Although it was only in 1942 that the first rocket reached the outer edges of Earth’s atmosphere, physicists and philosophers had dreamed of leaving our planet and exploring the cosmos for centuries before that. We take a tour of 51 milestones in space travel.
Since 1608 the philosopher Kepler is dreaming about travelling to the moon.
1st century AD
Greek mathematician and engineer Hero of Alexandria is the first to explain jets of steam as thrust.
In China, saltpeter-based incendiary devices are described and rockets (“fire arrows”) developed.
One of the most famous sightings of Halley’s Comet is reported. It is depicted on the embroidered Bayeux Tapestry over 68 meters in length, which was completed in 1077 and portrays William the Conqueror’s invasion of England.
German philosopher, astronomer and theologian Johannes Kepler writes his novel Somnium, which contains descriptions of manned space flight. The authorial narrator falls asleep and dreams of making a journey to the moon.
The British Scientist Isaac Newton is the first to describe the laws of gravitation.
With his Philosophiae Naturalis Principia Mathematica (Mathematical Principles of Natural Philosophy), Isaac Newton spurs on far-reaching developments in astronomy.
French novelist Jules Verne publishes From the Earth to the Moon, describing a cannon with a 270-meter-long barrel.
In his short story “The Brick Moon”, Edward Everett Hale imagines a manned space station built of bricks and is today considered the great-grandfather of the ISS as well as GPS.
Written by Austrian Max Valier, The Advance into Space is the first book of science writing on the subject for a popular audience to be published in Germany. It takes its cue from spaceflight pioneer Hermann Oberth’s 1923 publication By Rocket into Planetary Space. The book had initially been rejected as a Ph.D. thesis.
The early works of Jules Verne make him one of the founders of science-fiction literature.
After take-off in Augsburg, Germany, Swiss scientist Auguste Piccard and his assistant Paul Kipfer achieve a stratospheric rise in a pressurized capsule attached to a hydrogen balloon—reaching an altitude of almost 17,000 meters.
On October 3, an A4, long-range missile is launched from Usedom Island off Germany’s Baltic coast and reaches a height of 84.5 kilometers—making it the first man-made object to reach the boundaries of space. From 1944, the rocket is referred to as the V2.
October 4, 1957
While the first episode of the American sitcom Leave it to Beaver is being broadcast, a Soviet rocket carries Sputnik 1—an aluminum ball just under 60 centimeters in diameter and the first satellite—into the Earth’s orbit. The Sputnik crisis triggers the space race, as the Soviet Union and U.S. compete for dominance in space. Sputnik 1 orbits the Earth 1,400 times in 92 days.
November 2, 1957
The Soviets launch Sputnik 2—and this time, a dog named Laika is on board. She is the first living creature to leave Earth but dies a few hours into her journey from overheating and stress. The mission is nevertheless regarded as a success and serves as an important stepping stone toward the first manned space flight, undertaken by Yuri Gagarin.
December 6, 1957
Intended as the Americans’ first launch vehicle for a satellite, the Vanguard rocket loses thrust, falls back onto the pad and explodes. The national press enters into a game of one-upmanship in coining scornful names for the failure, riffing on the Soviet success—flopnik, goofnik, kaputnik, nullnik, oopsnik, stallnik and stayputnik.
In 1957 the Soviet Union sends the first satellite into the orbit. Sputnik 1 is an aluminum ball with 60 centimeters in size.
February 1, 1958
With the Explorer 1, the U.S. successfully puts its first artificial satellite into orbit around the Earth. It is the world’s third satellite following Sputnik 1 and 2. A two-meter-long cylinder, Explorer 1 is very different from the spherical Sputnik design. What’s more, it’s also significantly lighter. After spending 12 years in space, Explorer 1 burnt up on re-entry on March 31, 1970 about 100 kilometers above the planet’s surface.
July 29, 1958
U.S. President Eisenhower signs the National Aeronautics and Space Act, which provides for the creation of the National Aeronautics and Space Administration (NASA).
The new agency commences work on October 1, 1958. NASA’s vision is “To improve life here, to extend life to there and to find life beyond.”
October 4, 1959
The Soviet Union’s Lunik 3 provides the first images ever seen of the far side of the moon. Automatically developed on board and then transmitted to Earth, the pictures represent another success for the Soviets in the space race.
