Rocket Launch

The History of Mankind’s Journey from Earth to Outer Space

Before we delve into the history of space exploration, let us look at what great people have said about outer space.

” Many years ago, the British explorer George Mallory, who was to die on Mount Everest, was asked why he wanted to climb it. He said, “Because it is there”. Well, space is there and we are going to climb it, and the moon and the planets are there and new hopes for knowledge and peace are there.”

John F Kennedy

John F Kennedy, was the American President between 1961 and 1963.

“Two things inspire me to awe – the starry heavens above and the moral universe within.”

Albert Einstein

Albert Einstein was a renowned German scientist, whose contributions were mainly in the field of Physics and Quantum mechanics. He was born on 14 March 1879 and left the world on 18 April 1955.


Apparently, the idea of space exploration is not new to mankind. Ages since our ancestors used astrology for predicting the life of people, space has been an eternal part of the curiosity of mankind. Also, there is a branch of science devoted to the study of planets, celestial bodies and the space of the physical Universe, known as Astronomy.

Image of the solar system containing the Sun and the eight planets.
Solar system Image Credit: Pixabay

As we all know, Earth is a planet in the solar system. As shown in the above picture, it consists of the Sun – the giant star, and eight planets, namely Mercury, Venus, Earth, Mars, Jupiter, Saturn, Uranus, and Neptune. Pluto is another small planet-like (dwarf planet) object that is not considered anymore as a part of the planetary system. However, our solar system forms a part of the Milky Way galaxy. And there are numerous such galaxies that make up the universe. Outer space that is beyond the physical bounds of planet earth consists of various other things like comets, natural satellites, meteorites, stars, dust, and so on.

Glossary, just to get familiar

  1. Astronaut – A person who is trained to travel in a spacecraft. A Russian astronaut is also known as a cosmonaut.
  2. Galaxy – A collection or system of a star and its orbiters. For example, the Milky Way galaxy consists of a giant star, the Sun, and 9 planets orbiting around the Sun.
  3. Orbit – A defined trajectory or path taken by any celestial object. For example, the moon revolves around earth on a specific path.
  4. Planet – A non-luminous celestial body with a motion on its own and with reference to a star. For example, Earth.
  5. Satellite – Any celestial object that revolves around a planet. For instance, the moon is a natural satellite, whereas GEOSAT is an artificial satellite.
  6. Star – A spatial object that burns and gives out luminous energy. For example, the sun is a giant star.

The Layers of Earth’s Atmosphere

Image of different layers of Earth's atmosphere and the heights at which different spatial objects operate.
Image Credit: Wikipedia

The adjacent image shows the division of earth’s atmosphere at various distances above the mean sea level. As one can make out, the height at which airplanes fly or hill tops reach is about 20km. That is the “Troposphere”. Then comes the stratosphere at a height of 50km where air balloons fly. This is followed by the “Karman’s line“. It is the boundary between earth’s atmosphere and outer space. As we ascend to the altitude above earth’s surface, the density of air gets thinner. Which is why there cannot be a specific universal definition of this.

Nevertheless, according to the commonly accepted definition, it is an imaginary line 100km above the earth’s surface. Beyond this point, the aircraft should travel at a higher speed to lift off and beat the earth’s gravity. The first such object to cross the Karman’s line marking the beginning of space exploration was a V-2 missile launched in 1944.

The Early History of Space Exploration

The machines launched into space to study the environment and collect samples are called probes. They can be of different types depending on what we are aiming to explore in the vast outer space. They are

  1. Manned / Crewed / Piloted Probe – It carries astronauts
  2. Unmanned / Uncrewed / Non-piloted Probe – It doesn’t carry people
  3. Spaceflight / Spacecraft – A flight that is launched to travel in space to cross or reach a v
  4. Interplanetary Probe – These are launched across the Solar system to reach a planet
  5. Space station – A space habitat. It is a spacecraft with a human crew that orbits earth in the lower range for an extended period of time.

Let us look into how things unfolded and have added to the history behind launching such different kinds of probes to explore space.

The Cold War Space Race

World War II must be credited with the space exploration leap despite the aftermath it caused. It was the Germans who first launched a space missile. Although it was a ” vengeance weapon”, the 200-mile V-2 rocket missile / A-4 was used to attack London on 8 September 1944. It flew above 60 miles and attacked the different locations aimed by the German army.

After Germany was defeated in the Second World War, the U.S and U.S.S.R took over its technology and designers. As that was the time when countries fought hard to prove their superiority over the other in every aspect, Space Exploration was no exception to it.

Image of Sputnik 1, the first artificial satellite to enter into space.
Sputnik 1 Image Credit: Wikipedia
Image of Laika, the dog who was onboard Sputnik 2, to enter into space.
Sputnik 2 (Image Credit: Prensalibre)

On October 4, 1957, the Soviets launched the first artificial satellite – ‘Sputnik I’, carried by an R-2 rocket into outer space. V-2 was a missile directed at earth itself, whereas this was the first venture into the universe outside of earth. This orbited around the earth in 96 minutes.

