Space Exploration Timeline Title

1961 - 1970


Image of newspaper showing Yuri Gagarin as first man in space
NASA Public Domain Image

April 12, 1961

First Man in Space

Russian cosmonaut Yuri Alekseyevich Gagarin becomes the first human being to venture into space. The Vostok 1 spacecraft makes one complete orbit around Earth in 108 minutes, and reaches altitudes of 112 to 203 miles (180 to 327 kilometers). This historic flight lasts only one hour and 48 minutes.

Image of astronaut Alan Shepard the first American in space
NASA Public Domain Image

May 5, 1961

First American in Space

On May 5, 1961, Astronaut Alan Shepard becomes the first American to be launched into space on the first flight of the Mercury program. Riding atop a Mercury-Redstone 3 rocket, his suborbital flight lasts only 15 minutes. During this time he experiences about 5 minutes of "weightlessness" and tests the maneuvering capability of his Mercury capsule, known as Freedom 7.

Image of President John F. Kennedy delivering his speech at Rice University
NASA Public Domain Image

May 25, 1961

President Kennedy's Historic Speech

On September 12, 1962, just 20 days after Alan Shepard's flight, President John F. Kennedy makes his historic speech at Rice University. He challenges the nation to land "a man on the Moon and return him safely to Earth" before the end of the decade. Kennedy characterizes space as a new frontier, invoking the famous pioneer spirit from America's past.


Image of astronaut John Glenn the first American in orbit
NASA Public Domain Image

February 20, 1962

First American in Orbit

Astronaut John H. Glenn is launched into orbit by an Atlas LV-3B launch vehicle. Glenn becomes the first American to orbit the earth on board his spacecraft, named Friendship 7. He makes a total of 3 complete orbits and the total flight time is 4 hours and 55 minutes. The total distance traveled is 65,763 nautical miles (121,793 kilometers).


Image of astronaut Alexei Leonov performing the first space walk
Wikipedia Public Domain Image

March 18, 1965

First Spacewalk

Commander Pavel I. Belyayeu and Pilot Alexei A. Leonov are launched into Earth’s orbit orbit aboard the Russian spacecraft Voskhod 2. Alexei Leonov later performs the first tethered spacewalk outside of his spacecraft while in Earth’s orbit. Known as an Extravehicular Activity (EVA), this historic venture into space lasts only 12 minutes. Due to the stiffness of the spacesuit in a vacuum, Leonov has to vent air from his suit in order to fit back into the capsule.

Image of Mars from NASA's Mariner 4 spacecraft
NASA Public Domain Image

July 14, 1965

First Close-up Images of Mars

NASA's Mariner 4 spacecraft arrives at Mars and gave scientists their first views of the planet at close range. The spacecraft passes within 6,118 miles (9,846 kilometers) of the red planet's surface.The resulting photos showed no sign of the famous "canals" and no evidence of life.


Image of the Moon taken by the Luna 9 spacecraft
NASA Public Domain Image

February 3, 1966

First Spacecraft to Land on the Moon

The Russian spacecraft Luna 9 completes a trip of 250,000 miles (402,336 kilometers) and successfully becomes the first spacecraft to make a soft landing on the Moon. Luna 9 transmits pictures of the Moon's surface back to Earth. The mission demonstrates that the Moon's surface is strong enough to support the weight of a large spacecraft.

Image of a museum replica of the Russian Luna 10 spacecraft
Pline / CC BY-SA 3.0

April 3, 1966

First Moon Orbit

The Russian spacecraft Luna 10 becomes the first spacecraft to orbit the Moon. The spacecraft operates for 460 lunar orbits and makes and 219 active data transmissions before radio signals are discontinued on May 30. During this time, Luna 10 conducts extensive research while in lunar orbit, gathering data about the strength of the Moon's magnetic field, its radiation belts, and the nature of lunar rocks.

Image of the Moon taken by the Luna 9 spacecraft
Wikipedia Public Domain Image

June 2, 1966

First American Spacecraft on the Moon

Surveyor 1 becomes the first American spacecraft to make a soft landing on the Moon just four months after the first Moon landing by the Soviet Union. After a journey of 63 hours and 36 minutes, Surveyor 1 successfully lands only 9 miles (14.5 kilometers) away from its intended target in the Oceanus Procellarum. The spacecraft transmits more than 10,000 high-resolution photographs back to Earth before its energy sources are depleted.


Image of the Apollo 1 crew who were killed in a launch test
NASA Public Domain Image

January 27, 1967

First U.S. Space Tragedy

During a routine test of the Apollo 1 spacecraft on the launch pad, a spark causes a fire in the crew compartment of the Command Module. Astronauts Gus Grissom, Ed White, and Roger Chaffee, are killed in this tragic incident. It is later determined that faulty wiring caused the spark, and the pure oxygen environment in the capsule was to blame for the rapid spreading of the blaze. This incident caused NASA to discontinue the use of pure oxygen in favor of a nitrogen-oxygen mix for future tests.

