Space Race

The first forms of flight developed by humans were in balloons.  Balloons cannot be used for space travel though because there is little or no air in space.  The lack of air makes ordinary airplanes no use either because their engines use oxygen in the air to burn fuel.

Robert H Goddard

Robert H. Goddard

A Rocket, however, carries its own oxygen supply as well as fuel.  In March 1926 Robert H. Goddard of the United States launched the first liquid-fuelled rocket.  Many years passed however, before rockets could travel fast enough to overcome the Earth’s gravity.  To escape Earth and reach space a rocket must reach a speed of more than 40,000 kilometres per hour. 


By the end of World War II (1939–45) German scientists had developed advanced rockets for use as weapons.  This was a further step towards reaching space.

On October 4, 1957, the Soviet Union launched Sputnik 1.  This was the first artificial satellite to be put into orbit around the Earth.  The space age was underway—and so was the “Space Race” between the Russians and the United States.  The National Aeronautics and Space Administration (NASA) were in charge of the U.S. effort.



On November 3, 1957, the Soviet Union sent a dog named Laika into orbit aboard the satellite Sputnik 2.  According to Russian reports, Laika lived for a week aboard her spacecraft before she died.  These reports encouraged scientists and government leaders who wanted to put humans in space.  

While the Russians sent a dog into space the Americans decided to send a chimpanzee because it was similar to a human.  The first chimp was called Ham and was nicknamed Ham the Astrochimp.  The American mission was also different because they decided to bring the chimpanzee home whereas the Russians did not bring Laika home.

Ham the Astrochimp

Ham the Astrochimp

Ham began his training in July 1959 when he was just two years old.  As part of his training Ham was taught to push a lever within five seconds of seeing a flashing blue light.  Failure to do so would result in an application of positive punishment in the form of a mild electric shock to the soles of his feet, while a correct response earned him a banana pellet.

On 31st January 1961, Ham was secured in a Project Mercury capsule and launched from Cape Canaveral, Florida into outer space.  Ham had his vital signs and tasks monitored using computers back on Earth.  The capsule lost some air pressure during the flight, but Ham’s space suit prevented him from suffering any harm.  Ham’s lever-pushing performance in space was only a fraction of a second slower than on Earth, demonstrating that tasks could be performed in space.  Ham’s capsule splashed down in the Atlantic Ocean and was recovered by a rescue ship later that day.  He suffered a slightly bruised nose but other than that he was none the worse for his flight.  His flight lasted 16 minutes and 39 seconds long.

On April 12, 1961, Yuri Gagarin became the first human to circle the Earth in space.  He completed one orbit and returned safely.  Gagarin was the first of the Russian Cosmonauts.  In 1963 cosmonaut Valentina Tereshkova became the first woman in space, aboard the spacecraft Vostok 6.  (You can find more information on these in the Russian and Women in Space sections of the site).

The United States was close behind the Soviet Union in space technology.  The first U.S. satellite, Explorer 1, was launched on January 31, 1958.  Once the U.S. had succeeded with this, NASA turned its attention towards putting a man in space.

The original Mercury Astronauts

The Mercury Astronauts

The U.S. program to put a human in space was called Project Mercury.  On May 5, 1961, Mercury astronaut Alan B. Shepard Jr., became the first American to enter space.  Shepard flew for only 15 minutes and did not complete an orbit around the Earth.  The first American in orbit was John H. Glenn, Jr.  On February 20, 1962, he completed three orbits around the Earth.

A Mercury Rocket launch

A Mercury Rocket launch

Only one astronaut at a time could fly in a Mercury space capsule.  But the next stage in the U.S. space program was Project Gemini, which featured two-person flights (Gemini means “twins” in the Latin language).  Gemini astronauts, who flew between 1964 and 1967, had greater control over their spacecraft and practiced docking manoeuvres.

The Space Race

The Space Race

 The next step was to put a Man on the Moon.