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Spacecraft Timeline


From early theories on how to break Earth's gravitational pull, humankind has traveled into Earth orbit, to the Moon, and even—via robotic proxies—to the outer solar system. Even as the Hubble Space Telescope has made it possible for us to study distant galaxies and stars, other satellites give us up-to-date weather information, enhanced telecommunications, and navigation systems that allow us to pinpoint where we are. These advancements and more have all been made possible through the practical problem-solving that first launched us into space.

  1903   Paper mathematically demonstrates liftoff with liquid fuels

Konstantin Tsiolkovsky publishes a paper in Russia that mathematically demonstrates how to achieve liftoff with liquid fuels. He also proposes using multistage rockets, which would be jettisoned as they spent their fuel, and guidance systems using gyroscopes and movable vanes positioned in the exhaust stream. His formulas for adjusting a spacecraft’s direction and speed to place it in any given orbit are still in use today.

  1915   Goddard establishes that it is possible to send a rocket to the Moon

Robert Goddard experiments with reaction propulsion in a vacuum and establishes that it is possible to send a rocket to the Moon. Eleven years later, in 1926, Goddard launches the first liquid-fuel rocket.

  1942   Successful launch of a V-2 rocket

Ten years after his first successful rocket launch, German ballistic missile technical director Wernher von Braun achieves the successful launch of a V-2 rocket. Thousands of V-2s are deployed during World War II, but the guidance system for these missiles is imperfect and many do not reach their targets. The later capture of V-2 rocket components gives American scientists an early opportunity to develop rocket research techniques. In 1949, for example, a V-2 mated to a smaller U.S. Army WAC Corporal second-stage rocket reaches an altitude of 244 miles and is used to obtain data on both high altitudes and the principles of two-stage rockets.

  1957   Sputnik I

On October 4 the Soviet Union launches Sputnik I using a liquid-fueled rocket built by Sergei Korolev. About the size of a basketball, the first artificial Earth satellite weighs 184 pounds and takes about 98 minutes to complete one orbit. On November 3 the Soviets launch Sputnik II, carrying a much heavier payload that includes a passenger, a dog named Laika.

  1958   United States launches its first satellite

The United States launches its first satellite, the 30.8-pound Explorer 1. During this mission, Explorer 1 carries an experiment designed by James A.Van Allen, a physicist at the University of Iowa, which documents the existence of radiation zones encircling Earth within the planet’s magnetic field. The Van Allen Radiation Belt, as it comes to be called, partially dictates the electrical charges in the atmosphere and the solar radiation that reaches Earth. Later that year the U.S. Congress authorizes formation of the National Aeronautics and Space Administration (NASA).

  1959   Luna 3 probe flies past the Moon

The Soviet Union’s Luna 3 probe flies past the Moon and takes the first pictures of its far side. This satellite carries an automated film developing unit and then relays the pictures back to Earth via video camera.

  1960   TIROS 1 launched

Weather satellite TIROS 1 is launched to test experimental television techniques for a worldwide meteorological satellite information system. Weighing 270 pounds, the aluminum alloy and stainless steel spacecraft is 42 inches in diameter and 19 inches high and is covered by 9,200 solar cells, which serve to charge the onboard batteries. Magnetic tape recorders, one for each of two television cameras, store photographs while the satellite is out of range of the ground station network. Although it is operational for only 78 days, TIROS 1 proves that a satellite can be a useful tool for surveying global weather conditions from space.

  1961   Alan B. Shepard, Jr. becomes the second human in space

On May 5 astronaut Alan B. Shepard, Jr., in Freedom 7, becomes the second human in space. Launched from Cape Canaveral by a Mercury-Redstone rocket, Freedom 7—the first piloted Mercury spacecraft—reaches an altitude of 115 nautical miles and a speed of 5,100 miles per hour before splashing down in the Atlantic Ocean. During his 15-minute suborbital flight, Shepard demonstrates that individuals can control a vehicle during weightlessness and high G stresses, supplying researchers on the ground with significant biomedical data.

