev and his political bosses to prepare for the real thing. But who would they send up? By now, the search for the ideal pilot had in fact already long been under way. Recruiters had begun by investigating and interviewing as many as 3,000 fighter pilots.

Some 200 pilots were selected for transfer to Moscow’s Scientific Research Aviation Hospital, where they were placed in centrifuges, subjected to sleep and oxygen deprivation, and in many other ways prodded, poked, and stressed to their physical and psychological limits. In this manner the field was quickly reduced to twenty candidates. Living and working closely together, they came eventually to be known as “Gagarin’s squadron”—after their most illustrious member, the eventual first man in space. Some of them would fly on later missions; others went on to have important military careers; others fell into obscurity.

Though Gagarin was officially chosen for the flight only days beforehand, he seems to have been the clear favorite almost from the start, even among most of his fellow candidates. “I don’t know of anybody who was liked by so many different types of people,” remarked B. V. Volynov (one of the twenty). Korolev too was charmed. Supposedly he had been particularly impressed when Gagarin, upon seeing the spherical Vostok capsule for the first time, humbly removed his shoes before getting in to try it out. But the final decision was Khrushchev’s, not Korolev’s, and here what mattered was Gagarin’s outstanding political pedigree.

Though scheduled only to make one orbit, Gagarin was packing ten days’ worth of air, food, and water. This was Korolev’s precaution against the possible failure of his craft’s braking rockets. In the event of failure, the craft’s trajectory would, supposedly, bring it back to into the earth’s atmosphere in ten days.

The Soviets didn’t exactly have a sophisticated plan for the spacecraft to deliver its passenger safely back to the ground upon the mission’s completion. Gagarin actually parachuted to a safe landing on the ground from a height of about 7,000 meters above the Earth. The Vostok capsule itself also landed by parachute, but engineers thought that having the cosmonaut stay with the capsule posed too great of a physical hazard for him due to the anticipated rough landing.

Standing at the launch pad just before climbing into Vostok 1, Gagarin said to the scientists and workers, “In a few minutes a powerful space vehicle will carry me into the distant realm of space. Could one dream of anything greater? It is a responsibility toward all mankind, toward its present and future.” After his flight a triumphant Gagarin returned to Moscow on the cheering of the crowed. He had instantly became a national hero, and a world celebrity.

On re-entry, he parachuted out of the capsule and landed in a field where a lady was planting potatoes.“Have you come from outer space?” she asked him, and indeed he had.

The New York Times ran the headline “Soviet Orbits Man And Recovers Him.” It was a headline that echoed around the world. Gagarin returned to Moscow Airport flanked by an escort of fighter planes, while thousands of onlookers cheered him on a procession to Red Square where Khrushchev, Brezhnev and other leaders of the Soviet state basked in the unqualified triumph. Derided for years by the West for its antiquated technology, the Soviet Union had taken one of the most important steps in history.

It is entirely possible that Yuri Gagarin could have been the second human to go into space, although he would have been the first to orbit the Earth. The first person in space could have been Alan Shepard. He had been waiting for his suborbital Mercury flight. Later he said: “That little race between Gagarin and me was really, really close. Obviously, their objectives and their capabilities for orbital flight were greater than ours at that particular point. We eventually caught up and went past them, but it was the Cold War, there was a competition.”

With the United States quickly gaining ground in terms of number and length of orbits achieved, the Soviets switched tack and focused on sending the first woman into space. Khrushchev’s primary interest was propaganda as usual. In this case he sought to make a statement about the supposed equality of the sexes that had been achieved under the conditions of Soviet socialism. After a rigorous selection process the 26 year old Valentina Tereshkova was selected.

As with the male cosmonauts, the selection process focused on the candidates’ revolutionary credentials as much as on their skill, physique, or fitness. From an initial pool of some 400 pilots, five finalists were quickly chosen and given the same basic training as the men. Their names were Tatiana Kuznetsova, Irina Soloveva, Zhanna Yorkina, Valentina Ponomareva, and the eventual winner, twenty-six-year-old Valentina Tereshkova.

The flight was not without its difficulties, however. Because she had received little training, from her capsule Tereshkova soon began reporting multiple symptoms: tiredness; knee pain caused by her cramped position; shoulder pain from her helmet; loss of appetite. Psychologically, too, she seemed to be under considerable stress. She wanted to come down, she said. She is reported to have cried. When eventually she landed safely in the southern Urals she was in poor shape, suffering nausea and perhaps spasms. She had eaten little or nothing for three days.

Tereshkova’s major advantage seems to have been her background, which, as with Gagarin before her, read in many respects like the ideal Soviet biography. Born to collective farm workers, her father had died fighting in World War II. Upon finishing school, Tereshkova had worked—and become politically active—in a tire factory. By 1961 she was chapter secretary of the plant’s Communist Youth League and later joined the Communist Party itself. From age twenty-two she had also trained as a skydiver. Her selection was approved by Khrushchev.

Given that her flight was marketed and consumed around the world as a great statement of Soviet gender equality, there is, perhaps, some irony in the response her complaints received on the ground. At one point Korolev himself reportedly cursed her out: “I’ve had it working with women! ” Later the same day Korolev told his wife that “space is not for women! ”. Although, like Gagarin, Tereshkova usually spoke from carefully prepared scripts, there has been little if any reason to suggest she thought differently herself. In any case, there were no more female Soviet cosmonauts until 1982.

Tereshkova’s flight was eventually scheduled as one half of another two-craft mission, officially dubbed a “group flight.” Preceding her into orbit, Valeri Bykovsky was launched from Baikonur in Vostok-5. Tereshkova blasted off in Vostok-6. Both flights were successful. Bykovskiy completed a record eighty-one orbits and spent 199 hours in space. Tereshkova flew forty-eight orbits over three days. At their nearest pass the two craft were only a little more than 5 km apart.

Tereshkova’s flight was likely the product of the Soviet Union’s desire for another first-place claim in the Space Race. Yet regardless of how she got there, her achievement opened the door for the success of future female astronauts. It was heralded as a triumph for the Soviet Union; a woman had flown in space for longer than all the six American Mercury flights combined.

Tereshkova’s flight was also the end of the line for the highly successful Vostok spacecraft. It was succeeded by a new vehicle called Voskhod. The first launch called for placing a three-man team into orbit. Time and resource constraints allowed only a single unmanned test. Yet remarkably, Voskhod-1 was a complete success. The next mission, Voskhod-2, attempted yet another spectacular first—a spacewalk. Two cosmonauts were chosen: Aleksei Arkhipovich Leonov, who was to carry out the “walk,” and copilot Pavel Beliaev.

The three cosmonauts aboard Voskhod 1 landed safely after sixteen orbits, convincing the world once again of the superiority of Soviet over American space technology.

Leonov and Beliaev were launched, flawlessly. The real tests lay ahead, however. Once in orbit, Beliaev readied the airlock while Leonov added an oxygen backpack to his spacesuit. Leonov then entered the airlock and underwent decompression. Moments later he emerged through the exit hatch and drifted out to the full extension of his lifeline. For several minutes he dangled there—the first spacewalker.

It was by any measure an amazing achievement and an overwhelming experience. Leonov later wrote of it: “I was attached by just an umbilical chord of cables to our spacecraft … as it orbited ... at 30,000 kph. Yet it felt as if I were almost motionless.... Lifting my head I could see the curvature of the Earth’s horizon.... For a few moments I felt totally alone in the pristine new environment, taking in the beauty of the panorama below me with an artist’s eye. Then a voice filled the void: ‘Attention. Attention.’ It was my commander, Pavel Beliaev, addressing me and, it seemed, the rest of mankind. ‘Your attention, please,’ [he] said, ... ‘A human being has made the first ever walk in open space.’ It took me a moment to realize he was talking about me.” Moments later, while still floating, Leonov received a transmission from Soviet leader Leonid Brezhnev, which must have stretched the surreal nature of the moment to an extreme.

Although this mission made history with Leonov’s spacewalk, it wasn’t without its problems: the spacewalk itself was a success, but Leonov narrowly avoided disaster when his spacesuit became unexpectedly rigid in the vacuum of space and he had difficulty fitting back through the airlock to re enter the capsule. Following the spacewalk, the post-spacewalk hatch seal wasn’t good, leading to an excess of oxygen in the cabin, which raised the risk of a fire (but none occurred).

The United States, though bested by the Soviet Union in the race to place the first human into orbit, wasn’t without a feisty comeback. NASA helped develop the first American plan for human spaceflight: Project Mercury. Named in honor of the Roman god of speed, Project Mercury had very specific goals: Humans would orbit the Earth and return home safely, gathering valuable data about how mankind could live, breathe, and work in space in the process.

