From taking a walk to taking a photograph to just going to the bathroom, doing anything in outer space can be immeasurably more challenging than doing so in Earth’s orbit.
Using a combination of news, government, and other archival reports, Stacker compiled a list of 50 historic firsts in space. Although the idea of galaxies beyond the Earth’s atmosphere has long entranced human beings, it wasn’t until the second half of the 20th century that space flight became a reality, enabling humans to see beyond the Earth—and, in the case of the first photographs taken of the Earth—to see the Earth itself.
We tend to think of the middle-to-end of the 20th century as a time when many of the firsts in space occurred, and this is for good reason. The Cold War between the United States and the Soviet Union was a major factor influencing the proliferation of space activity. Both countries competed for dominance in outer space, and many of the firsts achieved in space were due to the desire of both countries to be “the first.” When the Cold War ebbed late in the century, there was less incentive for either country to out-rocket the other.
But humans’ fascination with space did not end there. Just because the space race is over, this doesn’t mean there is any less of a desire for people to explore the cosmos. An early silent film at the turn of the 20th century depicted space travel, which more than a century later has become a reality, with millionaires and billionaires booking tickets into orbit.
Keep reading for a comprehensive retrospective of famous firsts in space, including learning about the United Kingdom’s first astronaut, finding out which insect was the first to space, and meeting the planet’s first space tourist.
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The first space movie is widely considered to be 1902’s “Le Voyage dans la Lune.” The film depicts a journey to the moon by a group of astronomers.
The first insects to travel to space aboard a manmade ship made the journey in 1947. A group of fruit flies aboard the American V-2 rocket reached an altitude of 108 kilometers and made it back into the Earth’s orbit alive.
The first monkey was sent to space in 1948, a male rhesus monkey named Albert. Sadly, he did not reach space (which is officially 100 kilometers from the Earth's surface), and he died at some point in the journey. He was followed a year later by a monkey named Albert II, who made it to space, but did not make it back alive.
[Pictured: Monkey Baker with a Model Jupiter Vehicle on May 29, 1959.]
The United States’ first man-in-space program was launched in 1958. The so-called Project Mercury had the goals of orbiting a manned spacecraft around Earth and research man’s ability to function in space. The project made six manned flights between 1961 and 1963.
The first American astronauts were introduced in 1959. Members of the group were finalists from a competitive vetting process than began with over 500 candidates. These “Original Seven” were eventually called the “Mercury Seven” after the name of the American space project—the Mercury Program.
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The Soviet Union beat the United States in the space race in 1961 by sending the world’s first person to space. Yuri Gagarin became an international celebrity after his return and toured the world promoting his achievement on behalf of the Soviets.
Alan Shepard became the first American in space less than a month after Soviet Yuri Gagarin became the first person in space. Shepard’s May 5 journey lasted just over 15 minutes.
In contrast to the much-shorter flights that had occurred earlier that year, the Soviet astronaut Gherman S. Titov’s August 1961 flight lasted more than 25 hours. Titov thus also became the first person to sleep in space—and the first person to experience “space sickness.”
John Glenn became the first American to orbit the Earth in 1962. Glenn was a member of the Mercury 7, and circled the globe three times in less than five hours, concluding with a splashdown and recovery in the Atlantic Ocean.
France was responsible for the first cat in space, who set out in 1963. The cat Felicette was part of a group of 14 cats trained for space travel. Her journey lasted 15 minutes, and she returned to Earth unharmed.
Three Soviet astronauts became the first in space without spacesuits in 1964. The three men’s aircraft had not been designed for a crowd, so the suits being left behind was a matter of saving space, which turned out to set a world precedent.
The Soviet astronaut Alexei Leonov was the first person to walk in space in March 1965. Leonov’s first words on exiting his spacecraft and catching view of the Earth was: “The Earth is round!” Decades later, he has said that what remains imprinted on his memory is “the extraordinary silence.”
Almost three months after Alexei Leonov took the first spacewalk, American Ed White became the first American to walk in space in 1965. White’s walk lasted approximately 20 minutes. Sadly, he would perish in the tragic Apollo mission two years later.
On March 16, 1966, a staffed spacecraft made its first docking exchange in space. The Gemini VIII spacecraft—manned by the American astronaut Neil Armstrong—linked up with the unmanned Agena target vehicle, marking the first time that two spacecraft linked together outside Earth’s orbit.
The first photograph of the Earth was taken from the moon’s orbit on Aug. 23, 1966, by a NASA shuttle. Earlier photographs taken from space had captured only parts of the Earth, while the 1966 photo managed to get the whole globe in the shot.
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The far side of the moon is the hemisphere of the moon that faces the opposite direction away from the Earth. In 1968, the Apollo 8 crew saw this side of the moon and became the first humans to have ever done so. “It’s a beautiful, beautiful view,” one of the crew transmitted back to mission control on Dec. 22, 1968.
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In the week of Oct. 11, 1969, the Soviet Union sent three spacecrafts with a total of seven men into space. This was the largest number of spacecraft and crew that had ever been in space simultaneously.
The American Neil Armstrong became the first man on the moon in 1969. He and Buzz Aldrin walked around the moon for 2.5 hours, exploring and collecting samples before returning to Earth with Michael Collins, who had stayed in orbit while his co-astronauts walked.
