The History of Spaceflight

The History of Spaceflight

Exploring Our World & Others

The lure of the unknown has drawn mankind into uncharted oceans, untamed wilderness and now to the secrets of the Universe.

The history of spaceflight and exploration started with the invention of gunpowder over 10 centuries ago by Chinese inventors.

Rockets were used for celebrations and military purposes. Modern rocketry started early in the 1900s and by the 1950s.

Experimenters were beginning to develop larger and more powerful rocket designs. Finally, rockets were developed that were powerful enough to overcome the force of gravity and escape Earth’s atmosphere.

 As often happens in science, the earliest practical work on rocket engines designed for spaceflight happened at the same time during the early 20th century in three countries. The scientists who found the right design were from Russia, America and Germany.

  In the 1930s and 1940s, Nazi Germany saw the possibilities of using long-distance rockets as weapons. Late in World War 2, London was attacked by 200-mile-range V-2 missiles. These arched 60 miles high over the English Channel at more than 3,500 miles per hour.

History of spaceflight - sputnik

Headlines about Sputnik evoke a new race in space, but more than atmosphere flights

After World War 2, the United States and the Soviet Union created their own missile programs. On Oct. 4, 1957, the Soviets launched the first artificial satellite, Sputnik 1, into space.

With the orbit of Sputnik, the space age had begun. Four years later on Apr. 12, 1961, Russian Lt. Yuri Gagarin became the first human to orbit Earth in Vostok 1.

His flight lasted 108 minutes and Gagarin reached an altitude of 202 miles (327 km) above the Earth. The United States wasn’t the first to put a man in space, but they would become the first to land a man on the Moon.

 During a Special Joint Session of Congress on May 25, 1961, President John F. Kennedy said,

“I believe 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 Earth. No single space project in this period will be more impressive to mankind, or more important in the long-range exploration of space; and none will be so difficult or expensive to accomplish.”

Buzz Aldrin on the Moon

Apollo 11. Buzz Aldrin setting up experiments.

During the 1960s, unmanned spacecraft photographed and probed the Moon before astronauts ever landed. By the early 1970s, orbiting communications and navigation satellites were in everyday use.

The Mariner spacecraft was orbiting and mapping the surface of Mars. By the end of the decade, the Voyager spacecraft had sent back detailed images of Jupiter and Saturn, their rings and their moons.

Finally, on July 20, 1969, Astronaut Neil Armstrong took ‘a giant step for mankind’ as he stepped onto the moon. Six Apollo missions were made to explore the moon between 1969 and 1972.



 Skylab was America’s first space station. It was a human-spaceflight highlight of the 1970s, as was the Apollo Soyuz Test Project.

Soyuz was the world’s first internationally crewed (American and Russian) space mission. The Skylab mission tested new technology and studied the effects of weightlessness. Skylab was eventually abandoned and allowed to burn up in Earth’s atmosphere over the Pacific Ocean.

In the 1980s, satellite communications expanded to carry television programs. People were able to pick up the satellite signals on their home dish antennas as well.

Satellites discovered an ozone hole over Antarctica, pinpointed forest fires, and gave us photographs of the nuclear power-plant disaster at Chernobyl in 1986. Astronomical satellites found new stars and gave us a new view of the center of our galaxy.

Space Shuttle

NASA Space Shuttle Challenger.

Political excitement for more space exploration began to fade. This made NASA reduce their missions and develop the Space Shuttle. In April 1981, the launch of the space shuttle Columbia introduced a time of dependence on the reusable shuttle for most  space missions.

The Shuttle has been successful in space medicine research, launching and retrieving satellites, and other technology.

Some Shuttle flights conducted experiments with the Russian space station MIR. However, in January 1986, the shuttle Challenger exploded after launch and killed its crew of seven. The Challenger tragedy led to a re-evaluation of America’s space program.

 The new goal was to make certain a suitable launch system was ready when satellites were scheduled to fly.

Today this is accomplished by having more than one launch method and launch facility available. Satellite systems are being designed to be compatible with more than one launch system as well.