A variety of governmental agencies were involved in creating the standards for selecting the first lucky batch of U.S. astronauts. The president at the time, Dwight D. Eisenhower, decreed that these first astronauts should come from the military. The candidates had to meet a range of physical and health conditions and be able to prove they had experience flying aircraft. Personal interviews were conducted, as well as a slew of tests and exams. After being subjected to extremely stressful conditions, both physically and psychologically, the aptitudes of the potential space pilots were narrowed down, and eventually NASA’s first seven astronauts were selected.

The spacecraft for the Mercury missions were quite small, due to the size of the available launch vehicles. Due to the size constraints, each Mercury mission was crewed by just one astronaut. The capsule was equipped with three posigrade rockets, small rockets that fired in the direction of motion in order to break the capsule away from its launch vehicle. Three different rockets were used as part of the Mercury program: Redstone, Atlas, and Little Joe.

Each Mercury capsule also had three solid-fuel retrorockets designed to bring the spacecraft back to Earth. The Mercury capsules (as well as later NASA spacecraft constructed under the Gemini and Apollo programs) were designed to splash down in the ocean, with the crew and capsule retrieved via helicopter.

One of those selected, Alan Shepard was destined to narrowly miss becoming the first person in space. Shepard: “April 9, 1959, was one of the happiest days of my life. That was the day on which we all congregated officially as the US first astronaut group. We had been through a selection process, obviously, previous to that time. But that was the day we first showed up officially as the first astronauts in the United States.” They were called the Mercury 7, and they were: Scott Carpenter, Gordon Cooper, John Glenn, Virgil Grissom, Wally Schirra, Alan Shepard and Deke Slayton.

The Mercury 7 were paraded before the press and heralded by the American public as heroes. Viewed from today’s perspective the press conference was a strange event. John Glenn did most of the talking, while Alan Shepard was perhaps the wittiest. Several of them smoked during the interviews and all, when asked, gave their home addresses, clearly something that would not happen today.

A few weeks after being chosen they moved to Langley Field, Virginia, where they were shown the prototype of their spacecraft. Shepard: “It didn’t look very much like an airplane, but if you were going to put a pilot in it, it was going to have to fly somehow like an airplane, and when you have a strange new machine, then you go to the test pilots. That’s what they were trained to do, and that what’s they had been doing.”

Two Mercury missions are particularly notable: the astronaut with the honor of being the first American in space is Alan Shepard. Another famous American astronaut, John Glenn, broke new ground by becoming the first American to orbit the Earth.

A former flight test pilot in the U.S. Navy, Shepard was invited to “audition” for NASA’s new Project Mercury. He soon passed all the tests and joined the astronaut crew. Shepard made history when aboard the Freedom 7 spacecraft, he became the first American (and only the second human) to venture into space on a suborbital flight. Shepard’s achievement was dwarfed only by Yuri Gagarin’s flight, which occurred a month earlier. Even though Gagarin orbited the Earth and Shepard only reached the edge of space, Shepard was still celebrated as a hero in the U.S. for being the first American in space.

Glenn joined NASA after a career in the U.S. Marine Corps. He made history when he voyaged around the Earth on the Friendship 7 spacecraft. Glenn led a long and storied career with NASA and as a long-serving U.S. senator. In addition to his Project Mercury–related work, Glenn became the world’s oldest astronaut when he took a ride on the Space Shuttle Discovery in 1998.

Unlike Gagarin’s orbital flight, Shepard’s was suborbital. Instead of going into orbit, the capsule simply followed a curved path, rising into space and then dropping back toward Earth, like that of a bullet shot from a gun.

Shepard later remembered the day the choice was made: “We had been in training for about 20 months or so, toward the end of 1960, early 1961, when we all intuitively felt that Bob Gilruth had to make a decision as to who was going to make the first flight. And, when we received word that Bob wanted to see us at 5:00 in the afternoon one day in our office, we sort of felt that perhaps he had decided. There were seven of us then in one office. We had seven desks around in the hangar at Langley Field. Bob walked in, closed the door, and was very matter-of-fact as he said: “Well, you know we’ve got to decide who’s going to make the first flight, and I don’t want to pinpoint publicly at this stage one individual. Within the organization I want everyone to know that we will designate the first flight and the second flight and the backup pilot, but beyond that we won’t make any public decisions. So, Shepard gets the first flight, Grissom gets the second flight, and Glenn is the backup for both of these two suborbital missions.”

“We were invited back to Washington after the mission”, Shepard said “and I got a nice little medal from the president, and which by the way he dropped. I don’t know whether you remember that scene or not, but Jimmy Webb had the thing in a box and it had been loosened from its little clip, and so as the president made his speech and said: “I now present you the medal,” and he turned around and Webb leaned forward, and the thing slid out of the box and went to the deck, and Kennedy and I both bent over for it. We almost banged heads. Kennedy made it first and he said, in his damn Yankee accent: “Here, Shepard, I give you this medal that comes from the ground up.” Jackie Kennedy is sitting there, she’s mortified and said: “Jack, pin it on him. Pin it on him!” So he then recovered to the point where he pinned the medal on and everything was fine, and we had a big laugh out of that.”

Although history reveals that the first American astronauts were all men, that info doesn’t quite tell the whole story. Dr. William Lovelace, the person responsible for developing the tests that helped select the Mercury astronauts, also solicited female recruits for the testing phase. The first such candidate, a female pilot named Geraldyn “Jerrie” Cobb, was invited to undergo the testing in 1960, and she passed the same three phases as the men. With these results, more women were invited to take physiological tests. The program was halted because NASA required it’s astronauts to be air force officers and in those days the USAF didn’t train female pilots.

The women were examined, poked, prodded, and filmed. Their stomach acids and other bodily fluids were tested, as were their reflexes, breathing, and balance. The group made consistent progress, until the training of the final 13 candidates was halted when the Naval School of Aviation Medicine in Pensacola, Florida refused to allow them to continue testing because the program was considered unofficial.

Even though the Civil Rights Act of 1964 had made gender discrimination illegal, NASA claimed the women were ineligible because they weren’t allowed to attend Air Force training schools at the time, and one of the astronaut requirements was to be a graduate of a military jet test pilot program. NASA refused to grant exemptions for comparable experience, as they had in the cases of some male astronauts, despite the fact that some of the women already had the required engineering degrees and civilian test pilot experience.

Despite cosmonaut Valentina Tereshkova making waves with her flight, the minds of NASA’s powers-that-be remained unchanged, and the so-called Mercury 13 weren’t able to proceed with astronaut training. As a result, the first American female astronaut, Sally Ride, didn’t make her way into space until 1983.

The Mercury 13 were: Myrtle Cagle, Geraldyn “Jerrie” Cobb, Jan Dietrich, Marion Dietrich, Wally Funk, Janey Hart, Jean Hixson, Gene Nora Jessen, Irene Leverton, Sarah Ratley, Bernice Steadman, Jerri Truhill, Rhea Woltman.

Voskhod-2’s spectacular if nail-biting success marks the beginning of the end of Korolev’s anonymous reign as the world’s greatest space pioneer. By now the Americans were increasingly finding their own footing and, able to marshal much greater resources, were quickly closing the Space Race gap. Soon they would move ahead. The United States had developed Gemini—a much more advanced craft sporting onboard computing and two-astronaut capacity. Flying in Gemini-3, Gus Grissom and John Young carried out first ever maneuvers in orbit.

Edward White bested Leonov’s spacewalk, spending twenty-two minutes on total extravehicular activity—and wearing a more cooperative space suit! During a week-long flight in late August, the crew of Gemini-5 (the first craft to use fuel cells) flew a record 120 orbits. And in December Gemini-7 made it 220 orbits.

With the successes of Project Mercury firmly establishing the United States as a force to be reckoned with in the Space Race, American politicians, engineers, scientists, and the general public wanted more. Simply sending one astronaut into a brief orbit was no longer satisfactory. People across the nation clamored for longer flights, bigger crews, and more-advanced spacecraft that could raise the bar for space travel and rival the accomplishments of the Soviet Union. These cries were answered in NASA’s second manned spaceflight program, Project Gemini.

The first manned launch of a Gemini spacecraft came with the Gemini 3 mission, which launched from Cape Canaveral Air Force Station in Florida. This mission was crewed by two NASA astronauts: Commander Virgil “Gus” Grissom and Pilot John Young. Grissom nicknamed the capsule “Molly Brown,” from the popular Broadway play The Unsinkable Molly Brown, in a tongue-in-cheek reference to his sunken Mercury space capsule.

Formally undertaken shortly before the completion of its predecessor (Project Mercury), Project Gemini was named after the constellation Gemini, whose name means twins in Latin. This association with twins was meant to signify the main innovation of the Gemini spacecraft: It could carry two crew members, not just one.

