rocket history
Konstantin Tsiolkovskiy
Hermann Oberth
Robert H. Goddard
Wernher von Braun
Sergei P. Korolev
principles of rocketry
early U.S. rocketry
Nazi Germany’s Space Bomber
postwar U.S. rocketry
Thor, Agena, and Delta
the Titan Launch Vehicle
upper stages of rockets
solid rocket propellants
Orion Project
Russian launch vehicles
launch vehicles of other nations
the Sputnik triumph
early Soviet spaceflight
Mercury space programme
Gemini space programme
Apollo space programme
Soviet race to the Moon
Soviet space stations
Skylab space station
Apollo-Soyuz test
Space Shuttle history
the Challenger Accident
the Columbia Accident
Shuttle launches
Space Station
automated spacecraft
Lunar robotic missions
Inner planet exploration
outer planet exploration
exploring other bodies
return to Mars
solar-terrestrial physics
astronomy from space
Earth observation satellites
meteorological satellites
remote sensing satellites
early warning satellites
intelligence satellites
ballistic missiles
Energia and Khrunichev
commercial satellites
Comsat and Intelsat
International space agencies
Cape Canaveral
Vandenberg Air Base
astronauts and cosmonauts
Scaled Composites
space flight chronology

astronauts and cosmonauts

the first: Soviet hero Uri Gagarin

Dreams of spaceflight and its conquest are as old as humankind itself. These dreams were transformed into reality on April 12, 1961, when 27-year-old Flight Major Yuri Alexeyevich Gagarin of the Soviet Union became the first human to venture into space.

Dubbed the “Columbus of the Cosmos” by the Soviets, Gagarin's single orbit of the Earth in his Vostok 1 spacecraft made him an international hero of epic proportions, the Lindbergh of his generation. Tragically, he never flew in space again. He was killed in a crash of a MIG-15 jet aircraft near Moscow in 1968.

Gagarin's achievement was soon matched, to a lesser extent, by American Alan B. Shepard, Jr., who became the first American to travel into space on May 5, 1961. On that day he was launched atop a Redstone rocket on a 15-minute sub-orbital flight in a Mercury capsule dubbed Freedom 7. Astronaut Virgil “Gus” Grissom repeated Shepard's mission with another 15-minute sub-orbital flight on July 21, 1961, which ended with Grissom being rescued from drowning after the hatch to his Liberty Bell 7 spacecraft unexpectedly blew off after splashdown.

Shepard and Grissom were members of the first team of American astronauts, an elite group of test pilots forever known as the “Mercury Seven,” that also included John Glenn, Malcolm Scott Carpenter, Walter Schirra, Leroy Gordon Cooper and Donald “Deke” Slayton. The early astronaut selection criteria specifically excluded women, even those qualified as expert aviators, a situation not remedied until 1978.

Astronaut John H. Glenn Jr., became the first American to orbit the Earth after being launched on an Atlas rocket on February 20, 1962. Glenn circled the globe three times in his Friendship 7 spacecraft and returned to a hero's welcome. His feat was duplicated or exceeded in missions flown by Carpenter, Schirra, and Cooper over the next 15 months.

The Soviet Union followed up Gagarin's historic flight with a number of “firsts” in direct response to Soviet leader Nikita Khrushchev's incessant demands for more space “spectaculars.” Gherman Titov became the first human to spend an entire day in orbit in Vostok 2 on August 6, 1961, followed by the first tandem spaceflight by Andrian Nikolayev and Pavel Popovich in Vostoks 3 and 4 in August 1962.

A civilian parachutist, Valentina Tereshkova, became the first woman to fly in space aboard Vostok 6, launched June 16, 1963. Although five women were selected as “cosmonaut” candidates (the Russian term for space travellers) in 1962, Tereshkova's three days in space were the last for a Soviet woman until Svetlana Savitskaya was launched aboard Soyuz T-7 in 1982 on a mission to the Salyut 7 space station. (Savitskaya also became the first woman to walk in space during that mission).

On March 18, 1965, cosmonaut Alexei Leonov stepped out of an airlock on his two-person Voskhod 2 spacecraft (with commander Pavel Belayev at the controls) to become the first human to “walk” in space, floating for 12 minutes outside the spacecraft. A national hero, Leonov went on to command Soyuz-19 as part of the 1975 joint U.S./U.S.S.R. Apollo-Soyuz Test Project.

