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Timeline: the Space Race

1957-1965 | 1966-1975  


The Sputnik 1 satellite as technician puts finishing touches on it October 4: The Soviet Union launches Sputnik 1 into earth orbit. The first man-made satellite passes overhead, making one revolution every 90 minutes.

October 5: The Soviet daily newspaper Pravda mentions Sputnik in a short piece at the bottom of page one. When bold headlines and major stories run in British and American newspapers, the U.S.S.R. realizes that the Sputnik program is a huge propaganda tool.

November 3: Sputnik 2 carries Laika, a female dog, into space. Although the satellite will remain in orbit for 162 days, scientists plan to put Laika to sleep after a week because there is no way to return her to Earth safely. Later reports indicate that Laika died soon after liftoff, from stress and high temperatures inside the capsule.

The American press nicknames the second Soviet satellite "Muttnik" because of its biological payload.


The 3 men responsible for Explorer 1, Dr. William Pickering, Dr. James van Allen, and Dr. Wernher von Braun January 31: Explorer 1, the first American satellite, enters orbit around Earth.

July: President Dwight Eisenhower signs the National Aeronautics and Space Act of 1958 into law, establishing NASA. The American program had been delayed in part because Eisenhower insisted that the space program should be a non-military operation, and that it should not reconfigure defense missiles for space exploration.

December 6: Pioneer 3, an American unmanned satellite, fails to reach the moon, but discovers a second radiation belt around the Earth.


Original 7 Astronauts in Spacesuits January: Luna 1 launches from the Soviet Union towards the moon but misses its target. Soviet lunar probes had been launched in 1958 but not announced to the public or acknowledged. This set a pattern for the Soviet space program: missions were not announced until they could be hailed as successes.

March 3: The U.S. sends the unmanned Pioneer 4 to the moon in the first American lunar flyby.

April 9: The newly formed National Aeronautics and Space Administration introduces the first seven astronauts to the world. Without yet performing a task, they are instantly hailed and embraced as heroes by the American public.

May 28: NASA launches two monkeys from Cape Canaveral and successfully recovers them in the Atlantic Ocean.

September: The Soviets' Luna 2 successfully crash-lands on the moon, becoming the first man-made object to reach another planetary body.

October: Luna 3 flies around the moon, taking the first photographs of the far side of the moon. Two more Soviet launches the following year will not achieve proper flight paths. Information about them will be suppressed.


Chimpanzee "Ham" is greeted after his flight on the Mercury rocket Jan 31: Ham, a chimpanzee, survives a sub-orbital flight on an American mission, Mercury 2.

The American press pokes fun at American astronauts for doing a job that could be accomplished by a monkey. Experienced test pilots deride the astronauts as "Spam in a can."

Cosmonaut Yuri Gagarin April 12: Vostok 1 carries Soviet cosmonaut Yuri Gagarin into orbit; he is the first human in space. The Soviets refer to Gagarin as a "cosmonaut." The Americans had considered "cosmonaut" as a title for their space travelers but have already settled on "astronaut." When telephoned for comment at 4 a.m., the NASA press liaison, John "Shorty" Powers, mumbles, "We're all asleep down here," -- and is quoted widely, to his dismay.

The first American in space Alan Shepard May 5: Alan Shepard commands Freedom 7 on the first Mercury mission, becoming the first American in space. His ballistic trajectory during the 15-minute flight takes him to a maximum height of 116.5 statute miles.

NASA announces, "The astronaut reports that he is A-OK," introducing a new phrase into the American lexicon.

May 25: President John F. Kennedy, in his first State of the Union address, accelerates the space program and sets as a goal a moon landing within the decade.

Astronaut arrives aboard the recovery ship USS Randolph July 21: American astronaut Gus Grissom's sub-orbital flight is marred when, after splashdown, the hatch of his capsule blows open and the capsule sinks. The blown hatch cannot be replicated later in hardware tests, but the emergency hatch detonator requires a strong hammer blow by the fist and Grissom doesn't show the bruise that would accompany such action. Despite scarce evidence for either theory about what happened, the press puts the blame squarely on the astronaut.

President John F. Kennedy September 12: President Kennedy gives a speech at Rice University, future home of the Manned Spacecraft Center (which later will be renamed Johnson Space Center): "We choose to go to the moon in this decade and do the other things, not because they are easy, but because they are hard, because that goal will serve to organize and measure the best of our energies and skills, because that challenge is one that we are willing to accept, one we are unwilling to postpone, and one which we intend to win, and the others, too."

November: The Space Task Group is renamed the Manned Spacecraft Center, to be relocated to Houston, Texas.


Astronaut John Glenn during his flight on Friendship 7 February 20: John Glenn orbits the Earth three times, becoming the first American in orbit. Hailed as a hero, he will later leave the space program to enter politics. Eventually he will be elected to the U.S. Senate from Ohio.


Valentina Tereshkova was the first woman in space June 6: A Russian, Valentina Tereshkova, becomes the first woman in space.

The American program, which has drawn astronauts from active duty military pilots, employs no female astronauts.


October 12: V. M. Komarov, K. P. Feoktistov and B. B. Yegorov all fly on Voskhod 1, the first mission to send multiple men into space.


Aleksey Leonov's spacewalk March 18: Voskhod 2 carries Pavel Belyayev and Alexei Leonov into orbit. Leonov leaves the spacecraft on the first "spacewalk."

March 23: Gus Grissom and John Young pilot the first two-man Gemini spacecraft, Gemini 3, named the Molly Brown in recognition of Grissom's Mercury splashdown.

The Gemini program will solve many of the problems that must be overcome for a lunar landing mission.

Gemini 4 flight crew Ed White and Jim McDivitt June 3-7: On Gemini 4, a particularly strong astronaut, Edward White II, exits his vehicle and performs the first American space walk. The ease with which he maneuvers will not be easily replicated by subsequent astronauts who attempt to perform mechanical tasks on space walks.

Gemini VI launch December 4-18: American astronauts Frank Borman and Jim Lovell fly Gemini 7 for fourteen days, setting an endurance record that will remain unbroken until 1970.

December 15-16: Wally Schirra and Thomas Stafford fly Gemini 6 within a few feet of Borman and Lovell in Gemini 7, for the first true rendezvous in space.

1957-1965 | 1966-1975  

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