The main goal of the Gemini 3 voyage was to prove that a two-member crew could survive a trip into space. Side goals were to practice maneuvering in space and come down in a more-controlled landing than had been seen in the days of Project Mercury. A variety of experiments and tests were planned, and medical data from the two crew members were collected. The Gemini 3 astronauts performed the first orbital maneuver during their flight, meaning they changed the size and period of their orbit mid flight by firing maneuvering thrusters at carefully calculated orientations and durations.

One of the most-significant historical achievements of Project Gemini was its ability to prove that rendezvous and docking activities could take place in space. These techniques were considered critical forbearers for a lunar mission, which was one of the ultimate goals of the U.S. space program. The target for these spacecraft docks was the Agena spacecraft, a separate unmanned spacecraft designed by NASA to provide a place for other space vehicles to practice docking in space.

The first planned Gemini space rendezvous would’ve taken place during the Gemini V mission, but the experimental fuel cells used on this flight provided a few glitches that depleted the ship’s power reserves and made a docking experiment impossible. Gemini VI also had a planned rendezvous, but the entire mission was scrapped when the Agena target vehicle exploded on launch.

Gemini 8 successfully rendezvoused with a new Agena target vehicle that had been successfully launched ahead of time. The docking proceeded without a hitch, and the two vehicles were joined together in space. While docked to the Agena, the Gemini spacecraft began to spin slowly. Following procedure, the astronauts undocked, only to find that their ship was now spinning at a rate of one spin per minute. After a few harrowing minutes, Neil Armstrong, in his first spaceflight, was able to recover control of the spacecraft. The ship then made an emergency return to Earth; the total Gemini 8 flight lasted just 10 hours and 41 minutes.

In May 1961 the race to the moon began—at least in the United States. Going specifically to the moon, rather than anywhere else, was at this time an American goal, not a Soviet one. The R-7, exceptionally well suited for earth orbital missions, could not lift the necessary amounts of fuel and other equipment.

If the Soviets wanted to send a man to the moon and bring him back they would have to start more-or-less from scratch with a totally new craft. This, of course, was exactly what the Kennedy administration liked about the project. For his part, Korolev did not need U.S. competition to urge him to set his sights on a manned moon mission—he had been dreaming of this for decades. The U.S. announcement did, however, encourage him to push the project more aggressively with his political bosses.

The idea of sending a human being to the Moon goes back thousands of years, but no one took it seriously. NASA had a vague plan, codenamed Apollo, as a starting point. Wernher von Braun’s team was working on a rocket called the Saturn V (where the “V” is the Roman numeral “5,” not a letter) that would be 10 times more powerful than anything yet built.

Wernher von Braun was one of the most important rocket developers and champions of space exploration during the period between the 1930s and the 1970s. Von Braun is well known as the leader of what has been called the “rocket team” which developed the V–2 ballistic missile for the Nazis during World War II. At the end of the war von Braun surrendered to the Americans. Von Braun worked with the U.S. Army in the development of ballistic missiles. Von Braun became director of NASA’s Marshall Space Flight Center and the chief architect of the Saturn V launch vehicle, the superbooster that would propel Americans to the Moon.

The brainchild of von Braun’s rocket team operating at a secret laboratory at Peenemünde on the Baltic coast, the V–2 rocket was the immediate antecedent of those used in space exploration programs in the United States and the Soviet Union. First flown in October 1942, it was employed against targets in Europe beginning in September 1944. By the beginning of 1945, it was obvious to von Braun that Germany would not achieve victory against the Allies, and he began planning for the postwar era.

As part of a military operation called Project Paperclip, he and his rocket team were scooped up from defeated Germany and sent to America where they were installed at Fort Bliss, Texas. There they worked on rockets for the U.S. Army, launching them at White Sands Proving Ground, New Mexico. In 1950 von Braun’s team moved to the Redstone Arsenal near Huntsville where they built the Army’s Jupiter ballistic missile.

Von Braun also became one of the most prominent spokesmen of space exploration in the United States during the 1950s. In 1970, NASA leadership asked von Braun to move to Washington, D.C., to head up the strategic planning effort for the agency. He left his home in Huntsville, Alabama, but in 1972 he decided to retire from NASA and work for Fairchild Industries of Germantown, Maryland. He died in Alexandria, Virginia., on June 16, 1977.

Although manned spaceflight was always the ultimate goal of NASA’s Moon program, everyone understood that it was necessary to first know a lot more about the Moon’s surface. Toward this end, NASA promoted the Lunar Orbiter Project, a series of five missions launched between 1966 and 1967. The project’s goal was to use high-resolution photos and other data to create a map of the Moon’s surface, paying particular attention to the areas that NASA considered prime candidates for a future astronaut mission. Unlike some other space mission programs, all of NASA’s Lunar Orbiter missions were a startling success.

NASA managed to map out about 99 percent of the Moon’s surface. This achievement was a truly amazing feat because scientists could visualize the entire surface of the Moon for the very first time.

The imaging system aboard the Lunar Orbiter spacecraft was very advanced. It included a dual-lens camera for both high-resolution and wider, lower resolution photos, along with a module specifically for processing the used film. Other instruments included a readout scanner and a film-handling apparatus. Because the spacecraft itself was in motion, the engineers designed the film to move accordingly so that the resulting photos wouldn’t appear blurry. After the images were exposed, the film was developed, scanned, and converted into signals that the spacecraft’s antennae transmitted back home to Earth.

Thanks to a slight approved detour by Lunar Orbiter 1, the Lunar Orbiter Project gave the world its first picture of the Earth in its entirety.

This historic photo, snapped on August 23, 1966, was taken about 380,000 kilometers from the Earth. Perhaps for the first time, it hit home that Planet Earth was but one cog in the universe. It also became clear that, at least from a distance, the Earth was one united entity.

In the mid- to late 1960s, both competitors in the Space Race kept the ultimate goal of sending astronauts to the Moon in sight. The United States’ next effort after the Lunar Orbiter Project was the Lunar Surveyor Program, a NASA project that landed the first American spacecraft on the Moon. Seven robotic spacecraft were sent to the Moon during that time, primarily to test techniques and scout out landing spots for the Apollo missions.

The Lunar Surveyor Program originally included orbiters and landers, but the number and types of spacecraft used were scaled back due to cost and time constraints. After all, the Space Race really was a race. Both the Soviet Union and the U.S. wanted to be the first to make major achievements in space. Thus, time was of the essence in ensuring their respective places in history.

The mandate to focus the Lunar Surveyor Program on lunar landings was sanctioned at the highest level of the U.S. government by President John F. Kennedy, which helped focus the program’s goals but also limited the amount of science the missions could accomplish — for good reason. By doing a faster series of test and data-gathering missions, more of the actual science could be done by the people who were slated to land on the Moon during Project Apollo.

Like the many other programs that preceded it, the Lunar Surveyor Program laid the groundwork for the human missions that were yet to come. Without this important background work, mission planners wouldn’t have been able to target landing sites, understand and prepare for the properties of the lunar surface, optimize the instruments and techniques to be used, and safely send humans to the Moon.

The main goal of the Lunar Surveyor missions was to practice and perfect a soft landing (where landing speed is controlled by retrorockets that allow the spacecraft to land gently) on the lunar surface. This goal was in direct preparation for Project Apollo, which would place the first Americans on the Moon’s surface just a few years later. Even though these spacecraft were capable of landing without crashing, they didn’t have the capability to launch themselves all the way back home.

The Lunar Surveyors were equipped with television cameras for photographing details of the lunar surface. These cameras could pan around to take multidirectional photos and photograph the lunar surface from different heights. Each spacecraft also had equipment to measure the surface temperature of the Moon and test the radar reflectivity and strength of its surface. In fact, more than 100 sensors were stashed aboard Surveyor 1.

A scoop added late in the project provided the capability for later Lunar Surveyors to dig a trench in the Moon’s surface, which the cameras could then photograph so that scientists back home could study the lunar soil’s composition. Without these critical bits of info, engineers wouldn’t have known which parts of the Moon’s surface would be capable of supporting the landing of an Apollo spacecraft.

One of the most-significant discoveries of the Lunar Surveyor missions was that the Moon’s surface was firmer than expected, a fact that boded well for a future Apollo landing because previously scientists had worried that so-called “Moon dust” would prevent an easy landing.

A special connection existed between the Lunar Surveyor Program and Project Apollo: The Apollo 12 mission was intentionally targeted to land near the Surveyor 3 spacecraft. Astronauts studied Surveyor 3 to view the effects of more than two and a half years on the lunar surface. They detached the spacecraft’s camera and a few other components to bring back to Earth for further analysis.

Landing on the Moon was a far-away dream for engineers, NASA scientists, politicians, and just about everyone else in the world during the early 1960s. Thanks to the breakthroughs and achievements of the United States’ Project Apollo, those dreams became reality just a few short years later — a reality witnessed by anyone with access to a television on July 20, 1969. The landing of astronauts on the Moon, as part of the Apollo 11 mission, is arguably one of the greatest human achievements ever.

