Space First: From Space Dogs to a Tesla

Armstrong & Aldrin With Flag on Moon - Space Firsts - Space Basics - Firsts In Space exploration
Armstrong & Aldrin With Flag on Moon. NASA

Even though space exploration has been a "thing" since the late 1950s, astronomers and astronauts continue to explore the "firsts." For example, on February 6, 2018, Elon Musk and SpaceX launched the first Tesla into space. The company did this as part of the first test flight of its Falcon Heavy rocket. 

Both SpaceX and rival company Blue Origins have been developing reusable rockets to lift people and payloads to space. Blue Origins made the first launch of a reusable on November 23, 2015. Since that time, reusables have proven themselves to be stalwart members of the launch inventory.

In the not-too-distant future, other first-time space events will happen, ranging from missions to the Moon to missions to Mars. Each time a mission flies, there's a first time for something. That was especially true back in the 1950s and '60s when the rush to the Moon was heating up between the United States and the then-Soviet Union. Ever since then, the space agencies of the world have been lofting people, animals, plants, and more into space.

The First Canine Astronaut in Space

Before people could go to space, space agencies tested animals. Monkeys, fish, and small animals were sent first. America had Ham the Chimp. Russia had the famous dog Laika, the first canine astronaut. She was launched into space on the Sputnik 2 in 1957. She survived for a time in space. However, after a week, the air ran out and Laika died. The following year, as its orbit deteriorated, the craft left space and re-entered the Earth's atmosphere and, without heat shields, burned up, along with Laika's body.

The First Human in Space

The flight of Yuri Gagarin, a cosmonaut from the USSR, came as a complete surprise to the world, much to the pride and joy of the former Soviet Union. He was launched into space on April 12, 1961, aboard the Vostok 1. It was a short flight, only an hour and 45 minutes. During his single orbit of Earth,  Gagarin admired our planet and radioed home, "It has a very beautiful sort of halo, a rainbow."

The First American in Space

Not to be outdone, the United States worked to get their astronaut into space. The first American to fly was Alan Shepard, and he took his ride aboard Mercury 3 on May 5, 1961. Unlike Gagarin, however, his craft did not achieve orbit. Instead, Shepard took a suborbital trip, rising to a height of 116 miles and traveling 303 miles "down range" before parachuting safely into the Atlantic Ocean.

The First American to Orbit Earth

NASA took its time with its manned space program, making baby steps along the way. For example, the first American to orbit Earth didn't fly until 1962. On February 20, the Friendship 7 capsule carried astronaut John Glenn around our planet three times on a five-hour space flight. He was the first American to orbit our planet and subsequently became the oldest person to fly in space when he roared to orbit aboard the space shuttle Discovery. 

The First Women's Achievements in Space

The early space programs were heavily male-oriented, and women were prevented from flying to space aboard U.S. missions until  1983. The honor of being the first woman to achieve orbit belongs to the Russian Valentina Tereshkova. She flew to space aboard Vostok 6 on June 16, 1963. Tereshkova was followed 19 years later by the second woman in space, aviator Svetlana Savitskaya, who blasted off to space aboard Soyuz T-7 in 1982. At the time of Sally Ride's trip aboard the U.S. space shuttle Challenger on June 18, 1983, she was also the youngest American to go to space. In 1993, Commander Eileen Collins became the first woman to fly a mission as pilot aboard the space shuttle Discovery.

The First African-Americans in Space

It took a long time for space to begin to integrate. Just as women had to wait a while to fly, so did qualified black astronauts. On August 30, 1983, the space shuttle Challenger lifted off with Guion "Guy" Bluford Jr., who became the first African-American in space. Nine years later, Dr. Mae Jemison lifted off in the space shuttle Endeavour on September 12, 1992. She became the first African-American woman astronaut to fly.

The First Space Walks

Once people get to space, they have to perform a variety of tasks onboard their craft. For some missions, space-walking is important, so both the U.S. and Soviet Union set out to train their astronauts in working outside the capsules. Alexei Leonov, a Soviet cosmonaut, was the first person to step outside of his spacecraft while in space, on March 18, 1965. He spent 12 minutes floating as far as 17.5 feet from his Voskhod 2 craft, enjoying the first spacewalk ever. Ed White made a 21-minute EVA (Extra-Vehicular Activity) during his Gemini 4 mission, becoming the first U.S. astronaut to float out the door of a spacecraft. 

The First Human on the Moon

Most people who were alive at the time remember where they were when they heard astronaut Neil Armstrong utter the famous words, "That's one small step for man, one giant leap for mankind." He, Buzz Aldrin, and Michael Collins flew to the Moon on the Apollo 11 mission. He was the first to step out onto the lunar surface, on July 20, 1969. His crewmate, Buzz Aldrin, was the second one. Buzz now boasts of the event by telling people, "I was the second man on the moon, Neil before me." 

Edited and updated by Carolyn Collins Petersen.