Five days after Leonov's spacewalk, the United States launched a modified Titan II missile with its first two-passenger spacecraft, Gemini III, on a three-orbit mission piloted by astronauts Grissom and John Young. On June 3, 1965, the Gemini 4 mission with astronauts James McDivitt and Edward White duplicated Leonov's feat when White became the first American to walk in space, floating freely for 21 minutes while manoeuvring with a handheld propulsion unit.

The American series of Gemini missions continued to rack-up successes. Gemini 7, piloted by Frank Borman and James Lovell, set a flight duration mission of 14 days in orbit in December 1965 and achieved the first true space rendezvous with Gemini 6, flown by Schirra and Thomas Stafford. Gemini 8, with David Scott and Neil Armstrong, accomplished the first docking in space, linking-up with an un-crewed Agena target vehicle and, unexpectedly, also made the first emergency landing after the spacecraft began to tumble uncontrollably.

The Gemini missions were an unqualified triumph and the United States believed it was ready to take the final steps toward the Moon. These plans were tragically halted on January 27, 1967, when astronauts Grissom, Edward White, and Roger Chaffee were killed while conducting a routine ground test of their new Apollo 1 command and service modules. A spark from an exposed wire ignited a firestorm in the pure oxygen atmosphere of the sealed spacecraft and all three astronauts asphyxiated within seconds.

Following Chief Designer Sergei Korolev's untimely death in 1966, the Soviet Union valiantly attempted to regain the momentum in the “space race” while the United States was regrouping after the Apollo 1 tragedy. On April 23, 1967, cosmonaut Vladimir Komarov was launched on the first test flight of the new Soyuz spacecraft but encountered serious control problems after reaching orbit. A return to Earth was ordered immediately, but the Soyuz 1 descent module was still tumbling when its parachute deployed and Komarov was killed instantly when his craft plummeted into the ground.

After an almost 19-month flight hiatus, the American push for the Moon resumed. On October 11, 1968, a Saturn 1B rocket launched Apollo 7 with astronauts Schirra, Donn Eisele and Walter Cunningham on a mission to test the redesigned Apollo command and service modules in low Earth orbit.

The first crewed flight of the mighty Saturn V moon rocket lifted-off on December 21, 1968, with the Apollo 8 spacecraft carrying astronauts Frank Borman, James Lovell and William Anders on a three-day journey to the Moon. Borman, Lovell and Anders became the first humans to travel beyond the influence of Earth's gravity and view the Moon up-close and, on Christmas Eve 1968, the three men read from the Book of Genesis while broadcasting live television images of the lunar surface to a worldwide audience.

Another milestone was achieved on July 16, 1969, when Apollo 11 lifted off on the first expedition to explore another celestial body. After a three-day journey, astronauts Neil A. Armstrong and Edwin “Buzz” Aldrin in their lunar module Eagle undocked from the command and service module Columbia, piloted by Michael Collins, and descended to the lunar surface. On July 20, 1969, Armstrong planted the first human footprint on the Moon, declaring for posterity, “That's one small step for (a) man, one giant leap for mankind,” meeting the deadline established by President John Kennedy for setting foot on the Moon.

From 1969 to 1972, five more Apollo missions successfully landed on the Moon. One intermediate mission, Apollo 13, suffered a catastrophic explosion during its journey to the Moon on April 13, 1970, but its three astronauts, James Lovell, Fred W. Haise and John L. Swigert safely returned to Earth through the heroic efforts of their ground support team at Mission Control in Houston. In all, 12 American astronauts left their footprints in the lunar soil during Project Apollo, a unique fraternity of explorers comprised of: Armstrong, Aldrin, Charles “Pete” Conrad, Alan L. Bean, Alan B. Shepard, Edgar D. Mitchell, David R. Scott, James B. Irwin, John W. Young, Charles M. Duke, Eugene A. Cernan and Harrison H. Schmitt.