The simplest mission concept to get to the Moon and back was the direct ascent, whereby a single spacecraft would be sent to the Moon and returned home in one piece. Although this method was initially the favored one, the size and weight of the required rocket boosters for both launches was ultimately prohibitive.

Propelling a three-astronaut lunar spacecraft such as the Apollo into space required a powerful rocket. Fortunately, the Saturn V rocket was up to the task. This launch vehicle was a three-stage rocket in which each stage contained a different number of engines, had a different burn time, and supplied different amounts of thrust (the force necessary for an object to take flight, defy gravity, and move through space). The huge Saturn V rocket is still the largest rocket ever used successfully, both in terms of size and in how much payload (cargo) it could get into orbit.

The Command/Service Module (CSM) of the Apollo spacecraft was a two-part entity that served to transport the astronauts, along with the Lunar Module, to the point where they could make their final lunar descent. Perhaps the most-memorable component of the Apollo spacecraft, at least in the minds of everyone who saw it on television, the Lunar Module (also called the LEM, short for lunar excursion module) had just two purposes: land on the Moon and take the astronauts back to the Command/Service Module when their work was done. It was never intended to make it back to Earth by itself, and it could hold only two of the three Apollo crew members.

Making history is rarely a small affair. Project Apollo required significant resources, investments, and costs in order to reach its goals. Fortunately, all that time and money paid off: NASA made huge advances in the areas of computers and robotics as engineers worked to develop the first flight computer to aid in navigation and implemented complicated automated flights to test various components of the Apollo spacecraft and Saturn V rocket without astronauts onboard.

NASA’s budget has expanded and shrunk over time, due in part to changes in emphasis on the space program. In the mid-1960s, the NASA budget rose to an all-time high, in no small part thanks to Project Apollo. Economists estimate that between 2 percent and 5 percent of every tax dollar went toward the space program during these years, and many employees (34,000 belonging to NASA plus more than 350,000 contractors) had the Apollo program to thank for their livelihood. In total, about $25 billion in 1969 dollars was spent on Project Apollo (that’s about $135 billion in 2005 dollars!).

One important innovation of the Apollo missions was the first flight computer, the Apollo Guidance Computer (AGC). Designed by the Massachusetts Institute of Technology in the early 1960s, the AGC allowed the astronauts to control the flight of their spacecraft and gather and interpret navigational data in real time. Although cutting-edge at the time, the AGC seems extremely basic today with its small display, numeric keyboard, and translation table that was necessary for interpreting the computer’s numerical codes output. It had an extremely low amount of memory (just 36K of RAM).

Less than three months after the successful conclusion of the Gemini program, the first Apollo capsule was sitting atop its titanic Saturn 1B rocket. In 1967, NASA held a dress rehearsal for the launches that would eventually take place. Astronauts Ed White, Virgil “Gus” Grissom, and Roger Chaffee were on board the Apollo capsule. They were testing the launch systems when a fire suddenly broke out. Although all the propellants had been removed from the capsule, the pure oxygen atmosphere caused the plastics inside to burn fiercely. Within fifteen seconds, the three men were dead from suffocation. It took ninety seconds for a rescue crew to open the hatch.

The Apollo launch schedule was put on hold for nearly two years. Engineers rethought and redesigned the capsule to make future capsules fireproof.

The crew members were in their horizontal couches running through a checklist when a voltage spike was recorded at 6:30 and 54 seconds. Ten seconds later Chaffee said: “Hey …,” and scuffling sounds were heard. Grissom shouted: “Fire,” followed by Chaffee, who said: “We’ve got a fire in the cockpit.” Then White repeated: “Fire in the cockpit.” Seconds later Chaffee yelled: “We’ve got a bad fire! Let’s get out! We’re burning up! We’re on fire! Get us out of here!”

Just 17 seconds after the first indications of fire, the transmission ended with a scream as the capsule ruptured due to the expanding gases. Toxic smoke was leaking from it. The astronauts had tried to open the hatch but it was too awkward, too complicated. The pure oxygen atmosphere did not give them a chance. Postmortems showed they all had extensive third-degree burns and had died due to a combination of smoke inhalation and burning. To this day no one knows what caused the initial spark. The subsequent inquiry found that the documentation was so poor that no one was even sure what was within the spacecraft at the time of the accident.

Although the manned flights are the ones that everyone thinks about when discussing Project Apollo, many robotic (unmanned) test flights went into making those landings possible. These missions laid the foundation for those important human flights and tested techniques that the astronauts would need to rely on later.

What about Apollo 1, 2, and 3? NASA began testing its Apollo spacecraft and Saturn launch vehicles with a different numbering scheme. The first robotic flights took place as early as 1966, with the AS-201 (Apollo/Saturn 201) flight, which tested a precursor Saturn 1 launch vehicle. AS-204, in 1967, was scheduled to be the first manned flight, but the crew tragically perished in a fire during a prelaunch test. This mission was renamed Apollo 1 afterward in honor of the three astronauts who lost their lives. Missions then continued with the robotic AS-501 mission, which was renamed Apollo 4.

Apollo 5 provided an opportunity to test the Lunar Module. After reaching Earth orbit, the Lunar Module separated from the launch vehicle so that mission controllers could test both the descent and ascent propulsion systems under real space conditions. Despite a slight glitch that caused the descent propulsion system to shut down prematurely, the 11 hours of testing showed that all the systems on the Lunar Module worked successfully.

The Apollo 4 flight was the first test of both the Saturn V rocket and the launch site (Launch Complex 39 at Florida’s Kennedy Space Center) built for it. It was designed to test the launch and reentry of the lunar spacecraft. The thrust of the rocket, around 7.5 million pounds, was enough to rock the NASA buildings that were close to 6 km away! This unexpected effect led NASA engineers to design special techniques to dampen the shock waves, such as pumping ocean water onto the launch site.

Apollo 6, the last robotic mission of the series, was the “qualification flight” that certified the Saturn V rocket for active duty. It would’ve tested return entry scenarios for the Command/Service Module, but these tests were scrubbed due to engine problems. A range of other problems plagued this test flight, but these issues didn’t bode poorly for the future Apollo mission

As it turned out, Voskhod-2 was Korolev’s last manned mission. For many years his health had been steadily declining. After his 1960 heart attack, doctors’ recommendations for rest and recuperation had been ignored. His final demise came on 14 January 1966, caused by complications during a procedure to remove intestinal polyps. In death Korolev attained the public recognition he had been systematically denied in life.

Korolev had been declining fast throughout 1965. In August he had complained about not feeling well because of abnormally low blood pressure, and in September he was afflicted by severe headaches. He also had a progressive hearing loss and a serious heart condition. He wrote to his wife: “I am holding myself together using all the strength at my command … I can’t continue to work like this, you understand. I’m not going to continue working like this. I’m leaving!”

Two days after his death his photograph and a lengthy obituary ran in Pravda. The following day he was given a hero’s funeral at Red Square. In attendance were all the major political figures, including Brezhnev and other Politburo members; Chief Designers, scientists and engineers; academicians; the cosmonauts—including Gagarin, Titov, Leonov, and Tereshkova; and Korolev’s family, relatives, and friends. There were numerous speeches. Gagarin spoke last. Korolev’s ashes were placed in the Kremlin wall.

Korolev was succeeded as Chief Designer by his former deputy, Vasilii Mishin, who struggled to pick up where the great man had left off. It is extremely unlikely that even Korolev could have continued any longer to keep the Americans from overtaking the Soviets, the gap in resources being just too great. But it was under Mishin’s watch that the baton was clearly passed. Nonetheless, Mishin did preside over some important scientific successes, including the soft landing of an unmanned research-probe (Luna-9) on the moon, the first probe to enter Venus’s atmosphere (Venera-4), and the first transmission of data from the surface of Venus (by Venera-7).

Mishin also continued work on Korolev’s dream rocket, the N-1, which remained the Soviets’ best shot at a manned moon mission. The project continued to fare poorly, however. In the end only four N-1s were ever tested—between February 1969 and November 1972. They all blew up during liftoff or shortly after. In 1974 Mishin was dismissed in favor of Korolev’s old rival Valentin Glushko, who immediately cancelled the N-1 altogether.

Although the Soviet Union began the Space Race in the 1950s with a substantial lead, the U.S. gained a triumphant victory when it landed astronauts on the Moon in the 1960s and 1970s. The Soviets worked hard to compete with Project Apollo’s successes, but the lunar program they devised was marred by accidents that slowed progress to such a point that they had no hope of catching up.

Because the Soviets’ lunar program was primarily politically motivated (much like its American counterpart), after the political impetus to be “first” was no longer present, the Soviet lunar cosmonaut program collapsed. Instead, the nation quickly switched its political, and scientific, space goals to building space stations in orbit around the Earth, which it accomplished successfully in 1971.