Space systems will continue to become more valuable. These systems will be used to maintain homeland defense, weather surveillance, communication, navigation, imaging and remote sensing for chemicals, fires and other disasters.

 So far, space travel and exploration has been limited to very few people. Only those associated with the various space agencies that can undergo the rigorous training required for becoming an astronaut.

However, there is a strong competition going on in the civilian market. Many companies are working to develop the next generation of launch systems.

Space tourism is space travel for recreation and business purposes. Several start-up companies have sprung up in recent years, such as Virgin Galactic and XCOR Aerospace.

These companies are hoping to create a sub-orbital space tourism industry. Orbital space tourism opportunities have been limited and expensive with only the Russian Space Agency providing transport so far.

Virgin Galactic

Shots of the replica of Space Ship II at the Virgin Galactic stand at Farnborough 2012

 The published price for flights to the International Space Station aboard a Russian Soyuz spacecraft have been $20-40 million US dollars.

During the period between 2001 and 2009, 7 space tourists made 8 space flights. Some space tourists have signed contracts with third parties to conduct research activities while in orbit.

However, Russia stopped providing transport for space tourism in 2010 when the crew size of the International Space Station was increased. Orbital tourist flights are planned to resume sometime in 2015.

 There have been several orbital ventures proposed by companies with no ties to any national Space Agency.

  • SpaceX is a private space company. They are working on their own rocket called Falcon. They are also working on a capsule named Dragon.
  • This rocket is capable of sending up to seven people to any space station. Falcon 1 has already undertaken test flights. It successfully completed its first commercial flight on July 14, 2009. It deployed the Malaysian RazakSAT into orbit. Falcon 9 is the rocket for the Dragon capsule. It was first launched June 4, 2010 at Space Launch Complex 40 in Cape Canaveral. A mock-up of the Dragon capsule was used on that test flight. A pressurized cargo version of the capsule was used in the next test flight. It also returned safely on Dec. 8, 2010. SpaceX believes that Dragon could be ready for human spaceflight within 3 years once they get money from NASA. On May 25, 2012, a remote controlled variety of Dragon became the first commercial spacecraft to successfully meet up with the International Space Station.
  • Boeing is building the CST-100 as part of the CCDev program and intends to fly tourists. The CST-100 is planned to be launched by an Atlas V rocket.
  • Space Adventures Ltd. Have announced that they are working on DSE-Alpha. This is a mission to the moon with the price of about $100 million US dollars per person.
  • Excalibur Almaz is a private company based in the Isle of Man. They planned to use updated TKS space capsules to carry paying research crews into low Earth orbit. In June 2012, they announced that they were ready to sell tickets for private expeditions to the moon. They originally expected to undertake the first of these voyages sometime in 2015 but not much has been heard about the company and their plans since.

TransHab was to be a habitat module for a Mars mission.

 A few plans have been proposed for using a space station as a hotel.

  • American motel tycoon Robert Bigelow has gotten designs for inflatable space ‘rooms’ from the Transhab program. This program was abandoned by NASA. His company, Bigelow Aerospace, has already launched two of the first inflatable habitat modules. The first was named Genesis 1 and was launched July 12, 2006. The second test module, Genesis 2, was launched June 28, 2007. Both Genesis habitats remain in orbit as of March 2012. The BA 330 is an expandable habitation module with 330 cubic meters of internal space. It is expected to be ready for launch by 2017. In 2004, Bigelow Aerospace established a competition called America’s Space Prize which offered a $50 million prize. It was offered to the first US company to create a reusable spacecraft capable of carrying passengers to a Nautilus space station. The prize expired in January 2010 without anyone trying to win it.
  • The Space Island Group have set out plans for their Space Island Project. They plan on having 20,000 people on their ‘space island’ by 2020. The number of people wanting to join this project have nearly doubled since the announcement.

The last 60 years have seen humans stuck on the Earth’s surface to flying free, all the way to the Moon and back! Where might we be in the next 25-50 years? The future is before us and no doubt there will be more to write on the history of spaceflight as time goes on!