After the success of Apollo 11, the Soviets turned their attention away from the Moon, to focus on the establishment of permanent Earth-orbiting space stations. In June 1971, Soyuz 11, with cosmonauts Georgi Dobrovolsky, Vladislav Volkov, and Viktor Patsayev aboard, was launched on a mission to dock with the Salyut 1 space station. After establishing a new endurance record of 23 days in orbit working on the space station, the Soyuz 11 spacecraft separated from the station and re-entered Earth's atmosphere on June 30, 1971. During its descent, a pressure valve in the descent module inexplicably opened and the air supply in the cabin vented into space, suffocating the three cosmonauts who were not wearing pressure suits.

On April 12, 1981, the United States launched the world's first reusable spacecraft, the Space Shuttle Columbia, piloted by John W. Young and Robert Crippen. Designed to make space travel “routine,” the Space Shuttle was designed to haul satellites and cargo into Earth orbit and permit non-pilot passengers the opportunity to fly in space.

The maturing of the Shuttle program opened the doors of spaceflight to a wide range of individuals, particularly scientists. Dr. Sally K. Ride, a physicist, became the first American woman astronaut during a six-day flight on the Shuttle Challenger on the STS-7 mission in June 1983. On the subsequent flight of the Challenger,Dr. Guion “Guy” Bluford, Jr., a fighter pilot and aerospace engineer, became the first African-American astronaut to fly in space on the STS-8 mission, launched on August 30, 1983.

The catastrophic explosion of the Shuttle Challenger on January 28, 1986, slowed the integration of non-astronauts into the mainstream of space travel, but notable milestones still occur. Colonel Eileen M. Collins was the first woman to command a space mission on the STS-93 flight of Shuttle Columbia in 1999, a mission that deployed the Chandra X-Ray Observatory. Mercury astronaut turned U.S. senator, John H. Glenn, became the oldest person to fly in space at age 77 on the STS-95 mission of Shuttle Discovery in 1998, establishing a space record unlikely to be broken soon.

click on pictures to enlarge (they open in new windows)

Vladimir Komarov

Cosmonaut Vladimir Komarov arrives at the Soviet space launch site, Tyuratam, for the Soyuz 1 launch. Soyuz 1 was successfully launched on April, 23, 1967. When it returned to Earth, its parachute lines became tangled and the parachutes failed to open properly, causing the space vehicle to crash and killing Komarov


Eileen Collins

Eileen Collins was the first woman to command a space mission on the STS-93 Space Shuttle flight.



Sally Ride

Sally K. Ride, America's first female astronaut.



STS-1 crew

Crew of the first Space Shuttle flight: John W. Young, commander, and Robert L. Crippen, pilot



Soyuz 11 crew

The cosmonauts Viktor Patsayev, Georgi Dobrovolsky, and Vladislav Volkov in the Soyuz simulator during their mission training. Originally, they were the Soyuz 11 backup crew, but when Valery Kubasov from the original crew became ill, the crews were changed. Soyuz 11 was launched on June 6, 1971, and docked with the first Soviet space station, Salyut 1 the next day. It was the first time a space station was manned. At the end of their mission, the Soyuz 11 crew returned to Earth, but were found dead in the space vehicle after landing. A critical valve in the descent module had been jerked open as Soyuz 11 de-orbited and bled the cosmonauts' air out into space.


Apollo 8 crew

Apollo 8 crew. From left to right James A. Lovell Jr., William A. Anders, and Frank Borman.







Edward H. White II spacewalk

On June 3, 1965 Edward H. White II became the first American to step outside his spacecraft and let go, effectively setting himself adrift in the zero gravity of space. For 23 minutes White floated and manoeuvred himself around the Gemini spacecraft while logging 6500 miles during his orbital stroll.


Still shots Aleksey LeonovÕs spacewalk in March 1965

These are three stills from the external movie camera on Voskhod 2, which recorded Aleksey Leonov•s historic spacewalk in March 1965.


Valentina Tereshkova

A civilian parachutist, Valentina Tereshkova, became the first woman to fly in space, aboard the Vostok 6, launched June 16, 1963.


Apollo 11 crew

Apollo 11 crew. From left to right, Neil A. Armstrong, commander; Michael Collins, command module pilot; Buzz Aldrin, lunar module pilot.