Readying the spacecraft, astronauts, and techniques for a Moon landing required significant preparatory work, which is where Apollo 7 through Apollo 10 came in. Each manned flight was designed to test certain elements of a Moon mission, all of which built on each other and ultimately led to the success of Apollo 11.

The significance of the first manned Apollo mission, Apollo 7, was simply that it succeeded. The purpose was to test the functioning of the Command/Service Module, as well as the effectiveness of the newly designed flotation system for use during splashdown.

Apollo 8 earned its place in history as the first U.S. mission to orbit the Moon. Its core purpose was to see whether manned lunar orbit was possible, but it was also responsible for testing out the Saturn V, an enormous rocket that would be the launch vehicle of choice for many future missions. Apollo 8 also tested out the functioning of the Command/Service Module and its life-support systems and gathered Moon data, including photographs and information about the lunar landscape that directly benefitted later Apollo missions.

Because the Apollo 7 mission employed only the Command/Service Module (and not the Lunar Module), it launched with a smaller rocket. In addition to orbiting the Earth for a sustained period of time, this mission marked the first time a full three-member Apollo crew performed a mission in space. The crew members on this historic flight were Commander Walter Schirra, Command Module Pilot Donn Eisele, and Lunar Module Pilot Walter Cunningham. Ironically, this same crew served as the backup for Apollo 1, a mission that proved deadly for all the astronauts aboard.

The Apollo 8 astronauts (Commander Frank Borman, Command Module Pilot James Lovell, and Lunar Module Pilot William Anders) had the honor of being the first humans to view the whole Earth from space, as well as from the Moon’s far side. As the spacecraft rounded the Moon for the fourth time, the astronauts suddenly saw Earth come into view over the barren lunar surface.

Apollo 9 went down in space history as the first successful trial of a lunar orbit rendezvous, NASA’s chosen flight design for missions to the Moon. The astronauts completed a successful separation, rendezvous, and docking of the Lunar and Command/Service Modules in orbit around Earth, indicating that the ships were nearly ready for prime time. The Apollo 9 crew (Commander Jim McDivitt, Command Module Pilot Dave Scott, and Lunar Module Pilot Rusty Schweickart) also executed a spacewalk to test the effectiveness of the newly designed Apollo spacesuit. The suit carried its own life support system.

Any big production requires a dress rehearsal, and that’s precisely what Apollo 10 was. NASA considered this mission a dry run for Apollo 11 and so sent the complete Apollo spacecraft (Command/Service Module plus Lunar Module) and crew into space to test the Lunar Module in the environment for which it was really intended — lunar orbit. Commander Thomas Stafford, Command Module Pilot John Young, and Lunar Module Pilot Eugene Cernan crewed this particular flight and did everything that would be done during Apollo 11, with the exception of landing on the Moon.

Once in lunar orbit, the astronauts used thrusters to separate the Command/Service and Lunar Modules. The Lunar Module was programmed to make low-orbit passes by the surface of the Moon, just as Apollo 11 would need to do; at its lowest altitude, the spacecraft was less than six miles away from the Moon’s surface. Numerous photos and television images of the Moon’s surface were taken from both modules. The astronauts ran a full test of the instrumentation and all equipment aboard the spacecraft, and they redocked successfully about eight hours after they first separated. Most of the tests went according to plan.

Despite numerous setbacks and intense competition from the Soviet Union, the United States won the most coveted accolade in the Space Race, if not the history of humanity, on July 20, 1969. On that day, Project Apollo placed an American on the surface of the Moon. The mission commander was astronaut Neil Armstrong, who went down in history as the first human to step on the Moon.

Apollo 11 was staffed by the typical crew of three astronauts. Neil Armstrong served as commander, Michael Collins piloted the Command Module (call sign “Columbia”), and Edwin “Buzz” Aldrin piloted the Lunar Module (call sign “Eagle”). The spacecraft was launched using a Saturn V rocket, and the launch proceeded as planned. After first entering Earth orbit and then being rocketed into a lunar trajectory, the Command/Service Module separated from the third rocket stage and docked with the Lunar Module.

When the spacecraft entered lunar orbit, it headed for the anticipated landing site on the Moon’s Sea of Tranquility. The Lunar Module undocked from the Command/Service Module, leaving Collins alone in lunar orbit. Because large boulders covered the intended landing site, Armstrong and Aldrin had to manually keep the Lunar Module moving in order to find a smoother place to land. They eventually landed the spacecraft with little fuel left to spare. Soon afterward, Armstrong spoke the first words to be sent from the Moon: “Houston, Tranquility Base here. The Eagle has landed.” After their landing was formally acknowledged (and celebrated!) on Earth, the astronauts prepared for their moonwalk.

The Americans’ lunar landing wasn’t just about beating the Soviets; it was also about testing the effects of the Moon’s low gravity on motion and harvesting soil and rock samples to bring back to Earth. The astronauts tested a variety of motions on the Moon. They walked and hopped to demonstrate how they were able to balance, particularly while wearing their bulky spacesuits, in the Moon’s low gravity. Both Aldrin and Armstrong adopted a sort of long-strided glide as the most-efficient way to move, and both noted that they needed to anticipate their movements because the Moon’s surface dust was more slippery than anticipated.

The lunar dust was also quite abundant. It flew up as Aldrin and Armstrong walked about and gathered 21 kg of lunar soil and rocks through collection tubes and core samples. The tubes had to be hammered into the Moon’s surface, which was no small feat while wearing a bulky spacesuit and gloves. Other samples were taken using long-handled shovels.

The sampling and other work took longer than expected, which meant the astronauts wound up doing less sampling than originally planned. Mission Control back on Earth carefully monitored the astronauts’ core temperatures and other physiological factors and let the men know when they were working too hard so they could reserve enough energy to make it back into the Lunar Module for the return journey.

The astronauts also spoke via radio to President Richard Nixon during what was perhaps the most memorable (and probably expensive) telephone call to have been made from the White House. They also left behind a plaque, drawings of Earth, an olive branch, and other terrestrial memorabilia.

After a quick meal on the Moon, Armstrong and Aldrin prepared to take their first steps on the lunar surface. Neil Armstrong exited the Lunar Module first, descended the nine steps of the exit ladder, took that first historic step on the Moon, and uttered the words America longed to hear: “That’s one small step for man, one giant leap for mankind.”

These first steps occurred about six and a half hours after the Lunar Module landed on the Moon. Aldrin soon followed Armstrong, and the two astronauts spent the next several hours photographing, drilling into the lunar surface for samples, and taking careful notes on everything around them. They photographed the soil, their own footsteps, and the Lunar Module itself; the latter photographs eventually helped NASA engineers evaluate both the spacecraft and its landing orientation.

An external television camera broadcast the astronauts’ historic steps via live TV. The images were somewhat degraded because they had to pass through a second television monitor before being transmitted to radio telescopes on Earth, but they were good enough for people around the world to feel like they were really witnessing history.

Armstrong and Aldrin planted a United States flag into the lunar surface. Because there’s no wind on the Moon to blow out the flag, the astronauts mounted it to a small rod that would (in theory) help keep the flag extended on the pole. In reality, the rod failed to extend all the way, giving the flag a slightly rumpled look that lends the appearance of fluttering. When it was time to head back, Aldrin reentered the Lunar Module first, followed by Armstrong. Along with them came camera film and boxes full of rock and soil samples. The Apollo 11 astronauts returned home safely.

The astronauts disconnected themselves from their space suit life-support systems and hooked into the Lunar Module’s life-support system instead. In an effort to make the Lunar Module lighter for the return trip, they jettisoned their life-support backpacks, parts of their space suits, and anything else that could be spared. The Lunar Module was repressurized for the return trip while the astronauts slept. The ascent engine was fired, and the spacecraft returned to lunar orbit, leaving the descent stage behind on the lunar surface. Its rendezvous with the Command/Service Module was a success, and the ascent portion of the Lunar Module was jettisoned as planned.

The astronauts completed their mission, splashing down into the Pacific Ocean within 8 km of the USS Hornet, their homeward-bound recovery ship. They were all quarantined for a period of time but were released within a few weeks after scientists realized they hadn’t contracted any special lunar diseases. From then on the newly minted worldwide celebrities were free to engage in parades, publicity tours, and other celebrations of their achievement.

With the incredible success of Apollo 11, the U.S. space program had the support it needed to continue with the rest of the intended Apollo missions. Although putting the first man on the Moon was an unparalleled achievement, other surprises were yet to come from the astronauts and their missions. After the frenzied pace leading up to Apollo 11, NASA was able to step back and space out the missions more. As a result, the missions following Apollo 11 were rich in scientific exploration. However the political goals of the program, having been achieved, eventually led to the cancellation of the program after Apollo 17.