In a month’s time, on November 3, 1957, the Soviets launched ‘Sputnik II’. But it was an interesting satellite venture that carried a living creature, a dog named Lika. This marks the launch of the first animal into space.

The U.S declared the race against the U.S.S.R

After a couple of failed launch attempts, the U.S successfully made their way into space on January 31, 1958, with a satellite named ‘Explorer’. But it carried instruments to detect cosmic rays. It was researcher, James Van Allen who initiated this study. Based on data from later satellites, we are now aware of what is called the Van Allen belt around the earth’s atmosphere.

In October 1958, NASA (National Aeronautics and Space Administration) was formed by the American Government to make focused progress in the field of space exploration. Soon, on April 12, 1961, Soviet Astronaut Yuri Gagarin was the first human into space. He orbited the planet for 108 minutes in a spaceflight named ‘Vostok 1’.

Image of Yuri Gagarin, the comonaut who was the first human to enter space.
Yuri Gagarin Image Credit: Indiatoday

Facing the heat of pressure, the U.S declared themselves to be in the “Space Race” against the Soviets consequently. Also, three weeks later, on May 5,1961, they launched a satellite named ‘Mercury Spaceflight’, also known as ‘Freedom 7’. Alan Shepard, who flew in this, became the first American and second human in space. However, his flight lasted only 15 minutes and it was on a suborbital trajectory, meaning, the flight enters into space but doesn’t go around the earth.

The Huge Challenge

With the Soviets pioneering everything, from the first satellite to the first human into space, then U.S President John F Kennedy declared that the goal of the nation should be to touch the moon in a decade!

While the Soviets were fast advancing in everything, Americans had to race up. But the Soviets kept climbing the ladder. They launched a ‘Luna Series’, with ‘Luna 2’ being the first human-made object to hit the moon in 1959. And then, the first automatic soft landing on another celestial body (moon) was accomplished by ‘Luna 9’ on February 3, 1966. ‘Luna 10’ was the first artificial satellite to enter the moon’s orbit on April 3, 1966.

In order to address the huge challenge posed by the President, in the 1960s, NASA built “Project Gemini”. In this program, astronauts were trained to stay on long spaceflight journeys. Subsequently, they launched “Project Apollo”. In this series, it was “Apollo 11” that brought America’s dream to reality on July 20, 1969. The mission succeeded in landing the first crew on a celestial body (moon).Neil Armstrong and Buzz Aldrin were the crew of first astronauts to set foot on the Moon.

Picture of Buzz Aldrin planting the American Flag on the moon and saluting it. In the background there is the spacecraft in which they landed.
Space station on the Moon. Image Credit: Pixabay
Impression of foot marks on the boots of the astronaut. It will remain there forever,as the moon does not have air which could blow to take away the mark.
Boot Mark on Moon. Image Credit: Pixabay
Image of Neil Armstrong
The first man to step on the moon

“That’s one small step for (a) man; one giant leap for mankind..”

— Neil Armstrong from the Moon

As a result of this success, there were six crewed landings on the moon by the U.S between 1969 and 1972. Since then, piloted probes to space have been limited to only within the low-orbit range of earth.

Interplanetary Missions

These are of two types, namely flyby or orbiter missions and surface missions. In the former, the launched probes will pass by the planet or orbit around the planet. Whereas in the latter, the probe will enter the planet’s atmosphere, land on the surface of the planet and return data like pictures.

First Successful Flyby Missions by NASA

Probe Target Launch Date
Mariner 2 Venus August 27, 1962
Mariner 4 Mars November 28, 1964
Pioneer 6 Orbit Sun December 16, 1965
Pioneer 10 Jupiter March 2, 1972
Pioneer 11 Saturn April 6, 1973
Mariner 10 Mercury November 3, 1973
Voyager 2 Uranus August 20, 1977
Voyager 2 Neptune August 20, 1977
New horizon Orbit Pluto January 19, 2006
Dawn Orbit Ceres September 27, 2007
Table 1: List of Interplanetary flyby missions

First Successful Surface Missions by the Soviets

Probe Target Launch date Key notes
Venera 7 Venus August 17, 1970 Returned data from Venus to Earth for 23 minutes on December 15, 1970
Venera 9 Venus June 8, 1975 Photos of Venus surface was sent by on October 22, 1975
Mars 3 Mars May 28, 1971 Orbiter and Lander after soft landing on December 2, 1971, stopped data transmission after 20 seconds
Table 2: List of Lander Missions

Other noteworthy Missions

MOM, Mars Orbiter Mission or Mangalyaan was launched by ISRO, India, making it the first country to make a successful maiden attempt in the world. Moreover, it was the least expensive (almost half the amount that would cost a Hollywood movie production) and a lightweight spacecraft (that was carried by PSLV and not GSLV) which was launched on November 5, 2013. It entered Martian orbit successfully on September 24, 2014. It is still in operation, making it the fourth nation after NASA, Russia (Soviet union) and Europe to have succeeded in the mission. There is also a movie called “Mission Mangal” in Hindi that was loosely based on this challenging mission.

