The Soviet Union’s 1957 launch of the Sputnik 1 satellite during the Cold War is regarded as the start of man’s space exploration era, or the so-called “Race to Space”. Radio beeps from an 80-kilogram beach ball-sized spherical device with four antennas sent waves of what would later be dubbed “Sputnik Shock” by western scientists and politicians, after it proved to be the successful launch of the world’s first artificial Earth satellite.
Sputnik 1’s launch on 4 October 1957 bettered a 1955 announcement by President Dwight D Eisenhower of the United States’ intention to develop and launch the first such satellite, with Explorer 1 going into orbit months later on 31 January 1958. The USSR, in its highly ideological competition in rocket and space technology, trumped the US yet again in sending the first human into space: Yuri Gagarin orbited the earth on 12 April 1961 in the Vostok 1 capsule, three weeks ahead of Nasa astronaut Alan Shepard in his Freedom 7 capsule on 5 May 1961 as part of Project Mercury. Shortly afterwards, President John F Kennedy announced a new goal: “landing a man on the moon and returning him safely to Earth”.
In the meantime, the Cold War rivals continued to launch several exploration probes and various manned missions mostly orbiting Earth. The experience from their Mercury and Gemini programmes along with a dedicated project management allowed Nasa to gather scientists and industrial resources to develop the technology it needed to meet the challenging goal of embarking on a manned lunar mission. A team of engineers, including Nasa’s German-born Wernher von Braun who had worked on Nazi Germany’s rocket programme, built the powerful three-stage Saturn V rocket capable of launching the Apollo spacecraft.
The USSR’s hopes of keeping pace in the increasingly expensive race to the moon were shattered when their comparable N1 rockets exploded on their launch pads. Finally, on 21 July 1969, Nasa’s Apollo 11 mission manned by Neil Armstrong, Buzz Aldrin and Michael Collins opened a new chapter in man’s relationship with space: Armstrong became the first person ever to step on the moon.
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