Project Apollo represented a huge investment of American resources, both in terms of funding and brainpower. Although the country certainly reaped tangible benefits in the form of spinoff technology and the creation of new technical industries, much of the driving force supporting this vast expenditure evaporated after the political goal of landing on the Moon first was accomplished.

Science, always in second place to political reality, was allowed a few experiments in between flag plantings and live television broadcasts, but the political triumph of the Moon landings was always clear. Because the goal was “land on the Moon” rather than “do science on the Moon,” after the initial Moon landings were accomplished, there was little reason to go back. Support for the Apollo program dried up, and the planned missions after Apollo 17 were canceled.

Apollo 11 was a hard act to follow — after all, it put the first men on the Moon — but the Apollo 12 mission proved it was up to the task. Not only did the Americans put another pair of men on the Moon, but they did so just four months after their first successful attempt. This time the astronauts were to explore a different part of the Moon: the Oceanus Procellarum, a vast lunar plain that borders the near side of the Moon and was found to be covered with ancient lava flows.

Apollo 12 was led by Commander Charles Conrad. Richard Gordon piloted the Command/Service Module, and Alan Bean piloted the Lunar Module. Like its predecessor, the mission launched from a Saturn V rocket and followed the standard lunar orbit rendezvous flight design that called for the Lunar Module to detach from the Command/Service Module upon entering the Moon’s atmosphere.

Based on the experience of the first lunar astronauts, the Apollo 12 astronauts were better able to budget their time to tackle all of their assignments before the clock ran out. Two moonwalks were conducted as part of the lunar mission. The first moonwalk, broadcast in real time from a television camera mounted on the Lunar Module, involved the astronauts collecting soil samples and setting up an experiment to test the composition of noble gases in the solar wind. The second moonwalk undertook a geologic traverse. During this trek, Conrad and Bean collected several different Moon soil and rock samples that were brought to Earth for analysis.

As part of its mission, Apollo 12 made a visit to the site of the Surveyor 3 spacecraft. The Apollo 12 astronauts were able to bring several pieces of it back home, including the TV camera. The parts’ main research value for scientists back on Earth was that they showed how metal and other elements were preserved after sitting on the Moon’s surface for two and a half years.

Apollo 13 was headed for a landing in the Fra Mauro region of the Moon. One of the oxygen tanks in the service module’s electrical power system exploded. Mission control in Houston, Texas, ordered the landing to be canceled. The three astronauts had to continue on to the Moon but not land. They circled it before returning to Earth, because a spaceship cannot simply be turned around like a car or airplane.

The astronauts had to depend on the oxygen reserves carried in the lunar module, which they used as a kind of “lifeboat” until once again arriving in Earth’s orbit.

Thanks to the failure of Apollo 13 to land on the Moon, the next Apollo mission was under huge amounts of pressure to pick up the research and sample collection slack. With a few design changes, Apollo 14 fulfilled its new goals admirably and was able to take a wealth of photos, gather numerous samples, and conduct several interesting experiments.

Crewed by Commander Alan Shepard, Command Module Pilot Stuart Roosa, and Lunar Module Pilot Edgar Mitchell, the spacecraft launched from the now-standard Saturn V rocket. Despite a few noncritical glitches with the docking equipment, the Lunar Module landed in the Fra Mauro Formation, which had been the intended landing site for Apollo 13. Shepard and Mitchell descended to the Moon’s surface and took numerous photographs of the landing site, the moonwalks, and all experiments.

Two moonwalks were included on the Apollo 14 agenda; together, they totaled more than nine hours of time working outside the Lunar Module. Shepard and Mitchell collected rock and soil samples from 13 different sites near the Lunar Module, and they performed a number of experiments, including meteoroid experiments, microgravity analysis, and the transfer of liquids in microgravity.

One of several innovations aboard Apollo 14 was the MET, or modular equipment transporter. This two-wheeled cart not only allowed the astronauts to transport equipment but it also let them carry back more rock samples than they could’ve transported manually. With the help of the MET, Shepard and Mitchell were able to bring back the largest amount of Moon rocks yet — about 42 kilograms worth.

Each astronaut participating in the Apollo 14 mission was allowed to bring along a few personal items. Stuart Roosa chose to bring tree seeds (later germinated and planted around the U.S. as Apollo Moon trees), whereas Alan Shepard brought two golf balls. A full golf club wasn’t sanctioned for the trip, but being an astronaut and an innovator, Shepard made do with one of his rod-shaped metal geologic tool handles and attached a golf club head to one end. During a moonwalk, he swung for two separate shots on the surface of the Moon.

The balls traveled a good distance — about 180 and 250 meters. Gravity on the Moon is considerably lower than that on Earth, and Shepard was put at a disadvantage by having to swing in his spacesuit. A short time afterward, Mitchell threw an instrument pole javelin-style, which traveled almost as far as Shepard’s first golf shot.

Because it was rapidly becoming clear that the immense cost of lunar exploration couldn’t be sustained for long, it was imperative that Apollo 15 and later missions do as much science as they could. Earlier Apollo missions were limited in terms of the type of terrain they could land on, the amount of lunar samples they could bring back, and the length of time they could work on the Moon’s surface. Apollo 15 was charged with breaking those limitations in part by traveling farther away from the lunar landing site and bringing more equipment for conducting experiments and gathering data.

Changes to the equipment setup were made before Apollo 15; one of the most important was the inclusion of a new scientific instrument module. The Lunar Module was also redesigned to allow for greater payloads and to provide the astronauts with the tools they needed to survive for longer periods of time on the surface. Perhaps the best-known innovation of Apollo 15, though, was the Lunar Roving Vehicle (LRV), a four-wheeled vehicle that helped the astronauts collect samples on the Moon.

The Apollo 15 mission was crewed by Commander David Scott, Command Module Pilot Alfred Worden, and Lunar Module Pilot James Irwin. These astronauts had to be trained differently than their predecessors due to the more-aggressive nature of their terrain hikes on the Moon; they spent more time hiking outdoors in their spacesuits, and of course had to undergo a series of training activities with the new LRV.

While Scott and Irwin went down to the Moon for their part of the mission, Worden remained in the Command/Service Module and conducted a series of experiments. He used special equipment to study the Moon’s surface from afar, and he took highly detailed panoramic photos. His other work included using a gamma ray spectrometer, mass altimeter, and other devices to help create a more-sophisticated map of the Moon’s surface.

Previous Apollo landings had the luxury of landing on lunar maria, the flat, dark, volcanic plains that cover much of the near side of the Moon. Apollo 15 took a more rugged approach: It landed in the Hadley-Apennine region of the Moon, a landing site chosen partially for its varied terrain. Hadley-Apennine lay along the Imbrium Basin, and scientists believed valuable information could be gleaned from any samples taken along the basin’s rim. They expected that the astronauts would be able to obtain samples here that had come from deeper within the Moon.

Apollo 15 couldn’t just return with some Moon rocks and dust. It had to come back to Earth with more lunar souvenirs than any of its predecessors. Enter the Lunar Roving Vehicle, or LRV (nicknamed “Moon Buggy”). The LRV was an electric, four-wheeled vehicle designed specifically to run in the Moon’s low-gravity environment. Changes to the spacesuit gave the astronauts increased flexibility, particularly around the hips and waist. Being able to bend over more fully, something that hadn’t been possible with the previous Apollo spacesuits, allowed them to sit down and ride in the LRV.

The longer surface missions NASA wanted to run weren’t possible without enhanced life-support systems, so the Apollo 15 astronauts got to test out the changes NASA engineers had made, such as the extra batteries and other life-support necessities added to the Lunar Module in order to allow the astronauts to make extended moonwalks.

Apollo 16 was like the bigger, better version of Apollo 15. It may have been the tenth manned Apollo mission and the fifth lunar-landing mission, but it was the first one to land in the lunar highlands. Apollo 16 also trumped the payload and lunar surface time records of its immediate predecessor.

The crew of Apollo 16 consisted of Commander John Young, Command Module Pilot Ken Mattingly, and Lunar Module Pilot Charles Duke, Jr. Oddly enough, all three astronauts had a connection to Apollo 13: Young and Duke were part of the mission’s backup crew, and Mattingly was actually slated to pilot the Command/Service Module until he was exposed to German measles and had to be removed from the flight rotation.

Apollo 16’s Lunar Module landed on the edge of the Moon’s Descartes Mountain range, marking the first time that an Apollo mission succeeded in landing in the ancient lunar highlands. Consequently, the astronauts and their trusty LRV were able to explore a brand-new type of geology and learn about the composition of the highlands. To maximize the geologic potential of the mission, the target landing site was set between two impact craters: South Ray and North Ray Craters.

Apollo 16 managed to break the lunar surface record set by Apollo 15; the astronauts spent a total of 71 hours on the Moon. They traveled via the LRV about 27 kilometers, roughly the same distance the Apollo 15 crew traveled, but they brought home more samples 96 kilograms worth to be exact — and stayed on the Moon’s surface about two hours longer. Two additional hours may not seem like a lot, but many incremental improvements in spacesuit and life-support technology were required to make them possible.

