The early era of space exploration was a battlefield between superpowers the United States and the Soviet Union.
The idea of exploring the space occurred to people as early as the 16th century when philosophers like Johannes Kepler and Galileo Galilee theorized the concept of space orbit and other fundamental laws of planetary motion.
However, no concrete developments regarding space explorations have been achieved until the 20th century. Basically, the early era of space explorations serve as a geopolitical arena between world super powers primarily the United States and the Soviet Union. However, the first man-made object to reach space was launched neither by the US nor the Soviet Union but rather by the Germans during the height of World War II.
The succeeding years saw an era of space travel dominated by the US and the Soviet Union. The first successful orbital launch was the unmanned Soviet spacecraft Sputnik I. The US countered with its own space launch, the Vanguard I. Unfortunately, the US’ first space launch was unsuccessful.
By the time the US had launched their first successful spacecraft, the Explorer I, the Soviets have already launched the first animal into orbit. A dog named Laika was sent into orbit in 1957 carried by the spacecraft Sputnik II. Unfortunately, Laika died while in orbit due to overheating. Nevertheless, Laika’s space flight paved the way for more ambitious space explorations.
Needless to say, the Soviets gathered valuable data during Laika’s flight specifically on how the body of a living organism will react while in space. Three years after Laika’s space voyage, the Soviets launched the first-manned spacecraft. Cosmonaut Yuri Gagarin became the first man in space. Gagarin orbited the earth in an hour and 48 minutes.
On the other hand, the US retaliated by sending the first American in space within a month of Gagarin’s amazing feat. The US launched Alan Sheperd’s Freedom 7 and later John Glen’s Friendship 7. Other astronauts and cosmonauts from the two countries followed. Soviet’s Valentina Tereshkova became the first woman in space in 1963 while several interplanetary missions were launched by the US.
On July 16, 1969, the US launched the Apollo 11 mission commandeered by Neil Armstrong. Five days later, on July 21, Armstrong and head pilot Buzz Aldrin became the first and second man to walk on the moon, respectively. It was a major accomplishment not only for the US but as also for the entire human race. Likewise, it represented a huge US victory over the Soviet Union.
Several other manned moon landings and unmanned interplanetary explorations were conducted during the 70s and early 80s. Space exploration took a dip in the US during the 90s as issues regarding the costs and benefits of space launch were raised. Meanwhile, several other countries including Japan and China joined the “space race,” successfully launching both manned and unmanned spaceflight programs.