In 1969, the American astronaut Buzz Aldrin claimed his place in space history. Aldrin became the first man to pee on the moon this year. What’s more, he did so on live television.
In a tragic space first, three Soviet astronauts—Georgi Dobrovolsky, Vladislav Volkov, and Viktor Patsayev—became the first to perish in space on June 30, 1971. A broken breathing valve caused a drop in pressure inside their spacecraft, asphyxiating them within seconds.
The American astronaut Alan Shepard was first to use the moon as a driving range on Feb. 6, 1971. His game of choice? Golf. To this day, Shepard, who estimates he hit the ball about 200 yards, remains the only person to play golf on the moon.
The Soviet Soyuz 11 became the first spacecraft to link with a space station in space in 1971 when it connected with the Soviet space station Salyut 1. Tragically, the Soyuz 11 would not return to Earth—all three astronauts on board would die due to a loss of pressurization in the spacecraft.
NASA launched the world’s first skylab in 1973. Three crews visited over the course of the next two years, as massive amounts of outer space data were transmitted back to mission control in Houston.
The United States and the Soviet Union had been locked in a space race for decades, so it came as a welcome joint venture in 1975 when the two nations teamed up for the first international manned spaceflight. An American Apollo spacecraft met up with a Soviet Soyuz, and their crews performed several experiments together.
Arguably the most famous space film series was launched in 1977. The first "Star Wars" film “A New Hope” was a smash hit with audiences everywhere, taking place in a galaxy “far far away.”
Arnaldo Tamayo Mendez became the first Black astronaut in space in 1980. Mendez was part of a Soviet program to fly non-Soviet astronauts aboard in Soviet spacecraft.
The first space shuttle—the Columbia—reached orbit in 1981. Columbia would go on to take dozens of astronauts to space over the next two decades.
Sally Ride became the first American woman in space in 1983. Ride’s milestone would turn her into an immortal icon, with a Barbie doll aiming to prove to young girls that they, too, could grow up to go to space.
Guion S. Bluford was the first African American to go to space in 1983. Bluford would make a total of four space trips and is recognized in the International Space Hall of Fame.
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In 1984, Svetlana Savitskaya became the first Soviet woman to walk in space. The context of her walk was participating in welding experiments on the space station’s outer hull. She was also the first person to weld in space alongside Vladimir Dzhanibekov.
[Pictured: Soviet Presidium Konstantin Chernenko presenting an award to Svetlana Savitskaya.]
Bruce McCandless became the first person to break free from the tether connecting him to the Challenger Space Shuttle on Feb. 7, 1984. McCandless then took an instantly-iconic “walk” on the moon, in which he actually floated in space.
India was the next nation to follow Russia and the United States in sending astronauts to space. The country sent its first on April 2, 1984, when Rakesh Sharma launched into space—albeit aboard a Soviet shuttle.
The Saudi Sultan bin Salman Al-Saud became the first royal in space in 1985. But he was no mere tourist; as a member of the Saudi Air Force, he had 1,000 hours of flight experience when he joined NASA’s Discovery mission in 1985.
In 1988, Discovery became the first space shuttle to take off after the Challenger disaster that occurred 32 months prior on Jan. 28, 1986. The Challenger exploded on takeoff, killing all seven aboard, and halting the American space program for a time.
The first probe was launched from the shuttle Magellan in 1989. The probe was in Venus’ orbit and was also the first to take images of Venus’ entire surface.
Chemist Helen Sharman was the first British astronaut and the first woman visitor to the Mir space station in 1991. In January 2020, Sharman claimed aliens existed and could be on Earth right now. Almost a quarter-century after Sharman’s trip to space, Tim Peake—a member of Europe’s NASA equivalent, the ESA—was the first astronaut to sent to space under the European Space Agency.
[Pictured: Helen Sharman attends an event to mark 25 years since her space mission.]
In the middle of a spacewalk, three astronauts came across an unexpected sight in 1992: an errant satellite. Using only their gloved hands, the trio reached out to capture the orbiting satellite, becoming the first-ever to do so.
A sign that the Cold War had finally ended was that the first American boarded a Soviet spaceship in 1995. Norman E. Thagard conducted research with Russian cosmonauts for 115 days aboard the Mir.
In another sign of Cold War tensions fading into geopolitical history, the American space station Atlantis and the Russian space station Mir had their first meetup in space in 1995. The two together weighed nearly 500,000 pounds.
Shannon W. Lucid became the first American woman to serve on the Russian space station Mir in 1996. Another of Lucid’s claims to fame? She is the only American woman ever to have done so.
The first crew boarded the International Space Station in 2000. The crew was made up of a combination of American and Russian cosmonauts.
The world’s first space tourist, Dennis Tito, made the trip in 2001. The American millionaire paid to board a Russian spacecraft headed for the International Space Station.
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The first space railway, the Mobile Base System, was launched in 2002. It launched on the space shuttle Endeavor.
Yuri Malenchenko became the first man to marry in space in 2003. The bride was still in Texas, and the ceremony was performed over video conference.
Running a marathon on Earth is hard enough. But in 2007, astronaut Sunita Williams completed the first marathon in space, running the Boston Marathon in less than 4.5 hours.
SpaceX made the first commercial visit to the International Space Station in 2012. The company was under contract with NASA to provide supplies to the station.