Apollo 16’s experiments led to an important discovery about the lunar highlands, ancient battered regions of the Moon that look bright when seen from Earth. Based on Duke and Young’s discovery of breccias, mixed-up rocks formed by impact rather than volcanic activity, in the Descartes region, scientists determined that the highlands were predominantly the result of impact cratering rather than volcanic activity.

The last manned Moon landing of the Apollo program was Apollo 17, a mission that was designed to maximize the number of lunar samples collected and experiments run. Why? Because mankind was making its last journey to the Moon for the remainder of the 20th century. All future Apollo missions had been canceled due to a combination of budgetary concerns and a need to allocate resources to other projects. The equipment originally slated for Apollo 18, 19, and 20 was used for other missions, put on display, or scrapped. The last human steps on the Moon were taken by Eugene Cernan on December 14, 1972.

Unlike the previous Apollo flights, Apollo 17 launched at night. A failure in the countdown sequencer caused a slight delay, but after a few hours, the flight launched as planned. The spacecraft itself was similar to the previous Apollo spacecraft, with the exception of several small changes intended to correct minor problems noticed on Apollo 16.

As with the earlier Apollo flights, the Command/Service Module (CSM) and Lunar Module launched together with the aid of the Saturn V rocket and then separated once in orbit. Commander Eugene Cernan and Lunar Module Pilot Harrison Schmitt descended to the lunar surface, and Command Module Pilot Ronald Evans stayed aboard the CSM to conduct experiments from space.

Like its predecessors, Apollo 15 and 16, Apollo 17 made use of a Lunar Roving Vehicle (LRV) to increase the astronauts’ ability to travel across the Moon’s surface and collect heavy samples. Cernan and Schmitt deployed and tested the LRV, making sure the attached television camera was working so the vehicle could broadcast their work live back on Earth.

Over the course of three moonwalks, which lasted a total of approximately 22 hours, Cernan and Schmitt collected more than 110 kilograms of lunar soil and rock samples. They were also involved in the solar system’s first lunar fender bender, which occurred when the right rear fender fell off the LRV. The cause wasn’t one of the left-behind LRVs from previous missions but rather an errant tool. The astronauts were able to make repairs using the objects they had available, and the moon rides proceeded without further problems.

Because Apollo 17 was the last chance NASA scientists had to harvest scientific data from the Moon, they prepared a battery of complex experiments for the astronauts to perform. The experiments package included studies of subsurface gravity, heat flow, and seismic data. The purpose of these experiments was to discover more about lunar surface material, as well as what was going on deep underneath the Moon’s surface. The setup for these deep experiments was more complex because additional skill and precision were necessary to drill for soil and rock samples. Apollo 17 had just the man for the job in the form of Lunar Module Pilot Harrison Schmitt.

An American geologist as well as an astronaut, Schmitt joined NASA in 1965 as part of an effort to involve geologists more in the space program. He worked directly with other astronauts to provide training for geologic field work that would be done on the Moon. When it became apparent that Apollo 17 would end the United States’ forays to the Moon, Schmitt was selected for the final mission. As a trained field geologist, he was able to select rock samples with an educated eye and provide expert assistance with the complex experiments that needed to be run.

Data from the Apollo adventure has kept scientists busy for a generation. After studying the samples brought back by the astronauts, scientists concluded that the Moon split off from Earth about 4.5 billion years ago, when a very large asteroid collided with Earth. Almost none of the iron from Earth’s core was torn out, which is why the Moon has very little iron and is only 60% as dense as Earth overall. Small quantities of radioactive oxygen in the moon rocks match the amount of radioactive oxygen in Earth rocks.

Mainly because of heat from the collision, the Moon’s surface was almost completely covered by oceans of molten lava for a hundred million years or so. Slightly heavier rocks sank through the molten lava as the less heavy rocks solidified. When the Moon’s surface was almost cooled, the last volcanoes forced some of the slightly heavier rocks back up to the surface.

Unlike Earth, the Moon did cool right through and no longer has a molten core. Since the time the lava turned solid, the only thing that has happened on the surface of the Moon has been a hail of various-sized asteroids and meteoroids that came crashing down. That is, until 12 brave men left footprints in the shallow dust.

The Soviet Union had its own response to the achievements of the United States’ Mercury and Gemini programs: the Soyuz program. Begun in the 1960s, this Soviet space program involved both a Soyuz launch vehicle and a Soyuz spacecraft. It was originally conceived to test orbital docking and multi crew missions, with the intent of leading up to a trip to the Moon. During the first mission cosmonaut Vladimir Komarov died. This delayed the Soviet space program. After the moon race was over and the americans won, the Soyuz program was repurposed to transport cosmonauts into orbit to various space stations. The Soyuz family is still being used today.

The Soyuz program was meant to be a technologically advanced replacement for its problem-plagued Voskhod predecessor . The Soviet Union’s space program fell farther and farther behind, however, due to technical and political reasons, while NASA’s Project Gemini put the U.S. firmly in the lead in the Space Race.

Soyuz 1 was the first manned Soyuz flight. Cosmonaut Vladimir Komarov survived the launch and daylong excursion, but he perished upon landing. This disaster seriously delayed progress toward a Soviet mission to the Moon.

The first Soyuz success with manned spaceflight was the Soyuz 3 mission, led by Georgi Beregovoi. Its main goal was to attempt a rendezvous and docking with the unmanned Soyuz 2 spacecraft. Although Soyuz 3 is significant for being the first successful manned flight of the Soyuz program because Beregovoi survived landing, the ship failed to dock with the Soyuz 2.

Perhaps the most-remarkable aspect of the Soyuz program is its expandability and longevity. Since the late 1960s, Soyuz spacecraft have been modified and reconfigured for a huge range of space applications. Some have never left the planning stages, whereas others came to fruition, as you find out in the following list: Soyuz 7K-T and 7K-TM: Used to transport crew to Soviet civilian and military space stations (1973–1981); docked with Apollo in 1975, Soyuz TM: Upgraded radio communications and the maneuvering system; brought crews to Mir and the International Space Station, Soyuz TMA: Currently travels to the International Space Station.

The Apollo Moon landings were a triumph for the United States, but such a level of accomplishment couldn’t be sustained on either side of the Space Race after the politically motivated megagoal of being first to the Moon was achieved. Thus, both the U.S. and Soviet space programs set their sights on more-modest goals closer to home, in Earth orbit. The Americans scaled down Project Apollo to meet new orbital objectives, and the Soviets launched their successful Soyuz program, which took cosmonauts into orbit and ferried them to and from a succession of space stations. Salyut 1 was the world’s first such space station.

After failing to reach the Moon before its American rivals, the Soviet Union set its sights on putting the first space station into orbit around Earth — a goal that ultimately led to the creation of the Salyut program. The Soviets launched nine separate space station modules, six of which met enough of their mission requirements to be considered successes.

The first space station in the world, Salyut 1, was launched into orbit by the Soviets on April 19, 1971. Its purpose — other than beating the Americans into space with a station — was to begin exploring how humans could survive in space for long periods of time. In addition, Salyut 1 provided an excellent opportunity to photograph Earth from afar and study cosmic rays, gamma rays, and other astronomical phenomena that can’t be observed from the ground.

Salyut 1, like all space stations to come in the future, was launched without a crew onboard because the constraints to get humans safely into orbit are much stricter than for equipment. By launching the space station unoccupied, the designers didn’t have to include space-wasters like seats that would only be used on launch, and the station could be blasted into orbit at gravitational accelerations that would be unsafe for human occupants.

A manned space station is fairly useless without a crew, so the Soviets sent three cosmonauts to Salyut 1 as part of the Soyuz 10 mission. The men successfully launched from Baikonur Cosmodrome, but they were unable to dock with the space station because of a hatch problem.

Soyuz 11, had initial success. Crewed by Georgi Dobrovolski, Vladislav Volkov, and Viktor Patsayev, Soyuz 11 made it to the space station and successfully docked with it. This event was a monumental achievement because it was the first time in history that a spacecraft had performed a docking with a space station. Unfortunately, the Soyuz 11 mission ended tragically. After Dobrovolsky, Patsayev, and Volkov spent 24 days living on the world’s first space station, their Soyuz capsule lost pressure during reentry, and all three astronauts were found dead upon landing. Salyut 1 itself reentered the Earth’s atmosphere burning up over the Pacific Ocean.

