Explore and learn about the key events and achievements that shaped almost twenty years of competition between the United States and the Soviet Union.
Space race timeline
2 August 1955: The USSR responds to the US announcement that they intend to launch the first artificial satellite into space with a satellite of their own.
What was the space race?
The Space Race was a 20th Century struggle between two nation-states, the Soviet Union (USSR) and the United States (US). The pursuit for both was the domination of space flight technologies. The competition began on 2 August 1955, when the Soviet Union responded to the US announcement of their similar intent to launch artificial satellites.
The Space Race has its origins in the nuclear arms race between the two nations following the Second World War. Both sides were aided by German missile technology and scientists from their missile programme. The technological advantages required for such power were seen as necessary for national security and political superiority. The Space Race produced groundbreaking efforts to launch artificial satellites; space probes of the Moon, Venus, and Mars, and human space voyages in low Earth orbit and lunar missions.
Upcoming missions from NASA, the European Space Agency, SpaceX and more
Space race facts
The first animals sent into space were fruit flies
These were carried aboard a Second World War V2 rocket on 20 February 1947. Find out more about the first animals in space
Dogs were sent into space
While the US often sent primates on test flights, the Soviet Union preferred to use dogs. They were seen to be more obedient, and Moscow stray dogs were reckoned to be more equipped to deal with the extreme conditions and potential hunger of space travel.
There is a solar powered satellite
The US Navy's Vanguard 1 was the first solar-powered satellite. Launched on 17 March 1958, it remains the oldest human-made probe in orbit. Although communication with the satellite is now lost, it will stay in space for many years to come.
Yuri Gargarin started a tradition
On the 12 April 1961, the first man in space, Yuri Gagarin asked the bus driver to stop on the route to the launchpad and urinated against the right-hand back tyre of the bus. This act has become a tradition for all astronauts travelling into space. Female astronauts bring vials of their urine to splash on the wheel.
Astronauts were nearly cosmonauts
In the 1950s an ongoing discussion began at NASA between astronauts and cosmonauts. The deputy administrator wanted to name US travellers in space as cosmonauts, the term applied to Russian spacemen. He felt that "cosmos" was more applicable to space travel than just the term used to stars (or "Astro"). However, while he made a clear point, he was outvoted by his peers.
Alan Shepard played golf on the Moon
On 2 February 1971, Alan Shepard became the first human to play golf on the Moon. After smuggling a makeshift golf club aboard his Apollo 14 lunar mission, Shepard hit two balls just before liftoff. Find out about what's been left on the Moon
The Mercury Seven were the oldest
The Mercury Seven were the group of seven astronauts that piloted all the crewed spaceflights of the Mercury programme, occurring from May 1961 to May 1963. Of the Mercury Seven, John Glenn went on to become a US senator and on 29 October 1998 (while still a senator), he became the oldest person to fly in space at the age of 77.
Apollo 12 was struck by lightning
On 14 November 1969, Apollo 12 was sent on its lunar mission. The launch was the most distressing of the Apollo programme, as a series of lightning strikes just after liftoff temporarily disabled their power and guidance systems. On stepping onto the lunar surface five days later, Conrad joked, "Man, that may have been a small one for Neil, but that's a long one for me."
The last person to walk on the Moon was Eugene Cernan
Cernan was the Mission Commander of the Apollo 17 mission that occurred between 11 and 14 December 11 1972. Only twelve people (all US astronauts) had done so before, and none have done so since. He walked on the Moon with geologist and astronaut, Harrison Schmitt.