Regional dust storm activities over the Northern Hemisphere of Mars, captured by Mars Color Camera on the Mars Orbiter spacecraft.
Mars with dust storms. Image Credit: ISRO
First image of earth by Mars Color Camera on Mars Orbiter Spacecraft on November 19, 2013.
Picture of Earth. Image Credit: ISRO

EVA- Extravehicular Activities are those done by astronauts outside the spacecraft and beyond Earth’s atmosphere. The main activity is “Space Walk”. Alexei Leonov became the first human to walk in space when he stepped out of Vokshod 2 on March 18, 1965, after it was launched by the Soviets. He walked in outer space for 12 minutes and 9 seconds.

Space Stations

The First Space Station launched

The Soviets launched the World’s first Space Station in the Low Earth Orbit on April 19, 1971. The space craft known as “Salyut 1” was successfully put into orbit. After three days, Soyuz 10 – a crewed probe, was launched to dock/connect with Salyut 1. But the docking was unsuccessful and the team returned to earth.

Image of Salyut 1, world's first space station.
Salyut 1. Image Credit: Americaspace

Following this, Soyuz 11 was launched with three astronauts on June 6,1971. After successful docking and performing experiments for 23 days, the crew returned to earth on June 29. Unfortunately, due to technical issues, they died while reentering the earth’s atmosphere. They are the only people to have died beyond the Karman’s line.

When Salyut 1 was terminated and directed to land on earth, it burnt up while entering the earth’s atmosphere on October 11, 1971.

ISS: Perhaps the end of the Space Race

Later, SkyLab by America, Salyuts 3, 4, 5, 6, 7 and Mir by Russia were all launched as individual space stations that each spanned for a few years. Later, ninth in the order, the International Space Station (ISS) was launched. It was the result of collaborative efforts between the U.S, Russia (formerly known as the Soviets), Japan, Canada and Europe.

The ISS spacecraft took off from American land on November 20, 1998. It was first docked with a six-membered crew on December 4, 1998. Living for over 22 years now, making it the longest ever mission in space that is continuously inhabited by astronauts. Until now, about 240 astronauts from 19 countries have visited the ISS. Some have gone many times too.

Image of the ISS on earth, taken by crew members of the STS-105 mission, after separating from ISS.
ISS over Earth. Image Credit:
The picture of Jessica Meir, an American astronaut sitting near the "window to the world", inside the ISS cupola.
Astronaut inside ISS. Image Credit:

The ISS is the largest manned spacecraft that is circling the earth in low orbit range. It is the third gen modular space station, that is, it can be modularised and hence altered. Each of the modules may be removed or added. Research, experiments and studies in various fields have been going on since its inception in outer space.

Current events/ Ongoing highlights

Although the fleet of space exploration was vastly dominated by the U.S and Russia initially, more countries started sharing carving their space in the space exploration journey. This can be attributed to the fact that, post Second World War, most countries were directly or indirectly affected by it except the winning powers. Either they got newly independent from colonialism or they lost the war.

Today, some of the key players include the U.S.A (NASA ), Russia (ROSCOSMOS – Roscosmos State Corporation for Space Activities), Japan (JAXA – Japan Aerospace Exploration Agency), Europe (ESA – European Space Agency), Canada(CSA – Canadian Space Agency), China (CNSA – China National Space Administration) and India (ISRO – Indian Space Research Organisation). There are many other nations with their own individual government organisations for space exploration and research.

Image of logos of government space agencies of some countries. From top left, America (NASA), POCKOMOC, China (CNSA), India(ISRO), Europe (ESA), Dutch (DLR), Canada (CSA), Japan (JAXA), Italy (ASI), AEB, UK
Logos of some Space Agencies (Image Credit:

To highlight a few upcoming space events, NASA is looking into doing a spacewalk with the last expedited team of astronauts. ROSCOMOS is currently developing and testing a Soyuz-2 launch vehicle to replace the existing Soyuz family used for different orbital launches; low, medium, highly elliptical, sun-synchronous and geo-stationary. JAXA is assisting the development of a crewed pressurized rover (a machine that walks on the surface of the celestial body after landing).

Future of the limitless space

After the World Wars and the Cold War, the globe is getting together, in order to search for an alternate habitat for mankind. It is nice to see that space agencies across the world team up to achieve their common goal. Instruments and parts of the launch vehicles are manufactured by one country, they are all assembled and tested elsewhere and it is finally launched from some other country.

This way, all the nations work as a team. Lately, there are interesting “Space Tourism” programs popping out. Buying land on the Moon and building a house on Mars have become a popular buzz word these days. Because the ongoing research is heavily on exploring the Moon and Mars for transporting humans in the future.

In the journey of space exploration, we may end up getting answers to questions like “How did the universe and earth come into existence?”. It may throw light on some intriguing science theories like dark matter, black holes, micro-gravity. We can exploit resources from other planets for survival on Earth or start living on other celestial bodies.


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