The Real History of Space Travel

As 'Interstellar' shows a potential future for mankind in the stars, a look back at how we got where we are right now

As the promotion for Christopher Nolan’s Interstellar puts it, “Mankind was born on Earth. It was never meant to die here.” In a somewhat fatalistic way, the phrase sums up the impulse behind humanity’s desire to reach the stars and the space race that started in the mid-20th Century.

With Interstellar offering up a possible future for space exploration (and one more realistic than many other such predictions, thanks to the input of scientific advisor and theoretical physicist Kip Thorne), it’s a good time to look back at some of the highlights of our attempts to escape the Earth to date.

Read more Into the Wormhole: An Interview With Christopher Nolan

The World’s First Living Astronauts (1947)

Quick: what was the first living creature in space? For those answering a monkey or a dog, you’re both wrong. We’ll get to Laika in a moment, but Albert II, the first monkey in space (thanks to a U.S. launch in 1949) was beaten to the punch by a collection of fruit flies on board a V-2 rocket launched by the United States on Feb. 20, 1947. Barely reaching space — the rocket reached 68 miles in the air, with the U.S. Air Force definition of space being anything beyond 50 miles — the rocket parachuted back down to Earth safely, with the fruit flies unharmed. (Note: The video above is merely of a V-2 rocket launch, not the specific Russian launch.)

Sputnik 1 (1957)

The first manmade object to become an Earth satellite, Sputnik 1 was launched by the Soviet Union on Oct. 4, 1957, moving at speeds of around 29,000 KPH and taking under 100 minutes to orbit the planet. It kept transmitting signals for 22 days, before the batteries on its transmitter wore out, and stayed in orbit until January 1958, when it fell out of orbit and burned up on re-entry. All told, it traveled around 70,000,000 kilometers during its three month flight.

Laika, The First Animal in Orbit (1957)

Less than a month after the launch of Sputnik 1, the Soviet space program launched Sputnik 2 with a very special passenger — Laika, a three-year-old mongrel and the first animal sent into orbit. A former stray, she was one of three dogs trained for the mission, her role was to prove that a living passenger could survive being launched into orbit. While the answer to that was yes, sadly Laika died within hours of launch due to overheating.

Luna 2, The First Rocket to Hit the Moon (Literally) (1959)

As the name might suggest, Luna 2 was the second object sent by the Soviet Union to the moon, but the first to actually arrive. It hit the surface Sept. 13, 1959, around 36 hours after launch. Technically, Luna 2 wasn’t a spacecraft as many today would recognize; it had no propulsion elements, and relied on external rockets to launch it into space (It did, however, have geiger counters and other equipment on board to collect data once it reached its destination; it’s not as if the Russians sent up an empty metal sphere for fun).

Yuri Gagarin, First Man in Space (1961)

Luckily for Gagarin, the overheating problem that killed Laika had been sorted out by Apr. 12, 1961 when Vostok 1 took a man into outer space for the first time in human history. Because of the momentous nature of the launch, the Vostok 1 mission played it relatively safe; at 108 minutes in the air and one orbit of the Earth, it remains the shortest manned orbital flight to date.

Valentina Tereshkova, First Woman in Space (1963)

While Gagarin’s name is common knowledge, it’s possible that Tereshkova’s is less known. As the cosmonaut onboard Vostok 6, she became the first woman in space, spending almost three days in orbit following its June 16, 1963 launch. More impressively, she was also responsible for noting and correcting an error in the craft’s original program while in space, ensuring that the ship would return to Earth at all. Valentina Tereshkova, a forgotten space hero.

Apollo 11, First Man on the Moon (1969)

The space mission that almost everyone in the world knows about, and which transformed the names Buzz Aldrin and Neil Armstrong into household names, Apollo 11 launched July 16, 1969 and landed on the moon four days later. They stayed on the moon’s surface for just over 21 hours before returning to Earth, splashing down in the Pacific Ocean on July 24. Nothing would ever be the same again.

Salyut 1, First Space Station (1971)

The creation of the first space station wasn’t exactly a seamless process; the station itself went into orbit on Apr. 17 1971, with the first crew following in a separate launch three days later — except that they were unable to actually enter the station, due to docking troubles. The first crew to actually enter the station got there months later (They arrived June 7), and stayed for 23 days, but celebrations were short-lived; the crew was killed during their return to Earth when their capsule depressurized due to a faulty valve. The three-man crew, Valdislav Volkov, Georgy Dobrovolsky and Viktor Patsayev, are the only humans to have died outside of the Earth’s atmosphere.

The Space Shuttle, First Reusable Spacecraft (1981)

With the launch of Columbia on Apr. 12, 1981 — a test flight that lasted 2 days, orbiting the Earth 57 times — NASA’s Space Shuttle program (officially referred to as the Space Transportation System, or STS) finally got off the ground in a big way. If the date of the Columbia’s launch sounds familiar, that’s intentional — the program was officially launched on the 20th anniversary of Yuri Gagarin’s journey into space. By the time the program ended in 2009, 135 missions had been flown, with five Shuttles having been built and sent into space during the almost 40-year period.

Voyager 1, First Man-Made Object to Leave the Solar System (2012)

On Aug. 25, 2012, Voyager 1 — a probe sent into space on Sep. 5, 1977 — left the heliosphere, the boundary separating our solar system from the rest of the galaxy. Surprisingly, NASA didn’t confirm this news until more than a year later, but the fact remains: this was the first man-made object to go beyond the edges of our solar system. It’s not quite traveling through a wormhole, but it’s the first time anything we have created has truly gone interstellar.

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