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The Major Milestones of Space Exploration

Posted on 26 Oct 2018

As NASA marked its sixtieth anniversary in October last year, we looked back at some of the most important milestones in spaceflight and discovery, taken from 'The History of Space Exploration'.

‘The road to the stars is deep and dangerous. But we’re not afraid…’—Yuri Gagarin.

We look back at some of the most important milestones in spaceflight and discovery, taken from The History of Space Exploration. From Laika the dog, the first animal in Earth orbit, to Aldrin’s footprint on the moon, these are defining moments of courage, curiosity, and sheer star-struck wonder that have made up our extra-terrestrial adventures.


Sixty years ago from October of last year, the National Aeronautics and Space Administration opened for business. Ever since the Second World War, which heralded significant advances in rocket technology, the United States and Soviet Union had entered a head-to-head race to get humans into outer space. From the beginning of its operations in October 1958, NASA had some 8,000 employees, an annual budget of US$100 million, three major research laboratories, and two test facilities — all striving towards spaceflight and, ultimately, a successful moon landing. Meanwhile, the Soviet Space Program, initially boosted by captured scientists from the German rocket program, set a number of major space exploration milestones, including the first animal, the first human, and the first woman in space. Since the launch of Sputnik 1 in 1957, more than 6,000 functioning satellites have been launched into Earth’s orbit and beyond and more than 540 people have travelled into space. Here are some of the key moments, men, and women in the history of cosmic endeavours.

This now-famous image shows Robert goddard with his first liquid- fuelled rocket just before its successful launch on 16 March 1926.

Robert Goddard poses beside his first liquid-fuelled rocket, just before its successful launch on 16 March 1926, from his aunt’s farm in Auburn, Massachusetts. Though not particularly impressive in construction, appearance, or flight (it reached a height of 12.5 metres before crashing into a nearby cabbage patch), Goddard’s small rocket pioneered the use of liquid fuels with oxygen as an oxidiser to increase the efficiency of combustion and thrust.

Laika became the first animal in orbit when she was launched aboard sputnik 2 on 3 November 1957.

The success of the Soviet’s Sputnik 1 in 1957 swiftly led to even more audacious missions. In November of the same year, Soviet scientists planned to put the first animal into orbit, on board Sputnik 2. The animal was Laika (Russian for ‘barker’), a stray found on the streets of Moscow. She was placed in a small, sealed, pressurized cabin which provided just enough room to lie down or stand. Food and water were placed on board but the scientists knew Laika would die in orbit once the oxygen ran out. Her death provoked a strong public reaction around the world. Laika is memorialised with a statue and plaque at Star City, the Russian cosmonaut training facility.

Tereshkova dressed in her spacesuit, preparing for her historic flight.

Soviet factory worker Valentina Tereshkova qualified as a cosmonaut on 16 February 1962, having gone through months of training in weightless flight, engineering, parachute jumping, and piloting. As well as being the first woman in space, Tereshkova successfully completed forty-eight orbits of the Earth over three days, a longer period in space than the combined total of American astronauts up to that point. She returned to a hero’s welcome and remains the only woman to have been on a solo space mission.

Photograph of the bootprint of Aldrin on the lunar surface during the Apollo 11 mission to the Moon, 20 July 1969.

On 16 July 1969, Apollo 11 launched from the Kennedy Space Center and began the three-day trip to the Moon. On 20 July, the Lunar Payload Module, also known as the LM or “The Eagle” and crewed by Buzz Aldrin and Neil Armstrong, began its descent. As they neared the surface, Armstrong realized they were descending towards the middle of a boulder field, so took manual control of the module to search for another landing spot. With just 11 seconds of fuel left, and amid rising tension at Mission Control, Armstrong successfully set the Eagle down, announcing “Contact light. Houston. Tranquility Base here. The Eagle has landed.” Scheduled for a rest period, Armstrong and Aldrin decided they were too excited to sleep so suited up and set out to walk upon the moon. The photograph of Aldrin’s bootprint defined the “giant leap for mankind.”

Scientist-astronaut Harrison Schmitt during the Apollo 17 mission, at the Taurus-Littrow landing site in December 1972. The crew returned with 110 kilograms (242 lb) of rock and soil samples, more than was returned from any of the other lunar landing sites.

Scientist-astronaut Harrison Schmidt at the Taurus-Littrow lunar valley, the landing site for the Apollo 17 mission in December 1972, the last manned mission to the Moon to date. The crew returned with 110 kilograms of rock and soil samples.


The Orbital aTK Cygnus cargo spacecraft is released by Canadarm 2 from the Iss on 6 December 2017.

The Orbital ATK Cygnus cargo spacecraft is released by Canadarm 2 from the International Space Station on 6 December 2017. The ISS, first launched into orbit in 1998, is a joint project of NASA along with the Russian, Japanese, European, and Canadian space agencies. It operates as a habitable artificial satellite, aboard which members can conduct experiments in biology, physics, astronomy, and meteorology, as well as testing spacecraft systems for Moon and Mars missions.


Find more remarkable space stories and pictures in The History of Space Exploration, written by NASA’s former chief historian, and charting the complete history of space exploration from the first gunpowder rockets through the Moon landings, and into a future of space tourism.


Words by Eliza Apperly.

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