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History Timeline

The Robotic Exploration of Space
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No one said it would be easy. As the ambitious Russian and American space programs kick exploration into high gear, the laws of physics and engineering prove humbling. Neither nation is immune to catastrophe. Of the 103 interplanetary spacecraft launched in the 1960s, 40 were successful, eight were partial successes and 55 were classified as failures.
Each failure becomes part of the foundation of success. By the end of the decade - the busiest in space exploration history - humanity will have left its mark on the surface of Moon and extended its vision to two planets, Venus and Mars.
March 11, 1960
America begins the new decade with the successful launch of Pioneer 5. The spacecraft entered orbit around the Sun between Earth and Venus and provided the first map of the magnetic field between planets, which to that point had only been a theory.
Pioneer 5 was the only successful interplanetary launch by America or Russia in 1960.
October 10, 1960
Russia launches the first Mars probe. The booster rocket veered out of control and the spacecraft burned up in Earth's atmosphere without reaching Earth orbit. A second probe launched four days later meets a similar fate.
February 4, 1961
Russia begins its historic "Venera" Venus exploration program with the launch of Tyazheliy Sputnik, also known as Sputnik 7. Intended to impact the surface of Venus, a malfunction left it stranded in Earth orbit.
The spacecraft is the first to launch for Venus, Earth's closest neighbor in the solar system.
May 25, 1961
In an historic message to a joint session of Congress, President John F. Kennedy declares "...I believe this nation should commit itself to achieving the goal, before this decade is out, of landing a man on the Moon and returning him safely to the Earth." The U.S.-Russian race to land a man on the Moon is on.
Both nations use robots to pave the way.
August 23, 1961
NASA takes the first steps toward a manned Moon landing with the launch of Ranger 1, first in a four-year series of missions intended to scout the lunar surface. Malfunctions stranded Rangers 1 and 2 in Earth orbit. Both spacecraft burned up when decaying orbits brought them back into the atmosphere.
April 26, 1962
Ranger 4 becomes the first American spacecraft to reach a celestial body when it crashes into the far side of the Moon. A power failure earlier in the mission killed the spacecraft, but its trajectory still carried it on its intended collision course with the Moon.
December 14, 1962
After a journey of more than three and a half months, NASA's Mariner 2 flies past Venus - the first spacecraft to reach another planet. During a scan of the planet lasting only 42 minutes, Mariner 2 sent back reams of information on Venus' atmosphere and surface before continuing into an orbit around our Sun.
America's first Venus launch - Mariner 1 - was destroyed shortly after launch.
Image 1: Mariner 1
Mariner 1's Launch failed
February 2, 1964
America's lunar exploration efforts inch closer to success with the launch of Ranger 6. The spacecraft impacts the Moon on target and on schedule, but a short circuit disables the camera system. None of the six cameras returned pictures.
July 31, 1964
Success at last. After a three-day journey, NASA's Ranger 7 smashes into the Moon on target, sending back more than 4,000 images as it hurtles toward the lunar surface. The images - the first taken of the Moon by an American spacecraft - are about 1,000 times better than those taken from Earth. The images ultimately help scientists determine safe landing zones for the Apollo astronauts.
July 15, 1965
NASA's Mariner 4 is the first spacecraft to reach Mars. The 21 photos Mariner 4 sends back from Mars are the first ever taken of another planet from deep space. The images show a cratered, ancient world more like the Moon than Earth. The spacecraft also finds the Martian atmosphere is very thin and unlikely to harbor life.
Two years after the successful flyby, Mariner 4 was reactivated for tests to support the Mariner 5 mission to Venus. Contact was finally lost with the spacecraft on Dec. 21, 1967.
February 3, 1966
Russia's Luna 9 touches down on the Moon - the first survivable landing of a human-made object on a body beyond Earth. It was Russia's 12th attempt to soft-land on the Moon and it was a remarkable success. The spacecraft performed flawlessly, touching down in the Ocean of Storms and sending back the first images ever taken from the surface of another planetary body. Until Luna 9 landed, it was unclear if an object would simply sink into deep Moon dust.
Contact with Luna 9 was lost on Feb. 6.
March 1, 1966
Russia's Venera 3 landing capsule is the first to reach the surface of another planet when it crashes into the surface of Venus. The spacecraft carryied a cargo of scientific instruments and Soviet medallions, but a malfunction left it dead on arrival.
April 3, 1966
Russia's reinvigorated lunar program scores another important first when Luna 10 is successfully inserted into orbit around the Moon. It is the first time a manmade object is successfully put in orbit around a body beyond Earth - another crucial step in putting a man on the Moon and exploring distant worlds in detail.
Luna 10 conducted extensive research on the lunar environment in 460 orbits. Contact was lost on May 30, 1966.
June 2, 1966
NASA's first attempt at a survivable lunar landing is a success as Surveyor 1 settles down on the Moon's Ocean of Storms - just 14 meters (46 feet) from its intended target. Surveyor 1 sent back 11,350 images of the Moon. Most importantly, it sent back valuable information that was used to design the Apollo lunar landers that will later deliver astronauts safely to the Moon's surface.
Five of the seven NASA Surveyor spacecraft are successful.
August 23, 1966
NASA's Lunar Orbiter 2 snaps the first pictures of Earth from the Moon.
Image 1: Earth
The world's first look back at Earth from the Moon.
November 17, 1967
NASA's Surveyor 6 makes the first successful liftoff from the surface of the Moon, a key step in ensuring astronauts can safely return to Earth after a lunar landing.
September 14-21, 1968
Russia's Zond 5 - carrying an extensive biological payload including two steppe tortoises - becomes the first successful circumlunar mission when it travels around the Moon and returns to Earth.
The tortoises survived the trip and were returned to Moscow.
July 20, 1969
"That's one small step for man, one giant leap for mankind." Astronauts Neil Armstrong and Buzz Aldrin become the first of only 12 human beings to walk on the surface of the Moon.
November 18, 1969
Apollo 12 astronauts Charles Conrad and Alan Bean recover a camera and soil scoop from Surveyor 3 more than two and a half after it landed on the Moon. Scientists back on Earth study the equipment to measure the effects of long term exposure on the lunar surface.
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Last Updated: 30 Jun 2004