The race into space

Alan Shepard
Alan Shepard / SUR

The space race began in 1957 with the launch of the Soviet satellite Sputnik one. This came as a shock to the American public, and led to the creation of NASA whose space programme was to be called project Mercury.

The Russians led the field in the race with Yuri Gagarin becoming the first human in space when he completed one orbit of the Earth in April 1961. The Americans replied shortly after in May 1961 with the launch of the first American in space, Alan Shepard. But unlike Gagarin, Shepard’s flight was a lacklustre affair. His Mercury 7 rocket reached an altitude of just 101 miles before splashing down in the sea. In August the Russians sent Gherman Titov into space for a whole day, orbiting the Earth 17 times. The Americans tried again February 1962 when John Glenn became the first American to orbit the Earth.

When project Mercury ended in May 1963, a total of six people had been sent into space.

German scientist Werner Von Braun who during the Second World War had designed and built the V2 rockets, helped the Americans in their rocket development.

On 12 September 1962, President John Kennedy made a speech declaring that NASA should achieve the goal of landing a man on the moon before the end of the decade. This was a massive undertaking that would cost a fortune but the Americans were determined to beat the Russians at any cost. The Russians then launched the first woman into space, Valentina Tereshkova.

With the Americans racing so hard to catch up accidents were bound to happen and in January 1967 three astronauts were killed in a fire in the Apollo 1 rocket as it was being tested on the launch pad. In April the same year the Russians had their own disaster when Vladimir Komarov died during re-entry when his parachute failed to open.

NASA gained ground in December 1968 when the crew of Apollo 8 were the first to orbit around the moon. As NASA was preparing to land on the moon with Apollo 11 in July 1969, the Russians were attempting an unmanned landing to collect samples, unfortunately their rocket crashed. Once NASA had achieved the moon landing public opinion influenced NASA to cancel Apollo 18, 19 and 20. Apollo 18 was modified as a space station called Skylab.

In July 1975 the race was over when a Russian Soyuz rocket successfully docked with the last Apollo capsule.