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Space transport

Story of space transport

A scene from Jules Verne's From the Earth to the MoonA scene from Jules Verne's From the Earth to the MoonPeople dreamed of travelling in outer space long before rockets were invented. In 1865 the French science-fiction writer Jules Verne wrote a story about travellers to the Moon. The secret of space travel was the rocket—petrol or jet engines do not work in space. The first man who suggested that rockets might be used for space flight was a Russian teacher, Konstantin Tsiolkovsky, in 1903. No one took much notice then but the American scientist, Robert H. Goddard, built the first successful rocket, using liquid fuel, in 1926.

Robert H. Goddard and his rocketRobert H. Goddard and his rocket

First rockets

The first liquid-fuel rocket was built by American scientist Robert Goddard in 1926. Using gasoline and liquid oxygen for fuel, the 1-metre (3-feet) tall rocket, nicknamed "Nell", reached a height of 12.5 metres (41 feet). His later rockets reached heights of up to 2.16 kilometres (1.6 miles) at speeds of up to 885 km/h (550 mph).

The first long-range rocket was the V-2 missile, designed by German engineer Wernher von Braun during World War II. The 14-metre (45-feet), liquid-fuelled rocket became the first manmade object in space in October 1942. It could reach an altitude of 206 kilometres (128 miles). After the war, von Braun worked for the US space programme.V-2 missile, the first space rocketV-2 missile, the first space rocket

US astronaut Aldrin takes a first step on the Moon.US astronaut Aldrin takes a first step on the Moon.

Space race

The first satellite to be launched into Earth’s orbit was the Soviet satellite Sputnik 1. From then on, a “space race” took place between the Soviet Union (Russia and its territories from 1922 to 1991) and the United States. When the Soviet Union launched the first man into orbit in 1961, American president John F. Kennedy announced that the US would land a man on the Moon before the end of the 1960s. The first Moon landing duly took place on 20th July 1969. Since then most space exploration has been carried out by unmanned space probes flying close to the other planets in our Solar System.

Sputnik 1Sputnik 1

Sputnik 1

The Space Age really began on 4th October 1957 when the Soviet Union launched Sputnik 1, the first man-made satellite to orbit (travel around) the Earth. A small steel sphere weighing just 83 kilograms (183 pounds), Sputnik 1, remained in orbit for 92 days. It sent radio signals back to Earth via its four aerials.

Yuri Gagarin (1934–1968), the first human in spaceYuri Gagarin (1934–1968), the first human in space

First man in space

A dog called Laika was the first living thing to orbit the Earth. It was closely followed by the first human being, Soviet cosmonaut ("sailor of the universe") Yuri Gagarin, on 12th April 1961. His spacecraft, Vostok 1, reached a height of 344 kilometres (214 miles) and made one orbit of the Earth in a flight that lasted 108 minutes. The descent capsule, which measured just 2.3 metres (7.5 feet) across, landed in Russia but Gagarin was not in it: he had parachuted out at 6700 metres (22,000 feet). Yuri Gagarin was the first human being to travel outside the Earth’s atmosphere.

Mariner 2 space probeMariner 2 space probe

First space probe to reach another planet

US spacecraft Mariner 2 became the first space probe successfully to reach another planet when it flew by Venus in December 1962. From a distance of 34,800 kilometres (21,600 miles), its detectors captured data from Venus’s surface. It carried no cameras because it was already known that Venus had a thick, featureless cloud cover.

Valentina Tereshkova Valentina Tereshkova

First woman in space

The first woman in space was Valentina Tereshkova (born 1937) from the Soviet Union. She was also the first civilian (not in the armed forces) to fly in space. Before she was selected to be a cosmonaut, Tereshkova was a factory assembly worker and an amateur skydiver. She orbited the Earth 48 times on board Vostok 6 in 1963. In doing so, she logged more flight time than that of all American astronauts who had flown before then combined. It was not until 1982 that another woman, Soviet cosmonaut Svetlana Savitskaya, flew in space.

First space walk

Leonov walks in space, tethered by cableLeonov walks in space, tethered by cableSoviet cosmonaut Aleksei Leonov (born 1934) became the first human to walk in space in March 1965. He left his spacecraft, Voskhod 2, via an airlock. With the door to the spacecraft shut behind him, the airlock was de-pressurized. He then opened the exit hatch and entered space. Attached to the craft by a cable, Leonov spent 10 minutes in space, taking pictures with a portable TV camera.

