Famous Firsts in Space Travel and Exploration

With the launch of the world's first satellite, Sputnik, in 1957, the modern space age began, and countless space firsts followed. By the end of the next decade, the first manned space flight and the first people in space were already old news, and Russia and the United States had both developed space programs, launching a tense space race to be the first to land a man on the moon. The United States won that one with "one giant leap for mankind" in July 1969.

Since the historic Moon landing, there have been many more interstellar "firsts," as space travel and exploration have continued to push boundaries. Among the landmarks are the first reusable spacecraft, the first Mars landing, the first space telescope, the first space station, and, in July 2015, the first flyby of dwarf planet Pluto.

The space race may be over, and the first space flight is just another moment in history, but that doesn't mean mankind has stopped searching the skies. Peruse some of history's most notable space firsts below and let your imagination wander... perhaps to "a galaxy far, far away."

Photo: Everett Historical/Shutterstock

  • 1957 - First Satellite to Orbit Earth

    On October 4, 1957, the Soviet Union launched Sputnik, the world's first artificial satellite. This marked the beginning of the space race between the United States and the Soviet Union. 
  • 1957 - First Animal in Space

    The first animal from Earth to be launched into space was a female dog from Russia named Laika, who took flight in 1957. She lived for seven days inside Sputnik II, proving that living creatures could survive in space. Unfortnately, there was no way to bring Laika back to Earth, so she also became the first animal to die in space.
  • 1961 - First Human in Space

    Yuri Gagarin became the first human in space on April 12, 1961. There were some problems upon reentry, and Gagarin ejected from the Vostok 1 and parachuted to Earth.
  • 1961 - First American in Space

    Alan Shepard made a 15 minute, 28 second flight on board the Freedom 7 on May 5, 1961. Three weeks later, President John F. Kennedy vowed to send men to the moon and back by the end of the '60s.
  • 1961 - First Person to Spend Over a Day in Space

    Gherman Titov was the first person to hang out in space for longer than a day. Part of Vostok 2 in 1961, he was also the first person to sleep in space.
  • 1962 - First American to Orbit the Earth

    John Glenn circled the Earth three times in 4 hours and 56 minutes on February 20, 1962.