  1961   Yuri Gagarin becomes the first human in space

On April 12, cosmonaut Yuri Gagarin, in Vostok I, becomes the first human in space. Launching from Baikonur Cosmodrome, he completes one orbit of Earth in a cabin that contains radios, instrumentation, life-support equipment, and an ejection seat. Three small portholes give him a view of space. At the end of his 108-minute ride, during which all flight controls are operated by ground crews, he parachutes to safety in Kazakhstan.

  1962   John Glenn is the first American to circle Earth

John Glenn becomes the first American to circle Earth, making three orbits in his Friendship 7 Mercury spacecraft. Glenn flies parts of the last two orbits manually because of an autopilot failure and during reentry leaves the normally jettisoned retro-rocket pack attached to his capsule because of a loose heat shield. Nonetheless, the flight is enormously successful. The public, more than celebrating the technological success, embraces Glenn as the personification of heroism and dignity.

  1963   Syncom communications satellites launched

On February 14 NASA launches the first of a series of Syncom communications satellites into near-geosynchronous orbit, following procedures developed by Harold Rosen of Hughes Aircraft. In July, Syncom 2 is placed over the Atlantic Ocean and Brazil at 55 degrees longitude to demonstrate the feasibility of geosynchronous satellite communications. It successfully transmits voice, teletype, facsimile, and data between a ground station in Lakehurst, New Jersey, and the USNS Kingsport while the ship is off the coast of Africa. It also relays television transmissions from Lakehurst to a ground station in Andover, Maine. Forerunners of the Intelsat series of satellites, the Syncom satellites are cylinders covered with silicon solar cells that provide 29 watts of direct power when the craft is in sunlight (99 percent of the time). Nickel-cadmium rechargeable batteries provide power when the spacecraft is in Earth’s shadow.

  1965   Edward H. White, Jr. is the first American to perform a spacewalk

The second piloted Gemini mission, Gemini IV, stays aloft for four days, (June 3-7), and astronaut Edward H. White, Jr. performs the first extravehicular activity (EVA)—or spacewalk—by an American. This critical task will have to be mastered before a landing on the Moon.

  1968   Apollo 8 flight to the Moon views Earth from lunar orbit.

Humans first escape Earth’s gravity on the Apollo 8 flight to the Moon and view Earth from lunar orbit. Apollo 8 takes off from the Kennedy Space Center on December 21 with three astronauts aboard—Frank Borman, James A. Lovell, Jr., and William A. Anders. As their ship travels outward, the crew focuses a portable television camera on Earth and for the first time humanity sees its home from afar, a tiny "blue marble" hanging in the blackness of space. When they arrive at the Moon on Christmas Eve, the crew sends back more images of the planet along with Christmas greetings to humanity. The next day they fire the boosters for a return flight and splash down in the Pacific Ocean on December 27.

  1969   Neil Armstrong becomes the first person to walk on the Moon

Neil Armstrong becomes the first person to walk on the Moon. The first lunar landing mission, Apollo 11 lifts off on July 16 to begin the 3-day trip. At 4:18 p.m. EST on July 20, the lunar module—with astronauts Neil Armstrong and Edwin E. (Buzz) Aldrin—lands on the Moon’s surface while Michael Collins orbits overhead in the command module. After more than 21 hours on the lunar surface, they return to the command module with 20.87 kilograms of lunar samples, leaving behind scientific instruments, an American flag, and other mementos, including a plaque bearing the inscription: "Here Men From Planet Earth First Set Foot Upon the Moon. July 1969 A.D. We came in Peace For All Mankind."

  1971   First space station, Salyut 1

The Soviet Union launches the world’s first space station, Salyut 1, in 1971. Two years later the United States sends its first space station, Skylab, into orbit, where it hosts three crews before being abandoned in 1974. Russia continues to focus on long-duration space missions, launching the first modules of the Mir space station in 1986.