Under Valentin Glushko’s authority from 1974 on, the Salyuts became a particularly bright spot in the ongoing Soviet space program. With the Soviets beaten to the moon, and the absurd pressures for novel space stunts abated somewhat, this fruitful area of endeavor was allowed to progress, with significant results. Beginning with Salyut-4 the Soviets in fact found themselves catching up, and then moving ahead of the Americans in space endurance: thirty days in 1975 (Salyut-4), and then a series of records on Salyut-6: ninety-six in 1977–1978, 140 in 1978, 175 in 1979, and 185 days in 1980.

Unlike today’s International Space Station, all the Salyuts were completely separate, self-contained units that didn’t dock with one another. Each Salyut module was designed as a stand-alone space station.

The second Salyut mission, named DOS-2, launched in July 1972 but never made it into orbit due to a faulty launch vehicle. Salyut 2 launched successfully, but the crewed mission was postponed and eventually canceled as the station began losing pressure and power. The Soviets abandoned the station, and it burned up in the Earth’s atmosphere.

Unlike any of the previous Salyut space stations, Salyut 3 used special thrusters to regulate its orientation while in space, becoming the first spacecraft to keep stable while pointing at the same part of Earth. Tensions were still high at this point in the Cold War, and although Salyut 3 was disguised as part of the civilian Salyut program, its true mission was to test military capabilities in space. Commander Pavel Popovich and Flight Engineer Yuri Artyukhin docked successfully with the space station. During their roughly two weeks of living inside Salyut 3, the cosmonauts tested a range of military reconnaissance features.

Salyut 4 was significant in that two manned Soyuz missions managed to make contact and dock: Soyuz 17 brought Commander Aleksei Gubarev and Flight Engineer Oleg Makarov to the space station, where they stayed for a month. The main science achieved by this cosmonaut team focused on astronomical observations of the Sun and Earth. Soyuz 18 brought two new crew members, Commander Pyotr Klimuk and Flight Engineer Vitali Sevastyanov. This crew continued the astronomical observations begun by the previous crew, took pictures of the Sun and Earth, and experimented with growing vegetables in space.

Salyut 5 carried out additional military tests; and entertained two crews that docked with it in space. The cosmonauts conducted a variety of military tests and experiments aboard the station, including making observations of a Soviet military exercise in Siberia to test the capabilities of the station’s cameras to perform reconnaissance.

Some of the first major changes of the Salyut program came in 1977 with the launch of Salyut 6. This new design included a second docking port and an improved propulsion system. It also included an overhaul of the space station’s telescopes and an upgrade to its living quarters. Salyut 6 could be resupplied via robotic supply ships, which could dock with the station automatically to bring aboard fuel and supplies for the crew. Salyut 6 was a real second-generation space station built to be inhabited for years.

The last space station to be launched into orbit under the Salyut program was Salyut 7. The main goals of this final expedition were to test how long the station could remain operational and to experiment with a more modular design for adding future space stations (essentially laying the groundwork for the interlocking designs of future missions such as the International Space Station). Part of the reason Salyut 7 was able to operate for so long was the expertise brought by its visitors, especially when it came to making essential repairs to systems such as a ruptured fuel line.

United States responded with its own orbiting space station, Skylab, launched in May 1973. After extensive repairs in space, Skylab quickly outperformed the first three Saliuts, allowing the United States to set consecutive space endurance records, ending with eighty-four days beginning that November. Its primary mission was to prove that astronauts could live in space for more than a few days; it was also intended to study the Earth and stars from a new perspective.

Another important programmatic reason for Skylab was to continue NASA’s human spaceflight program during the period between the cancellation of Project Apollo and the launch of the next generation of space-transportation systems, the Space Shuttle, which was still almost a decade away at this point.

Three separate crews of three astronauts each took up residence in Skylab during its six years in orbit, for a total length of 171 days. Perhaps even more impressive is that the crew of each of these Skylab missions set a series of increasing records for the longest amount of time in space. Each group was brought to Skylab and returned home via Apollo spacecraft launched on Saturn IB launch vehicles.

Skylab’s debut took place when it launched into space on a two-stage version of NASA’s huge Saturn V Moon rocket. The space station suffered damage during launch and ended up losing both a main solar panel and a cover designed to protect the laboratory and living areas from heat and micrometeorite damage. A second solar panel became stuck and didn’t deploy correctly.

Skylab 2 (named that because the first launch of the Skylab program was unmanned) was the first manned mission to reach the United States’ first orbiting space station. Commander Charles Conrad, Jr.; Pilot Paul Weitz; and Science Pilot Joseph Kerwin were charged with getting the station up and running after the problems at launch, testing the ability of astronauts to live and work in space for long periods, and performing a number of scientific experiments.

Skylab 3 launched one month after its predecessor. The mission further tested the abilities of astronauts to perform valuable scientific experiments in space and understand the medical effects of long periods in microgravity. The Skylab 3 astronauts (Commander Alan Bean, Pilot Jack Lousma, and Science Pilot Owen Garriott) installed a more-permanent sunshade on the station to protect it from overheating. They also performed a number of other experiments and medical tests and kept careful records regarding the changes in the human body after long stays in space.

Because the Saturn rockets had never experienced a launch failure, NASA scientists and engineers were stunned at the possible loss of their space station. Teams worked around the clock following the launch to devise ways to fix the damage, delaying the first crew launch by ten days to test out the procedures and fabricate replacement hardware. The astronauts of the first Skylab crew worked to repair the damage during their first spacewalk after arriving at the station in an Apollo capsule.

Skylab 4 featured the last crew to occupy Skylab. Commander Gerald Carr, Pilot William Pogue, and Science Pilot Edward Gibson launched to the space station and set a world record with 84 days in space. Among their significant work was the observation of Comet Kohoutek. Observations of the comet were made from inside Skylab, outside the spacecraft on two separate spacewalks, and with the onboard Apollo Telescope Mount. The Apollo Telescope Mount was a solar observatory that went for a ride on Skylab.

Human beings can’t survive in space unprotected. If astronauts want to leave the safety of their spaceship, they have to be provided with several essential things. First, they have to have air to breathe—a mixture of oxygen and other gases, such as those that make up Earth’s atmosphere. Astronauts also need some sort of pressure over their body. Without it, their blood would boil at their own body temperature. Pressure in most space suits is achieved by inflating them, just as you would inflate an inner tube.

As air pressure decreases, the temperature necessary to boil water and blood also decreases. People who live at high altitudes, where air pressure is lower, have to boil water longer in order for food to cook. The lower air pressure means that water boils at a lower temperature. If air pressure is low enough, water will boil at 37°C—the average temperature of the human body—instead of 100°C.

A final politically motivated mission remained: In 1975, the U.S. and Soviet Union staged a joint mission, Apollo-Soyuz, during which spacecraft from the two nations actually docked in orbit. Widely considered the end of the Space Race, this incident ushered in a new era of reduced hostilities between the two superpowers. Apollo-Soyuz was considered a test flight that would prove the feasibility of a mission combining the American and Soviet space programs.

The Space Race didn’t end with anything definitive like a closing ceremony or medal distribution. Instead, the intense atmosphere of competition between the United States and the Soviet Union gradually gave way to a wave of unprecedented cooperation. The first great manifestation of this new relationship came in the form of the Apollo-Soyuz mission in 1975 — the first time that space vehicles belonging to different nations docked in orbit around Earth.

Its official designation at NASA was ASTP, short for Apollo Soyuz Test Project. Science experiments and equipment were included, but they were really secondary to the goal of promoting peace and success between the Space Race superpowers.

The heart of the mission was the docking of an American Apollo capsule with a Soviet Soyuz spacecraft. The plan was to launch an Apollo spacecraft that was very much like the ones sent to the Moon along with a Soyuz spacecraft, plus a NASA-designed docking module that would allow astronauts and cosmonauts to move between the two spacecraft. In addition to promoting a working relationship between the U.S. and the Soviet Union, scientists wanted to test whether the two countries’ space vehicles could play nicely together.

The Apollo-Soyuz mission made history when Commander Thomas Stafford, an American astronaut, and Commander Alexei Leonov, a Soviet cosmonaut, performed the first-ever international handshake in space. Command Module Pilot Vance Brand and Docking Module Pilot Donald Slayton comprised the rest of the American crew; Flight Engineer Valery Kubasov was the second half of the Soviet crew. It was a stellar crew on both sides, with years of experience and history (in fact, Leonov conducted the Soviet Union’s first spacewalk from the Voskhod 2 spacecraft in 1965).

After docking for the first time and completing the handshake, the crews spent about two days together, using the time to exchange gifts, eat meals, and float through the other country’s spacecraft. They also practiced rendezvousing, docking, and undocking while in orbit.

The Apollo and Soyuz spacecraft remained in orbit for several days before heading home. This would be the last flight of an Apollo mission and, as historians would later suggest, the “official” end of the Space Race. Despite a few technical difficulties during Apollo-Soyuz, by all accounts the joint mission was a magnificent success for both countries. For the first time, Soviets and Americans proved they could put aside their past differences and achieve monumental greatness — together.