Gemini 7Gemini 7

First long-term manned space flight

The first flight by a manned spacecraft to last more than a few days took place in December 1965. The purpose of Gemini 7’s mission was to discover the effects of 14 days in space on the human body. The crew of US astronauts Frank Borman and James Lovell spent nearly 14 days in space making a total of 206 orbits. At one point, Gemini 6A joined Gemini 7 in orbit. The two spacecraft performed the first manned rendezvous in space, with the two spacecraft manoeuvring to within of 30 centimetres (12 inches) of each other.

Luna 9 on the surface of the MoonLuna 9 on the surface of the Moon

First landing
on the Moon

The first space probe to make a successful soft landing on the Moon was the Soviet Luna 9 in 1966. It was the first soft landing made by an manmade object on another world. Luna 9 sent back TV pictures after its protective “petals” opened. provided a panoramic view of the nearby lunar surface. The pictures included views of nearby rocks and the horizon, 1.4 kilometres (just under a mile) away.

First men on the Moon

Buzz Aldrin stands on the Moon's surfaceBuzz Aldrin stands on the Moon's surfaceThe first landing by a manned spacecraft on another body in the Solar System took place on 20th July 1969 when Apollo 11’s Lunar Module touched down on the surface of the Moon. A few hours later, US astronaut Neil Armstrong (1930–2012) became the first person to step on to the lunar surface. He was followed by fellow astronaut Edwin "Buzz" Aldrin (born 1930). Armstrong and Aldrin spent 150 minutes gathering rock samples. Their footprints will still be there millions years from now, as there is no weather on the Moon to obliterate them. The Apollo astronauts were carried into space on their way to the Moon by the rocket, Saturn V.

Salyut 1, with a Soyuz spacecraftSalyut 1, with a Soyuz spacecraft

First space station

The first space station, an orbiting laboratory for experiments in space, was launched by the Soviet Union in April 1971. Salyut 1 was 14.4 metres (47 feet) long and powered by wing-like solar panels. It was manned for 24 days by three cosmonauts who travelled up in a Soyuz spacecraft. Inside Salyut, the cosmonauts carried out experiments to see how people react to staying in space for long periods, and how plants and animals coped with very low gravity.

On their way home, all three cosmonauts died when their Soyuz spacecraft leaked air. No further missions were sent to the Salyut space station.

Pioneer 10Pioneer 10

First space probe
to fly by Jupiter

The US space probe Pioneer 10, launched in 1972, was the first probe to travel through the asteroid belt and fly by Jupiter. For the benefit of any intelligent aliens it may encounter, it carries on board a plaque showing the location of the Sun and planets, together with a picture of a man and a woman. Communications with Pioneer 10 were lost in January 2003, at which time it was 12 billion kilometres (7.5 billion miles) from Earth. Even at that distance, its radio signal could still be picked up by powerful receivers.

Viking 2 probe on the surface of MarsViking 2 probe on the surface of Mars

First successful
probes on Mars

The twin US probes, Viking I and 2 touched down on the surface of Mars in July and September 1976. They took colour pictures of the rocky surface, recorded weather conditions and used their robotic arms to collect soil for analysis. They also sent back information that showed for the first time how Mars’s landscape had been sculpted by running water. Although several probes had landed on Mars before, the Viking mission was the first successful one: the Viking probes were the first to complete their missions.

The Space ShuttleThe Space Shuttle

First re-usable spacecraft

The US Space Shuttle Columbia became the world’s first re-usable spacecraft when it made its second flight in November 1981. The Space Shuttle was designed as a re-usable spacecraft because of the huge cost of rockets, all the parts of which were completely destroyed during a mission. The five Shuttle spacecraft, Columbia, Challenger, Discovery, Atlantis and Endeavour, flew 135 missions between 1981 and 2011 to launch or repair satellites, service space stations, and carry out scientific and military research. The Space Shuttle flew into space like a rocket, then glided back to Earth like an aeroplane.

Voyager 2Voyager 2

space probes

The twin space probes, Voyager 1 and Voyager 2, were launched in 1977. They took advantage of a rare alignment of the outer planets, Jupiter, Saturn, Uranus and Neptune, to make fly-bys of all four possible. The flight trajectory of Voyager 2 was carefully designed so that it could use the gravity field of each planet to provide the necessary force to to change the speed and direction of the spacecraft to get it from one planet to the next.