Image of Russian cosmonaut Vladimir Komarov, the first spaceflight casualty
Wikipedia Public Domain Image

April 24, 1967

First Spaceflight Casualty

The Soviet Union launches its Soyuz 1 mission on April 23, carrying cosmonaut Vladimir M. Komarov. After 18 orbits, The spacecraft fires its retrorockets to reenter the Earth's atmosphere. To slow the descent, the drogue parachute is deployed, followed by the main parachute. However, due to an unexpected defect, the main parachute fails to unfold. The capsule crashes during re-entry, killing Komarov on impact.

Image of the Venera 4 Venus space probe
Rave / CC BY-SA

October 18, 1967

First Venus Probe

The Soviet space probe Venera 4 sends a capsule to descend into the atmosphere of the planet Venus, returning data about its composition. It is the first successful probe to perform in-place analysis of the environment of another planet and the first probe to conduct a chemical analysis of the Venusian atmosphere.


Image of the Zond 5 return capsule after splashdown on Earth
Image Credit: S.P.Korolev RSC Energia

September 15, 1968

First Moon Orbit and Return

The Soviet Zond 5 probe is launched. It becomes the second spacecraft to orbit the Moon and the first to return safely to Earth. The spacecraft carries the first terrestrial organisms to the Moon, including two tortoises, fruit fly eggs, and plants. Zond 5 was originally planned to take cosmonauts around the Moon, but the failures of previous Zond spacecraft led the Soviets to send an unmanned mission instead.

Image of the Apollo 7 S-IVB rocket stage in orbit
NASA Public Domain Image

October 11, 1968

First Manned Apollo Mission

Apollo 7 becomes the first manned Apollo mission into space with Walter M. Schirra, Jr., Donn F. Eisele, and Walter Cunningham. This test mission makes 163 orbits of the earth with a total mission time of 10 Days, 20 minutes. The test flight checks life-support, propulsion, and control systems for the new Apollo spacecraft.

Image of the earth rising above the surface of the Moon during Apollo 8
NASA Public Domain Image

December 21, 1968

First Manned Moon Orbit

Apollo 8 is launched with Frank Borman, James A. Lovell, Jr. and William A. Anders. It is the first Apollo mission to use the new Saturn V rocket, and the first manned spacecraft to orbit the Moon, making 10 orbits during its 6-day mission. It is during this mission that the historic "Earthrise" image of the earth above the lunar surface is captured from orbit as the spacecraft circled the Moon.

First complete image of the earth taken by Apollo 8
NASA Public Domain Image

December 7, 1968

First Image of the Whole Earth

The Apollo 8 spacecraft captures the first image of the whole earth from a distance of about 18,641 miles (30,000 kilometers). In this historic image, South is at the top, with South America visible at the covering the top half center, with Africa entering into shadow. North America is in the bottom right.


Image of astronaut Buzz Aldrin on the Moon with the American flag
NASA Public Domain Image

July 20, 1969

First Manned Moon Landing

After nearly running out of fuel, the Apollo 11 Lunar Module, nicknamed "Eagle", makes a successful landing on the surface of the Moon. Astronauts Neil Armstrong and Edwin Aldrin, Jr. become the first human beings to set foot on another world. Many experts still consider this to be the single greatest technological achievement of 20th century.


Image of damage on the Apollo 13 service module
NASA Public Domain Image

April 11, 1970

Apollo 13 Launch

Apollo 13 is launched, suffering an explosion in the Service Module oxygen tanks. The planned Moon landing is aborted, and the entire world watches as James A. Lovell, Jr., John L. Swigert, Jr. and Fred W. Haise, Jr., struggle for days to survive. Due mainly to the innovation and imagination of engineers back home, they are able to return safely to Earth after several harrowing days in space.

Image of a museum replica of the Luna 16 spacecraft
Bembmv / CC BY-SA

September 12, 1970

First Automated Return of Lunar Soil Samples

The Soviet Luna 16 spacecraft is launched, conducting the first successful return of lunar soil samples to the earth by an automatic spacecraft. A drill located on the craft penetrates the lunar surface to collect a soil sample. This sample is then deposited into a small spherical capsule on the spacecraft's upper stage which later lifts off for its return trip back to Earth.

Image of a museum replica of the Luna 17 spacecraft
Petar Milošević / CC BY-SA

November 17, 1970

First Robotic Lunar Mission

Luna 17 lands on the Moon with the first automatic robot, Lunokhod 1. Driven by a five-man team back on Earth, the craft travels over the lunar surface for 11 lunar days (322 Earth days). During this time, it returns 20,000 TV images and 206 high-resolution panoramas in addition to performing a host of experiments including soil analysis.

Image of a museum replica of the Venera 7 landing craft
Stanislav Kozlovskiy / CC BY 4.0

December 15, 1970

First Soft Landing on Another Planet

The Soviet Venera 7 spacecraft lands on the surface of the planet Venus and becomes the first probe to make a soft landing on another planet. In spite of the hellish conditions, the craft is able to transmit data for 23 minutes. The probe provides valuable information about the surface of Venus, which cannot be seen through the planet's thick atmosphere of clouds.