1961: Soviet astronaut Jurij Gagarin is the first person to orbit the earth in space.
April 12, 1961
Soviet cosmonaut Yuri Gagarin is the first person to travel into space. After entering into orbit, Gagarin reports via radio, “I can see Earth. I am looking at the clouds. Beautiful, so beautiful!” The cosmonaut passes over the Soviet Union, the Pacific, the southern Atlantic, Africa and, in skimming Turkey, the edge of Europe. In the U.S., the flight elicits similar reactions to the Sputnik crisis four years earlier. On return from space, Gagarin is given a hero’s welcome in the Soviet Union.
May 5, 1961
Alan Shepard is the first American in space. Unlike Gagarin, however, his voyage is not an orbit of the Earth but merely a suborbital parabolic flight. He reaches a height of 187 kilometers and splashes down safely in the Atlantic 15 minutes later.
May 25, 1961
President John F. Kennedy announces the Apollo program to the U.S. Congress, saying: “I believe that this nation should commit itself to achieving the goal, before this decade is out, of landing a man on the moon and returning him safely to the Earth.” The superpowers’ race to reach the moon is on.
February 20, 1962
John Glenn is the first American to orbit the Earth.
June 16, 1963
Valentina Tereshkova is the first woman in space, completing 48 orbits of the Earth in three days. An amateur skydiver, she was recruited together with three other women for a special female cosmonaut corps.
March 18, 1965
Soviet cosmonaut Alexei Leonov is the first person to perform a spacewalk, spending 10 minutes outside his ship. A tether of just under five meters secures him to his craft. But the extra-vehicular activity almost ends in disaster as Leonov’s suit balloons so badly out of shape in the vacuum of space that he initially cannot squeeze back inside the airlock. Only after releasing a valve on his suit can he get back in.
July 21, 1969
“Houston, Tranquility Base here. The Eagle has landed.” With these words, Neil Armstrong and Buzz Aldrin land the Apollo 11 on the moon. What follows is an even more famously quotable line: “That’s one small step for a man, one giant leap for mankind.” Just a year earlier, Armstrong narrowly escaped death during training for the lunar landing. With the stars and stripes planted on the moon, the United States has won the space race. The Soviet Union turns its efforts toward building a permanently manned space station.
April 19, 1971
The first Soviet space station, Salyut 1 is launched.
May 14, 1973
The first American space station and laboratory, Skylab, is shot into orbit.
July 17, 1975
Earth is in the grip of the Cold War but above our atmosphere, international understanding reigns. An American Apollo capsule and Soviet Soyuz vehicle dock with one another in space. And it’s no spur-of-the-moment gesture. Right from the start, the joint mission involves high-level meetings between NASA and the Soviet space program officials as well as close cooperation between technical specialists and space ship crew.
1975: Earth is in the grip of the Cold War but above our atmosphere, international understanding reigns. An American Apollo capsule and Soviet Soyuz vehicle dock with one another in space.
October 22, 1975
Following a successful landing, the Soviet Venera 9 probe transmits the first pictures of Venus’ surface.
July 20 / September 3, 1976
The American Viking 1 and Viking 2 probes touch down on Mars. Although the search for signs of life is unsuccessful, the mission produces panoramic images of the planet.
September 5, 1977
Voyager 1 embarks on its journey to the edge of our solar system. It carries on board gold-plated copper phonograph records, dubbed the Voyager Golden Records, which contain sounds and images relating to human life. Among other things, the record cover features instructions for playback and a map indicating the location of our sun. Sound recordings include spoken greetings in 55 languages. The final greeting is in English and was spoken by then 6-year-old Nick Sagan, son of Carl Sagan, the astronomer who oversaw the records’ creation. He says, “Hello from the children of planet Earth.”
April 12, 1981
The Columbia blasts off. Capable of transporting both astronauts and a payload, it is the United States’ first space shuttle designed for re-use.
November 28, 1983
An American space shuttle carries the European-built science platform Spacelab and German physicist Ulf Merbold into orbit. Largely given free rein by the NASA control center in Houston, the astronauts conduct over 70 experiments dedicated to solar physics, material as well as life sciences and more.
