The History of Space Flight

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A Brief History

Anyone who was alive a few decades ago will remember the excitement around the space race. As a key part of the history of the Cold War, the space race was a prime example of countries competing to get there first – even when ‘there’ was the surface of the moon. The US managed to achieve this goal in 1969, with Neil Armstrong’s famous “one small step for mankind” marking a key moment in both human and space history.

These days, space flight is different. The desire to get to the moon has faded, and now all that remains is talk of returning to the satellite that circles around the Earth – or, indeed, going further and reaching other planets. In the consumer age, there is also the tourist element to consider, and charities such as Space for Humanity are offering to fund thousands of people’s space flights. But where does this fit into a history of space flight, and how does what went before during the space race affect where the world of space flight might go next?

Digging Deeper

Early beginnings

Space flight became a real area of focus for governments and researchers in the aftermath of the Second World War, when it became clear that two of the Allies during the war – the US and the Soviet Union – were about to go down different paths and become rivals. It was also fueled by the realization that some of the same technology and science used for ballistic missiles could be also used for space flight.

From there onwards, space flight was something of a tit-for-tat situation. At first, it appeared that the Soviet Union was winning. In April 1961, for example, a Russian officer named Yuri Gagarin achieved the incredible feat of being the first person to orbit the planet. Famously, he used a spacecraft called Vostok 1 for this purpose, and he managed to go higher than 200 miles into space on his 100-plus minute flight. It was not until 1962 that John Glenn manage to achieve the same feat on behalf of the US. 

The moon landings

In the midst of the Cold War, however, the primary aim for the relevant world leaders was to reach the moon. In 1961, the same year that Gagarin managed to get into space, US President John F. Kennedy announced that “Landing a man on the moon and returning him safely to Earth within a decade” was his ambition – and, although he would not be alive to see it, the goal was indeed reached.

In July 1969, Neil Armstrong – an American – became the first person to walk on the moon, and many more missions known as the Apollo missions occurred in the years afterwards. In what is perhaps a sign of which side was ultimately victorious in the space race, the Soviet Union never managed to land a person on the moon despite the importance that this milestone would have held.

What is next for space flight?

By the 1980s, however, interest from national governments in space and its potential appeared to have waned, and other priorities became apparent. The end of the Cold War and the fall of the Soviet Union, meanwhile, also had a profound effect – and both sides appeared to move away from the desire to reach the moon, or, indeed, further. It is interesting to consider what might have happened had the Cold War not ended: the space race may have intensified, or focus may have shifted towards more earthly ways of ‘cold’ combat such as information warfare. Either way, it is certainly off the cards for most world leaders in the modern age.

These days, it is mostly people in the private and non-profit sectors who are doing most of the space-related innovation. Dylan Taylor, who runs Voyager Space Holdings, is one such person who is attempting to advocate on behalf of space. He also runs Space for Humanity, a non-profit that is endeavoring to give thousands of people an opportunity to reach space.

Space tourism, as it is known, is quickly becoming a thriving sector – and thanks to the work of non-profits and others, it may even become possible for those without the means to pay for a space flight to still experience what space has to offer.

Space flight is a weird and wonderful world, and it’s clearly a universe that holds appeal to many people. From US presidents to rich tourists, space flight has and does appeal to many people. The future of space flight, however, is just as important as its history. With some organizations now suggesting that thousands of people could make it into space within the lifetimes of those around today, it will be fascinating to see what the next chapter of the story of space flight will hold.

Question for students (and subscribers): What do you consider mankind’s greatest achievement with regards to space exploration?  Please let us know in the comments section below this article.

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Historical Evidence

For more information, please see…

Launius, Roger D.  The Smithsonian History of Space Exploration: From the Ancient World to the Extraterrestrial Future.  Smithsonian Books, 2018.

The featured image in this article, NASA photograph As11-40-5886 of Neil Armstrong working at the LM in the only photograph taken of him on the Moon from the surface, is in the public domain in the United States, because it was solely created by NASA.  NASA copyright policy states that “NASA material is not protected by copyright unless noted“. (See Template:PD-USGovNASA copyright policy page or JPL Image Use Policy.)


About Author

Abdul Alhazred

“But I don’t want to go among mad people," Alice remarked. "Oh, you can’t help that," said the Cat: "we’re all mad here. I’m mad. You’re mad." "How do you know I’m mad?" said Alice. "You must be," said the Cat, "or you wouldn’t have come here.” ― Lewis Carroll, Alice in Wonderland