The ability to send a human into space and return him to Earth safely is arguably one of mankind’s greatest achievements. From Russian scientist Konstantin Tsiolkovsky’s ground-breaking theoretical work in 1903 to NASA’s Space Shuttle program nearly 100 years later, the drive to explore continues to push the limits of science and ingenuity.
During the infancy of mankind’s quest to reach space, Russia was the standard-bearer, being the first country to successfully launch a satellite into orbit. The Russians later sent the world into a frenzy by sending the first human into space.
Yuri Gagarin entered the history books on April 12, 1961 when his Vostok I capsule reached space, orbited the Earth and returned safely. Nearly one month later U.S. astronaut Alan Shepard became the second person and the first American to reach space. It would be 40 years before another country would send a human into space. China achieved the feat in 2003 under its Shenzhou program.
The success of the early manned space flights set the stage for NASA’s Apollo missions which culminated with the first humans successfully landing on extraterrestrial terrain. On July 20, 1969 Neil Armstrong became the first person to set foot on a celestial body other than Earth when he walked on the Moon. Eleven men would follow in Armstrong’s footsteps over six missions.
After a brief down period following the Apollo missions, NASA re-entered the realm of human space flight with the Shuttle Program. This was the first time a spacecraft would be reusable. Instead of relying on capsules that would merely plummet back to Earth after their flight, the space shuttle could be piloted back, landed and re-launched.
Experts agree that having conquered orbit and the Moon, the next target destination for a human space flight is the planet Mars. Budgetary concerns, however, have delayed any plans for an undetermined period of time.