It’s easy to forget that our planet is just a tiny part of a huge cosmos, one that we can likely never fully explore. But there was a period from the 1950s to the 1970s when countries — chiefly Cold War rivals the United States and the Soviet Union — were locked in a race to discover as much as possible. This ranged from launching satellites into space to landing on the Moon. Indeed, the Space Race was a unique and special time in history, when people were not only filled with patriotism for their country’s ambitions, but with hope for the future and curiosity for what existed in space. Here, then, are 30 lesser-known facts about that battle for interplanetary supremacy.
1. Clever Cosmists
You’d be forgiven for presuming the space race started in the 1950s or early 1960s. But in actual fact, the desire to explore space went back much further, as far as the 1800s with the Russian Cosmists. These were a group of people who contemplated the origin of the human species and the cosmos itself, and longed to explore and learn about it. This movement inspired the scientist Konstantin Tsiolkovsky to figure out that outer space could be reached via liquid-propellant rockets, and the need for space suits. Wow!
2. Sputnik 1 starting point
The Space Race was effectively ignited by the Soviet Union on October 4, 1957, when it launched Sputnik 1 into the outer cosmos. This came as a surprise to the United States, which viewed itself as the world’s main superpower and its chief science and technology trailblazer. The U.S. attempted to strike back on December 5, 1957, but its Vanguard 1A satellite embarrassingly went up in flames live on TV. In an early example of trolling, the Soviet Union sarcastically offered technical assistance that was earmarked for developing third world nations. Not surprisingly, the U.S. refused.
3. Victorious Vanguard 1
One of the early successes of the United States’ space program was the successful launch of Vanguard 1, the second yet first effective satellite launched that entered space on March 17, 1958. Its mission was described by NASA as being “to test the launch capabilities of a three-stage launch vehicle and the effects of the environment on a satellite and its systems in Earth orbit.” The satellite was battery then solar-powered. Although all communication with it was lost in May 1964, it remains in space today, the oldest man-made satellite still in orbit which should be the case right into the next century.
4. Laika’s launch
A mere 30 days after the launch of Sputnik 1, the Soviet Union fired its successor Sputnik 2 into space. But this time it wasn’t a satellite but a spacecraft, and one that was carrying a dog named Laika. This female stray was plucked off the streets of Moscow, and made history by becoming the first living organism to go into orbit, on November 3, 1957. Sadly, despite initial Soviet propaganda claiming she survived up in space for a week, we now know the heroic mongrel died a few hours after the launch from overheating.
5. Cosmonaut or astronaut?
Here’s an interesting aspect of the Space Race you might not know about. It serves to highlight the nationalistic aspect of the battle for supremacy in space, and suggests there wasn’t a great deal of love lost between the competitors. So, the Soviet Union, United States, and China all have different names for their space travelers. The Soviets — and now the Russians — have historically used the term cosmonaut — that is, “cosmos sailor” — whilst the United States has termed their equivalent astronaut — basically “star sailor.” Even the Chinese have their own term, either yuhangyuan — “space navigator” — or taikonaut – “space sailor.”
6. Explorer 1 excitement
The United States’ space program effectively began in earnest on January 31, 1958, with the successful launch of Explorer 1 into space. The launch of this satellite — the first American built one to go into orbit — came at a time of massive Cold War tension; the U.S. government was desperate to catch and then surpass the Soviet Union after their successful Sputnik 1 and 2 launches. Explorer 1 clawed back some American pride, and the scientific equipment on board led to the discovery of a radiation belt that was duly named after physicist James Van Allen.
7. Luna 1 launch
Any idea what the first spacecraft to reach the Moon’s immediate orbit was? No? Well, The answer is the Soviet Union’s Luna 1. Launched on January 2, 1959, its main objectives included measuring the temperature and pressure inside the vehicle whilst in the Moon’s orbit, as well as studying the magnetic fields of the Earth and Moon, amongst other things. It was a success, and led to a bunch of other numbered Luna missions, including Luna 2, the first human-built object to land on the Moon’s surface, and Luna 3, which captured 70 percent of the Moon’s surface in photographic form.