January 28, 1986
Shortly after lift-off, the Challenger space shuttle explodes, killing all seven crew members on board.
The Soviet space laboratory „Mir“ starts 1986 into space and is at this time the biggest man-made object in the orbit.
February 20, 1986
Mir leaves the planet. Three weeks later, the Soviet Union’s space station receives its first crew. The largest man-made Earth-orbiting object of its time, the constantly manned outpost ranks together with the Sputnik satellites launched from 1957 onward and Gagarin’s 1961 flight as the Soviet Union’s greatest aerospace achievements. It spends 5,511 days in orbit before burning up on re-entry on March 23, 2001.
June 29 1995
Almost ten years later, the first U.S. space shuttle docks with the Mir. Between 1985 and 2011, the Atlantis completes a total of 33 missions.
July 4, 1997
The American Pathfinder probe lands on Mars and activates the Sojourner robotic rover.
October 29, 1998
In a follow-up to his 1962 flight, 77-year-old John Glenn boards the U.S. shuttle Discovery, setting a new record as the oldest astronaut to go into space.
November 20, 1998
A Russian launch rocket propels the first module of the International Space Station (ISS) into orbit.
April 28, 2001
The first space tourist, American Dennis Tito (born 1940) flies to the ISS. For a reported fee of $20 million, he blasts off from the Russian Baikonur Cosmodrome in Kazakhstan. On May 6, the investment manager returns safely to Earth.
February 1, 2003
On reentry into the Earth’s atmosphere, the Columbia space shuttle explodes with seven people on board. Among the fatalities are two women and the first Israeli astronaut, Ilan Ramon.
September 28, 2003
The European Space Agency sends Smart 1, its first space probe, to the moon.
October 15, 2003
Launched on a Long March 2F rocket from the Gobi Desert, the Shenzhou 5 space capsule carrying Chinese space traveler or taikonaut Yang Liwei is the People’s Republic’s first human spaceflight. After orbiting the Earth 14 times, Yang returns to terra firma in the region of Inner Mongolia on October 16.
January 25, 2004
American Mars rover Opportunity lands on the red planet and relays pictures of the surface back to Earth.
January 19, 2006
On the back of an Atlas V launch vehicle, the NASA space probe New Horizons lifts off from Cape Canaveral, Florida. It is the first craft to undertake a roughly nine-year journey to Pluto. The dwarf planet and its moons are, however, only the first of its destinations.
July 4, 2006
Thomas Reiter, a 48-year-old German physicist, flies to the ISS aboard the Discovery space shuttle. After 167 days in orbit, he has to get used to overcoming gravity when walking on Earth again. Adding this mission to the 179-day-long one in 1995, Reiter has spent almost a year in space. He still holds the record for the German astronaut who has spent the most days in space.
September 18, 2006
Iranian-born American Anousheh Ansari, whose family immigrated to the States in the late seventies, is the first female space tourist to visit the ISS.
March 7, 2009
The 95-megapixel digital camera on the Kepler space observatory is the most powerful photometer ever shot into space. Its roughly three-year-long mission is to search the Milky Way for Earth-like planets.
A rover at the mars science laboratory during some mobility tests.
February 24, 2011
The Discovery space shuttle leaves on its final flight to the ISS, marking the end of an important era in American space travel. The ISS will be temporarily supplied by the European Space Agency, the Russians and Japanese.
August 6, 2012
Weighing almost a metric ton, the Mars rover Curiosity successfully executes a complex but perfect landing on the surface of our neighboring planet. Launched on an Atlas V rocket from Cape Canaveral on November 26, 2011, the rover’s mission is to search for water and any life forms on Mars.
December 14, 2013
The Chinese rover Yutu, which is equipped with a laboratory among other things, touches down on the moon. That makes China the third nation after the U.S. and the former Soviet Union to land a craft on the moon.
May 28, 2014
German astronaut Alexander Gerst blasts off from Baikonur, Kazakhstan, in a Soyuz spacecraft destined for the ISS. On November 10, 2014, he makes a safe return to Earth. Gerst is the eleventh German to go into orbit.
Competing in the Google Lunar XPRIZE, the Part-Time Scientists team is the first privately funded mission to land on the moon. There, the Audi lunar quattro is the first Audi to make extraterrestrial tracks.