Routes of Voyagers 1 and 2Routes of Voyagers 1 and 2Although it took off slightly later than Voyager 2, Voyager 1 was the first to reach Jupiter in March 1979 and Saturn in November 1980. Both space probes took high-resolution images of the giants and their satellites, rings and moons. Voyager 2 flew by Uranus in January 1986 and Neptune in August 1989, sending back amazingly clear pictures of Neptune’s moon, Triton.

US astronaut Captain Bruce McCandless on EVAUS astronaut Captain Bruce McCandless on EVA

First untethered
space walk

In 1984, US astronaut Captain Bruce McCandless, was the first person to go "outside" into space with no link to a spacecraft. He was the first human satellite. Together with Colonel Bob Stewart, they were out on "extra-vehicular activity" (EVA) for five hours, travelling in little vehicles like armchairs fitted with gas-powered thrusters called manned-manoeuvring units (MMUs)

The Hubble Space Telescope.The Hubble Space Telescope.

Hubble Space Telescope

Launched by the Space Shuttle in 1990, the Hubble Space Telescope is an unmanned observatory. From its orbit 559 kilometres (347 miles) above Earth, the pictures it receives of distant regions of space are unaffected by the atmospheric disturbance that reduces the quality of images obtained from telescopes on Earth. The Hubble can detect visible light, infrared and ultraviolet rays. It has special mirrors to reflect and focus images and electronic detectors to record them. Images are sent to Earth via the space
telescope’s antennae.

On board Mir space stationOn board Mir space station

Longest in space

In the 1970s the Soviets and the Americans began building large space stations. These allowed crews to spend time carrying out scientific research. In 1987-88 Soviet cosmonauts (the Russian equivalent of "astronaut") Musa Manarov and Vladimir Titov spent just short of 366 days in the Mir space station. Their record was broken by Valeri Polyakov (born 1942) in 1995 who stayed aboard Mir for 438 days. Polyakov now also holds the record for the longest distance travelled. On board Mir, he has flown about 400 million kilometres (250 million miles), well over the equivalent of a return trip to the Sun.

International Space Station

Orbiting 350 kilometres (about 220 miles) above the Earth is the International Space Station (ISS). It completes 15.51 orbits per day. The ISS is made up of several modules linked together. The two main sections are the Russian Orbital Segment (ROS) and the United States Orbital Segment (USOS), which is shared by many nations. Inside these are laboratories and living accommodation. Solar panels provide the ISS with electrical power. It also has a giant robotic arm.International Space StationInternational Space Station

A space toilet on board the ISSA space toilet on board the ISSThe ISS is a micro-gravity environment, which means that the pull of gravity is not very strong. People and untethered objects can float through the space station. In their sleeping quarters, crew members sleep in a tethered sleeping bag, so that they do not bump into anything during the night. Personal items are stored in drawers or nets attached to the walls. At mealtimes, drinks are sucked from a closed bag through a straw, and crew members must be careful not to make crumbs that could float into equipment.

The ISS is used for experiments, including the science of how living things survive in space. Experiments in fields such as meteorology (study of the atmosphere), astronomy and physics also take place. Crew members normally work for about 10 hours a day on weekdays, and 5 hours on Saturdays, with the rest of the time spent exercising, eating, listening to music, reading and chatting. 

The ISS has been visited by astronauts and cosmonauts from 15 different countries. There is a docking port for visiting spacecraft. Soyuz spacecraft were once used to carry Russian cosmonauts to and from Salyut and later Mir space stations. They are now used for transporting people, supplies and equipment to the ISS, having taken over from the US Space Shuttle, which was retired in 2011. One Soyuz spacecraft is docked to ISS at all times as an emergency escape craft. 

Galileo space probeGalileo space probe

First space probe
to orbit Jupiter

The Galileo space probe entered into orbit around Jupiter, the first probe to do so, in 1995. It carried a small descent probe, which it released into Jupiter’s atmosphere, from where it sent back data. Other detectors and cameras took images of Jupiter and its moons. The Galileo space probe was deliberately sent into Jupiter's atmosphere to destroy itself completely in 2003.

Huygens descends to the surface of TitanHuygens descends to the surface of Titan

Cassini space probe

The Cassini space probe was launched in October 1997, with the objective of studying Saturn and its moons, especially Titan. It entered the orbit of Saturn in 2004. In January 2005 it released a lander probe, Huygens, bound for Titan. During its entry of Titan’s thick nitrogen atmosphere, it was protected against high by a heat shield. A parachute was deployed to slow its descent and permit a soft landing on Titan’s surface. It was the first landing made by a space probe on another planet's moon's surface. For 90 minutes it transmitted pictures and information back to Earth, including images of rivers and lakes of liquid methane on Titan's surface. Cassini itself remains in orbit around Saturn.