8. TIROS-1 triumph
On April 1, 1960, NASA launched TIROS-1 from Cape Canaveral, Florida, to try and get the upper hand on the Soviet Union in the Space Race. Indeed, the TIROS-1 weather satellite was one of the turning points in making the U.S. more competitive in the cosmic fight. In operation for 78 days, it was the first successful satellite of its kind and recorded one of the first TV images of Earth from space. There were numerous successors to this important satellite, which was used to study the Earth and pioneered accurate meteorological weather forecasts.
9. Gagarin the Great
The biggest success in the early years of the Space Race undoubtedly came on April 12, 1961, when the Soviet Union succeeded in launching a man into the cosmos aboard Vostok 1. That man was, of course, Yuri Gagarin, and he became a household name and Soviet hero almost instantly. His space flight orbited the Earth once, lasting one hour, 48 minutes. He then landed safely in Saratov Oblast in western Russia. But despite the Cold War tensions, Gagarin remarked on radio, “Orbiting Earth in the spaceship, I saw how beautiful our planet is. People, let us preserve and increase this beauty, not destroy it!”
10. Rather revolting ritual
One of the weirdest things that emerged from Gagarin’s successful foray into space was this rather yucky incident that would go on to become a spaceman’s ritual. When Gagarin was making his way to the launch pad on April 12, 1961, by bus, he told the driver to stop so he could, ahem, drain the main vein. The cosmonaut did so over the right-hand tire at the rear of the bus. Because of Gagarin’s safe and historic journey into space, this somehow became a good luck ritual, that male astronauts and cosmonauts still follow to this day. Even female space travelers have got involved, bringing urine vials to splash on that wheel. Yuck!
11. The magnificent Mercury Seven
The United States launched its Mercury program in May 1961, and the astronauts who manned those spaceflights became known as the Mercury Seven. These beloved American astronauts were Alan Shepard, John Glenn, Gus Grissom, Wally Schirra, Scott Carpenter, Gordon Cooper, and Deke Slayton. They became a great source of pride in the United States during the heat of the Space Race battle, particularly Shepard who became the first American to venture into space, only a few weeks after Gagarin. Glenn took the title of oldest person in space in October 1998, when he ventured up there at the age of 77.
12. First female in space
On June 16, 1963, the Soviet Union made history by launching Valentina Tereshkova into space on board the Vostok 6 spacecraft. Not even a cosmonaut but a mere cotton mill worker, Tereshkova became the first woman and civilian to visit the cosmos. She orbited the Earth 48 times over three days on Vostok 6. The space traveling of Tereshkova contrasted sharply with the United States, whose space program had been dominated by white males up to then. Indeed, it wouldn’t be until 1983 that Sally Ride became the first American female to venture into space — exactly 20 years and two days on from Tereshkova.
13. Space Race = Arms Race
The Space Race between the Soviet Union and the United States was, sadly, not merely a friendly rivalry to push the boundaries of human exploration of our planet and solar system. No, sadly it was a major part of the ugly ideological battle known as the Cold War. The race to build rockets owed as much to military confrontation as it did exploration. Both countries were developing dual-use rockets, where the space capsule could easily be replaced by a warhead to become an intercontinental ballistic missile. Indeed, the Soviet’s early success with rockets worried President Eisenhower, who feared an attack. This was one of the reasons the U.S. went all-in on the Space Race.
14. Spacewalking into the history books
Looking to push the boundaries of the Space Race even further, in the mid 1960s the Soviet Union developed a pressurized spacesuit and a multi-person spacecraft. Both were the first of their kind. On March 18, 1965, the Voskhod 2 mission was launched in which Alexei Leonov became the first human to free-float in space. His 10-minute walk outside the spacecraft became legendary, but almost led to his death. His overly pressurized space suit almost became too big for him to re-enter Voskhod 2, but he bled enough oxygen out to dramatically climb back on board. Leonov said the spacewalk made him feel “like a seagull with its wings outstretched, soaring high above the Earth.” Cool!
15. Successful soft-landing
Another Soviet victory in the Space Race was the soft-landing of Luna 9 on the Moon. This occurred on February 3, 1966, three days after the spacecraft had left the Baikonur Cosmodrome. Luna 9 was able to send photographic data to Earth from the Moon, and it proved the surface was hard and not a loose layer of dust. President Lyndon Johnson congratulated his counterpart Leonid Brezhnev and the Soviet Union’s people on Luna 9’s success in a letter, writing, “your accomplishment is one that can benefit all mankind.” The U.S. then responded with its own Surveyor 1 four months later.
