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History Timeline

The Robotic Exploration of Space
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Introduction
Space travel looks good on paper, but can we actually get there? In 1955, America and Russia announce ambitious space exploration programs to send small probes into Earth orbit. Although the goals are scientific, the conquest of space is seen as a key victory in a growing ideological Cold War between the two global superpowers. The space race is on...
Of the 13 interplanetary spacecraft launched in the 1950s - all in 1958 and 1959 - four are successful in at least part of their intended mission.
July 24, 1950
Bumper 2 is the first rocket launched from Cape Canaveral in Florida. The facility - later renamed John F. Kennedy Space Center - remains America's central launch point for manned and unmanned spacecraft.
Image 1: First Launch
The Bumper V-2 was the first missile launched at Cape Canaveral.
July 1955
America announces plans to built the world's first manmade satellite. A month later, Russia announces similar plans.
Image 1: Americans
Americans announce the beginning of the U.S. space program.
Image 2: Russians
Russians also announce plans to begin an ambitious space program.
October 4, 1957
Russia stuns the world with the successful launch of Sputnik 1. The 83-kilogram (183-pound) artificial satellite whipped around the Earth every 98 minutes, transmitting a constant series of beeps.
A month later, Russia again dazzles the world by sending the first living creature into space. Laika the dog is hurled into space aboard Sputnik 2. With no plans to return her to Earth, Laika dies in orbit.
Image 1: Final Check
A Russian engineer puts the finishing touches on Sputnik.
Image 2: Expanded View
The insides of Sputnik 1. (NASA History Office)
Image 3: Launch
Sputnik 1 on the launch pad.
Image 4: First Dog
Laika was the first Earthling in space.
Image 5: Space Dog
Laika in her Sputnik capsule.
Image 6: Laika
A color picture of Laika.
Image 7: Space Hero
Laika's journey was commemorated with stamps.
Image 8: Project RED SOCKS
A rejected U.S. proposal to answer Sputnik.
January 31, 1958
America enters space for the first time with the launch of Explorer 1. The 14-kilogram (30.8-pound) satellite carried instruments that confirmed the existence of radiation trapped in Earth's atmosphere, dubbed the Van Allen Radiation Belt.
Explorer 1 orbited the Earth every 114.8 minutes and made more than 58,000 orbits before it burned up in Earth's atmosphere on March 31, 1970.
Image 1: Front Page News
Newspapers announce America's entry into space.
Image 2: Liftoff
Explorer 1 lifts off on a Redstone rocket.
Image 3: America's Team
The architects of Explorer 1 (from left to right) William Pickering, James A. van Allen and Wernher von Braun.
Image 4: Explorer 1
Scientists stand with Explorer 1 at the Jet Propulsion Laboratory in Pasadena, Calif.
Image 5: Preparations
Technicians lower the Explorer 1 probe onto its motor.
Image 6: Poster Rocket
An Explorer 1 poster.
July 29, 1958
Spurred by Sputnik, U.S. President Dwight D. Eisenhower signs the National Aeronautics and Space Act of 1958, which creates the National Aeronautics and Space Administration, better known as NASA.
The new space agency opens for business on Oct. 1, 1958.
Image 1: Ike
President Dwight D. Eishenhower (center) with NASA's first administrator, Dr. T. Keith Glennan (right) , and deputy administrator Dr. Hugh L. Dryden (left).
Image 2: NASA Logo
NASA's original seal was designed in 1959.
Image 3: NASA Transfer
Dr. Wernher von Braun at the ceremony transferring space exploration command to NASA.
Image 4: NASA HQ
NASA's First Headquaters
August 17, 1958
America takes the world's first shot at the Moon with the launch of Able 1. Also known as Pioneer 0, the probe is the first in a long series of Pioneer missions that - true to their names - blaze the trail in solar system exploration.
Unfortunately, Able 1 does not share in that legacy of success. The 38-kilogram (84-pound) lunar orbiter was destroyed when its booster rocket exploded only 77 seconds after liftoff. The next three Pioneers - 1, 2 and 3 - made it into space, but failed to reach the Moon.
September 23, 1958
Russia launches its Moon exploration program, but the first probe - intended to impact the Moon - survives only 93 seconds before its booster rocket explodes.
The next two lunar launch attempts also explode shortly after launch. Following a Russian tradition of the time, the failed missions are not given names.
December 1958
NASA takes control of the U.S. Army's Deep Space Network and begins establishing permanent tracking stations around the globe to communicate with spacecraft that will soon be exploring the solar system.
The Deep Space Network remains the primary communications center for the world's unmanned spacecraft.
Image 1: Deep Space Network
The Pioneer Station's antenna, shown above during nighttime, was active from 1958 to 1981.
Image 2: Interview
A television crew at the Deep Space Network Goldstone station in California.
Image 3: Pioneer Station
The Deep Space Network's Pioneer station under construction.
Image 4: Tour
A 1960s tour of the Deep Space Network Goldstone station in California.
January 3, 1959
Although it missed the Moon, Russia's Luna 1 becomes the first manmade object to escape the grip of Earth's gravity. It zooms past the Moon at a distance of 6,400 km (3, 977 miles) and eventually becomes the first spacecraft to go into orbit around our Sun (a heliocentric orbit).
Image 1: Luna 1
A model of the Luna 1 spacecraft.
March 4, 1959
NASA's Pioneer 4 is the first U.S. spacecraft to break out of Earth orbit. A booster rocket malfunction knocked the probe off course and it didn't get close enough to trigger its image scanner. The spacecraft did send back lots of information on radiation in space. Pioneer 4 eventually entered orbit around our Sun. It was last detected in 1969.
Image 1: Pioneer 4
Pioneer 4 lifts off.
September 14, 1959
The Russian Luna 2 probe becomes the first human-made object to reach a destination beyond Earth when it smashes into the Moon - scattering emblems of the Soviet Union across the dusty lunar surface.
October 7, 1959
After a three-day flight to the Moon, Russia's Luna 3 makes the first successful lunar flyby. In another first, the spacecraft sends back grainy black-and-white pictures of the far side of the Moon - a place never before seen by humans.
Image 1: Luna 3
An artist's impression of the Luna 3 spacecraft.
Image 2: First Look
The first view of the far side of the Moon.
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Last Updated: 30 Jun 2004