Space Firsts in Exploration History

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

Space exploration began back in the 1950s when the first rockets were sent to space. For more decades, the space agencies of the world have been lofting people, animals, plants, and more into space. Let's look at some of the many accomplishments — the "space firsts". 

The first Earthling in space:

Laika, a dog, was launched into space on the Sputnik 2 in 1957. She survived the launch and for a time in space, but 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:

Yuri Gagarin, a cosmonaut from the USSR, was launched into space on April 12, 1961 aboard the Vostok 1. His flight lasted one hour and forty-five minutes, orbiting the Earth one time. Describing the view of the Earth from space, Gagarin radioed, "It has a very beautiful sort of halo, a rainbow."

The first American in space:

Alan Shepard was launched into space aboard Mercury 3 on May 5, 1961 to become the first American in space. His craft did not achieve orbit, but rose to a height of 116 miles and traveled 303 miles before safely parachuting into the Atlantic Ocean.

The first American to orbit the Earth:

On February 20, 1962, the Friendship 7 capsule carried astronaut John Glenn around the Earth three times on a five-hour space flight.

He was the first American to orbit our planet.

The first woman in space:

Valentina Tereshkova flew in space aboard the Vostok 6 on June 16, 1963.

The first American woman in space:

On June 18, 1983, the space shuttle Challenger lifted off with Sally Ride aboard. She was the first American woman in space.

The youngest American in space:

Besides being the first American woman in space, Sally Ride was also the youngest American when she rode the Challenger in 1983.

The first person to make a second trip into space:

Gemini 3, the first piloted Gemini flight, included Virgil "Gus" Grissom among its crew as it lifted off in March of 1965. He had previously flown in space in July, 1961 aboard the second suborbital Mercury mission.

The first African-American in space:

August 30, 1983, the space shuttle Challenger lifted off with Guion "Guy" Bluford, Jr., the first African American in space.

The first African-American woman in space:

Mae Jemison lifted off in the space shuttle Endeavour on September 12, 1992, first African American woman in space.

The first space walk:

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 as he floated as far as 17.5 feet from his Voskhod 2 craft, enjoying the first space walk ever.

The first American to walk in space:

During the Gemini 4 mission, Ed White made a 21 minute EVA (Extra-Vehicular Activity), also known as a space walk.

The first American woman to pilot a spacecraft:

Eileen Collins piloted the space shuttle Discovery in 1995.

The first man on the moon:

With his famous words, "That's one small step for man, one giant leap for mankind." Neil Armstrong, on the Apollo 11 mission, stepped onto the Lunar surface on July 20, 1969, becoming the first man on the Moon.

The second human to step on the moon:

Armstrong's Apollo 11 crewmate, Buzz Aldrin, was the second person to step on the moon, also on July 20, 1969.

The first re-usable rocket:

Although both SpaceX and Blue Origins have been developing re-usable rockets to lift people and payloads to space, the first launch of a re-usable was made by Blue Origins on November 23, 2015. 

Edited and updated by Carolyn Collins Petersen.