16. African entry
In 1964 the Space Race took an unusual twist. An African country made significant noise about entering the fray, that country being Zambia. Yes, believe it or not the south-central African state announced its intention to land a man on the Moon in 1964. The Zambian space program was run by a schoolteacher named Edward Mukuka Nkoloso. He drafted 12 prospective space travelers for a Moon landing, but there was a serious lack of funding and the training — which involved rolling around in a large drum — left little to be desired. Soon, most observers decided it was all a big joke.
17. Historic probes
Though a lot of the Space Race seemed to be focused around landing on the Moon, the intergalactic battle for supremacy also extended to other planets. For instance, some of the Soviet Union’s Venera probes were historic in discovering information about Venus. In 1967 Venera 4 learned that Venus was mostly composed of carbon dioxide, and it earned the accolade of being the first man-made device to reach the atmosphere of another planet. Venera 7 went further, making a soft-landing on the planet in December 1970, the first planetary landing besides the Moon.
18. Playground propaganda
The Space Race captured the imagination of millions in both the United States and the Soviet Union, not least children. In actual fact, both countries began to design playgrounds at schools and parks in an attempt to fuel their curiosity in space and traveling there. These playgrounds often had rocket-shaped slides, along with towers and planet- and satellite-shaped rides. Given the intense Cold War rivalry, it could be argued that this attempt to inspire interest in the Space Race amounted to outright propaganda. Anyway, by 1973 these playgrounds began to be dismantled or altered on account of an act passed in Congress regarding Consumer Product Safety.
19. Deadliest year
When you think about it, the Space Race involved achieving a lot of firsts for mankind — from journeying into space to landing on the Moon. So given how difficult these things were to achieve — and the unknown aspect of it all — it’s natural that there was huge danger involved for the astronauts and cosmonauts, plus the animals that preceded them. The year 1967 was a case in point, with the January Apollo 1 test launch fire killing American astronauts Ed White, Gus Grissom, and Roger Chaffee. On the Soviet side, cosmonaut Vladimir Komarov died a few months later when the Soyuz 1 capsule’s parachutes failed to open correctly as the spacecraft re-entered Earth’s atmosphere.
20. Sinister Soviet sabotage scheme
Now, you’ve probably heard about the United States’ notorious A119 project to blow up the Moon with a nuclear missile. What you might not know is that the Soviet Union harbored similar sinister intentions. Yes, the secretive “E-Project,” the brainchild of two mad Soviet scientists named Pavlovich Korolev and Mstislav Vsyevolodovich Keldysh, involved four stages. The first being to land on the Moon, the second and third orbiting around and photographing its surface in detail, and the fourth to blow it to smithereens. All to prove to the world the Soviet Union got there first and to illustrate its military strength. But they realized a mushroom cloud wouldn’t form in that atmosphere and decided not to pursue it. Madness!
21. Comical capsule naming
Ever wondered why the two-man Gemini 3 capsule that carried astronauts Gus Grissom and John Young in 1965 was nicknamed Molly Brown? Turns out it was an in-joke sparked from Grissom, who had manned a spacecraft called Liberty Bell 7 in 1961 that sank deep into the ocean soon after its splashdown. After NASA blocked his attempt to jokingly call Gemini 3 the Titanic, Grissom and the agency mutually decided on Molly Brown, after the iconic Titanic survivor nicknamed “The Unsinkable.” Gemini 3 was Project Gemini’s first manned spacecraft that was devised to pioneer long-duration missions, docking between two space vehicles, and external spacewalking.
22. Aldrin misses out
Almost everyone on the planet knows that Neil Armstrong was the first man to walk on the Moon. But they might not know that it could, and likely would, have been Buzz Aldrin, if not for a minor spacecraft change. Yes, Apollo 11 had altered something from its Gemini predecessor — the door had been moved to the left side of the spacecraft. Aldrin sat on the right-hand side. So, when Apollo 11 successfully landed on the Moon, it was module commander Armstrong who got to disembark first, as he sat on the left. Interesting!