Rosetta and Philae

The lander Philae detaches from RosettaThe lander Philae detaches from RosettaThe space probe Rosetta was launched in March 2004. It reached Comet 67P/Churyumov–Gerasimenko in May 2014 and entered into orbit around the comet. In November, Rosetta released a small lander, called Philae, that descended on to the comet itself. It was intended that, on landing, two harpoons would fire into the comet's surface to prevent the lander from bouncing off. The harpoons failed to fire, but Philae still landed safely. The first images beamed back revealed a dramatic landscape of precipices, craters and boulders. Rosetta meanwhile will continue in orbit for 17 months, carrying out a detailed study of the comet.

Consultant: Chris Oxlade


  • 1926
    The first liquid-fuel rocket is built.
  • 1942
    The V-2 missile becomes the first manmade object in space.
  • 4th October 1957
    The Soviets launch Sputnik 1, the first manmade satellite.
  • 12th April 1961
    Soviet cosmonaut Yuri Gagarin makes the first flight in a manned spacecraft, Vostok 1.
  • 5th May 1961
    First US astronaut Alan Shepard makes a 15-minute flight.
  • 20th February 1962
    John Glenn becomes the first US astronaut to orbit Earth.
  • 16th June 1963
    Soviet cosmonaut Valentina Tereshkova becomes the first woman in space.
  • 18th March 1965
    Soviet cosmonaut Aleksei Leonov makes the first space walk.
  • 21st July 1969
    US astronaut Neil Armstrong is the first man to walk on the Moon.
  • April 1971
    The first space station is launched.
  • 7th February 1984
    US astronaut Bruce McCandless performs the first untethered space walk.
  • 1994-95
    Russian doctor Valeri Polyakov spends a record 438 days in space.
  • 22nd June 2007
    US astronaut Sunita Williams sets the record, 195 days, for the longest space flight by a woman.

The first living things to travel into space were fruit flies on board a V-2 rocket on 20th February 1947. The first mammal in space was a rhesus monkey, called Albert II, on 14th June 1949.

The first and only human to be buried on another world was US geologist and planetary scientist Dr Eugene Shoemaker, some of whose ashes were aboard the Lunar Inspector probe which crash-landed on the Moon on 31st July 1999.

The Apollo 8 astronauts Frank Borman, James Lovell and William Anders, were the first humans to leave the Earth's gravitational field, when they orbited the Moon in 1968.

At the completion of the Apollo 11 mission, the three astronauts were kept in quarantine for 21 days. This was a precaution in case they had brought back space microbes with them.

In 1970, Apollo 13 was on its way to the Moon when an explosion in its service module oxygen tanks damaged it. The spacecraft continued on round the Moon and returned to Earth safely.

The first US space station, called Skylab, plunged to Earth in July 1979, spreading fear that people would be struck by falling debris. Nobody was hurt, but an Australian town fined the US government for littering.

The International Space Station is the largest ever manmade satellite. Because of its size and its large reflective solar panels, it can be seen from the Earth's surface with the naked eye.

The humans to travel farthest from Earth were James Lovell, Fred Haise and John Swigert of the USA’s Apollo 13 crew. They flew to the far side of the Moon, 400,171 km (248,655 miles) away, on 15th April 1970.

In recognition of his bravery and achievements, Yuri Gagarin was made an honorary citizen of 13 cities in the USSR.

After putting his left boot on the Moon, Armstrong said, “That’s one small step for [a] man, one giant leap for mankind.” For years, he maintained that he had not forgotten to say the crucial “a”, but later admitted he must have made a mistake and that he “would hope that history would grant me leeway for dropping the syllable”.

Laika (which means “barker”) was a stray Moscow dog specially trained for her role. She died within hours of her spacecraft taking off in 1957, from overheating. In 2011, a monument to her was unveiled in Moscow.

The first space "tourist" was US businessman Dennis Tito, who paid US$20 million (£12 million) for eight days on the International Space Station in 2001.

Eugene Cernan and Harrison Schmitt of the USA’s Apollo 17 mission spent a longer time on the Moon than anyone before or since, when they stayed for 74 hours 59 minutes and 40 seconds after landing on 11th December 1972.

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