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This picture was taken on March 6, 1969. It shows the Apollo 9 commander, James McDivitt, aboard the command module.
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Courtesy of NASA

History of Human Spaceflight

It was not long after the first space satellites were launched that we succeeded in getting a human being into space. These first astronauts and cosmonauts (the Russian word for astronaut) were test pilots who were very familiar with flying in fast and dangerous planes! The first human being to travel into space was Yuri Gagarin (USSR, 1961), followed a month later by the US astronaut Alan Shepard.

Once we found out that humans could travel in space, a "space race" quickly developed between the United States and the Soviet Union. The United States main interest was to land on the moon. The Soviet Union was more interested in setting endurance records and doing scientific research.

The United States was upset that the Soviets always seemed to be first in everything in the space program. Therefore, the U.S. made the goal to land on the moon...first. In 1961, President Kennedy made a famous speech in which he challenged the country to land an astronaut on the moon and safely return him to the Earth by the end of the decade. Through a sequence of human spaceflight and robotic space mission programs, including Mercury, Gemini, and Apollo, the United States finally succeeded in landing the first people on the Moon in 1969 with Apollo 11!

After the United States' success of landing on the moon, the government became disinterested in the space program. Fewer missions were planned and the space program became more science-based. NASA started hiring scientists instead of fighter pilots into the astronaut program. In 1973, the first American space lab was shot into orbit, and scientific tests began to take place. Between 1973-1981, the United States scheduled only one or two human spaceflight missions.

Finally in 1981, the United States revamped their human spaceflight program with several new missions and brand new spacecraft design, the space shuttle. The space shuttle is a reusable craft the worked much like an airplane but with a lot more power. The shuttle missions have become the workhorse of NASA's space program. The space shuttle had defensive and scientific missions. One of the most significant missions included the deployment of the Hubble Space Telescope in 1990. Currently, the NASA human spaceflight program is primarily a scientific one.

In the meantime, the Soviets made several missions testing out new spacecraft and became the "first" to create a space station. Throughout the 1960s, the cosmonauts practiced rendevous with other human spaceflight and robotic spacecraft.

From the late 1960s to the 1980s, the Soviet program conducted scientific tests in space, including engineering stuff. In 1971, the cosmonauts spent several days aboard the first space station. The cosmonauts have continued to spend time on several space station. They've made some new records for hours in space. Lab tests were conducted on all of these space stations, and the Soviets made great strides in expanding our knowledge of space, medicine, and engineering.

Beginning in 1978, the Soviet program began to allow international astronauts onto their missions. The Soviet program continued to break ground in science with the Mir space station. And as of November of 2000, the International Space Station opened its doors to its first visitors, Russian and American!

Last modified May 10, 2004 by Randy Russell.

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Windows to the Universe, a project of the National Earth Science Teachers Association, is sponsored in part is sponsored in part through grants from federal agencies (NASA and NOAA), and partnerships with affiliated organizations, including the American Geophysical Union, the Howard Hughes Medical Institute, the Earth System Information Partnership, the American Meteorological Society, the National Center for Science Education, and TERC. The American Geophysical Union and the American Geosciences Institute are Windows to the Universe Founding Partners. NESTA welcomes new Institutional Affiliates in support of our ongoing programs, as well as collaborations on new projects. Contact NESTA for more information. NASA ESIP NCSE HHMI AGU AGI AMS NOAA