23. Cold War cooperation
As we’ve established, the Space Race was a fiercely competitive arms and science battle between two sworn adversaries. But as strongly opposed as the United States and the Soviet Union were ideologically, they very occasionally saw the benefit of cooperating. The first occasion on which they did this in space was in 1969. The Soviets released the flight path of their unmanned spacecraft Luna 15 to help the American Apollo 11 mission that was on course for landing on the Moon avoid unwanted contact with it. But it would ultimately be immaterial, as the Soviet spacecraft crashed before Apollo 11 had even taken off.
24. Teeing off on the Moon
The United States’ Apollo 14 mission was notable for a few reasons. It was the final H mission and the first of its kind to land in the lunar highlands. But most notably, it was the mission in which sport was played on the Moon for the first time. Yes, astronaut Alan Shepard — who became the oldest man on the Moon at that time — brought a golf club with him, and he hit a couple of drives. He famously joked that the second drive he hit went for “miles and miles and miles.” To be fair, it would have to, if he was to ever find the green.
25. Ten more moonwalks
As you will surely know — unless you’ve been living under a rock for 50 years, that is — Neil Armstrong and Buzz Aldrin were the first humans to set foot on the Moon during the successful 1969 Apollo 11 landing by the United States. What you might not be aware of, though, is that there were ten people who followed them. They include Apollo 12’s Pete Conrad and Alan Bean, Apollo 14’s Alan Shepard and Edgar Mitchell, Apollo 15’s James Irwin, Apollo 16’s John Young and Charles Duke, and Apollo 17’s Eugene Cernan and Harrison Schmitt.
26. Frightening bolt of lightning
The Apollo 12 mission by the United States culminated in astronauts Pete Conrad and Alan Bean becoming the third and fourth men to walk on the Moon. But the mission was almost over before it had even started, as Apollo 12 was frighteningly struck twice by lightning before lift-off. “What the hell was that?” shouted Command Module Pilot Dick Gordon upon the first lightning strike, which disabled the spacecraft’s power and guidance systems temporarily. After the near-miss, Conrad, upon landing on the Moon days later, joked, “Man, that may have been a small one for Neil, but that’s a long one for me.”
27. Two flights, no landing
Imagine traveling all the way to the Moon twice but never landing on it. That’s the experience Jim Lovell had. Yes, the American astronaut — who was memorably portrayed by Tom Hanks in the 1995 movie Apollo 13 — first voyaged to the planet aboard Apollo 8 in December 1968, as part of the earliest crew to orbit the Moon. His second trip there two years later, though, was notoriously troublesome, as the Apollo 13 spacecraft suffered massive internal damage and the mission was aborted. A struggle to land safely back on Earth ensued. Lovell told the Associated Press in 1995 that not landing on the Moon “is my one regret.”
28. The (last) man on the Moon
The first man to walk on the Moon was always going to be the most famous. Neil Armstrong enjoyed that fame, but what about the last man to do it to date? You might not have heard of him, but his name was Eugene Cernan. He was a part of the Apollo 17 Moon mission in December 1972, along with his colleague Harrison Schmitt. Technically, Schmitt was the most recent human to step onto the Moon, but it was Eugene Cernan who clambered back on board Apollo 17 last, so he currently holds the distinction of being the last man to walk on the Earth-orbiting natural satellite.
29. Lonely Collins
American astronaut Michael Collins was labeled the “the loneliest man in history” by the U.S. press after the Apollo 11 Moon landings that saw his colleagues Neil Armstrong and Buzz Aldrin walk on the Moon. Collins was cut off from radio control as he orbited the planet, and observed how isolated from the human race he was at that moment in his notebook. But in reality his main concern was that Armstrong and Aldrin would get back on board safely and he wouldn’t have to travel back to Earth on his own, forced to abandon his colleagues. On the loneliest man stuff, Collins later remarked, “I thought that was ridiculous.”
30. Stench of the Moon
One thing space travelers who landed on the Moon agreed on was that the Moon stinks. Aldrin wrote in his book Magnificent Desolation: The Long Journey Home from the Moon that he and Armstrong were covered in lunar dust when they got back in their lander, and that there was “a pungent metallic smell, something like gunpowder, or the smell in the air after a firecracker has gone off.” He reiterated this in a 2015 Space.com interview, saying it smelt “like burnt charcoal, or similar to the ashes that are in a fireplace, especially if you sprinkle a little water on them.”