  1972   Pioneer 10 sent to the outer solar system

Pioneer 10, the first mission to be sent to the outer solar system, is launched on March 2 by an Atlas-Centaur rocket. The spacecraft makes its closest approach to Jupiter on December 3, 1973, after which it is on an escape trajectory from the Solar System. NASA launches Pioneer 11 on April 5, 1973, and in December 1974 the spacecraft gives scientists their closest view of Jupiter, from 26,600 miles above the cloud tops. Five years later Pioneer 11 makes its closest approach to Saturn, sending back images of the planet’s rings, and then heads out of the solar system in the opposite direction from Pioneer 10. The last successful data acquisitions from Pioneer 10 occur on March 3, 2002, the 30th anniversary of its launch date, and on April 27, 2002. Its signal is last detected on January 23, 2003, after an uplink is transmitted to turn off the last operational experiment.

  1975   NASA launches two Mars space probes

NASA launches two Mars space probes, Viking 1 on August 20 and Viking 2 on November 9, each consisting of an orbiter and a lander. The first probe lands on July 20, 1976, the second one on September 3. The Viking project’s primary mission ends on November 15, 11 days before Mars’s superior conjunction (its passage behind the Sun), although the two spacecraft continue to operate for several more years. The last transmission reaches Earth on November 11, 1982. After repeated efforts to regain contact, controllers at NASA’s Jet Propulsion Laboratory close down the overall mission on May 21, 1983.

  1977   Voyager I and Voyager 2 are launched

Voyager I and Voyager 2 are launched on trajectories that take them to Jupiter and Saturn. Over the next decade the Voyagers rack up a long list of achievements. They find 22 new satellites (3 at Jupiter, 3 at Saturn, 10 at Uranus, and 6 at Neptune); discover that Jupiter has rings and that Saturn's rings contain spokes and braided structures; and send back images of active volcanism on Jupiter's moon lo—the only solar body other than Earth with confirmed active volcanoes.

  1981   Space Shuttle Columbia is launched

The Space Shuttle Columbia, the first reusable winged spaceship, is launched on April 12 from Kennedy Space Center. Astronauts John W. Young and Robert L. Crippin fly Columbia on the first flight of the Space Transportation System, landing the craft at Edwards Air Force Base in Southern California on April 14. Using pressurized auxiliary tanks to improve the total vehicle weight ratio so that the craft can be inserted into its orbit, the mission is the first to use both liquid- and solid-propellant rocket engines for the launch of a spacecraft carrying humans.

  1986   Space Shuttle Challenger destroyed during launch

On the 25th shuttle flight, the Space Shuttle Challenger is destroyed during its launch from the Kennedy Space Center on January 28, killing astronauts Francis R. (Dick) Scobee, Michael Smith, Judith Resnik, Ronald McNair, Ellison Onizuka, Gregory Jarvis, and Sharon Christa McAuliffe. The explosion occurs 73 seconds into the flight when a leak in one of two solid rocket boosters ignites the main liquid fuel tank. People around the world see the accident on television. The shuttle program does not return to flight until the fall of 1988.

  1990   Hubble Space Telescope

The Hubble Space Telescope goes into orbit on April 25, deployed by the crew of the Space Shuttle Discovery. A cooperative effort by the European Space Agency and NASA, Hubble is a space-based observatory first dreamt of in the 1940s. Stabilized in all three axes and equipped with special grapple fixtures and 76 handholds, the space telescope is intended to be regularly serviced by shuttle crews over the span of its 15-year design life.

  1998   International Space Station

The first two modules of the International Space Station are joined together in orbit on December 5 by astronauts from the Space Shuttle Endeavour. In a series of spacewalks, astronauts connect cables between the two modules—from the United States and Zarya from Russia—affix antennae, and open the hatches between the two spacecraft.

  2000   Expedition One of the International Space Station

On October 31 Expedition One of the International Space Station is launched from Baikonur Cosmodrome in Kazakhstan—the same launch-pad from which Yuri Gagarin became the first human in space. Prior to its return on March 21, 2001, the crew conducts scientific experiments and prepares the station for long-term occupation.


     After Sputnik
     Early Leaders
     Space Race
     Exploring Galaxies
     Essay - William A. Anders
     The Global Positioning System

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