25 Space Race Facts You Probably Didn’t Know

Posted by , Updated on March 21, 2024

The space race remains a pivotal chapter in twentieth-century history and played a substantial role in determining the Cold War’s outcome. Nevertheless, most people’s knowledge regarding this human history milestone is significantly basic, primarily focusing on the first man on the moon and the ensuing moon landing conspiracy theories. Following are 25 enlightening and intriguing facts about the space race. So strap in and prepare for an exciting journey to the stars.



On October 4, 1957, the Soviet Union became the country that officially started the so-called space race by launching the Sputnik 1, the first Earth satellite in history.

Sputnik 1

A month after the USSR sent Sputnik 1 into space, they sent Sputnik 2, which was the first spacecraft to carry an animal (a dog named Laika) and so the country made history again by becoming the first to successfully send a living organism into orbit.

Sputnik 2

However, something that many people don’t know about this dog is that despite the Soviets initially claiming that Laika had survived in orbit for a week, decades later official Russian sources revealed that Laika lived only a few hours before dying from overheating.


On January 31, 1958, the USA officially entered the space race by launching Explorer 1, the first American satellite to reach orbit. It carried scientific equipment that led to the discovery of the Van Allen radiation belt.


On October 1, 1958, the National Aeronautics and Space Administration (NASA) was formed and replaced the National Advisory Committee on Aeronautics (NACA).


Despite most people being familiar almost exclusively with Sputnik and Apollo, another spacecraft was the first to reach the moon’s immediate orbit, and the first to be placed in heliocentric orbit. Its name was Luna 1 and it was launched as part of the Soviet Luna program in 1959, becoming the first spacecraft to leave geocentric orbit.


Shortly after Luna 1 was launched two more successful missions in the same program followed: Luna 2, which was the first man-made object to impact the moon and Luna 3, which orbited the moon and photographed 70 percent of its surface.

Luna 2-3

In 1960 and while the Soviets were leading the space race, in an attempt to become more competitive NASA launched Tiros 1, the first successful weather satellite.

Tiros 1

On April 12, 1961, the USSR took a clear lead and gained the admiration of the whole world by sending the first man into space; he was also the first to orbit the Earth. His name was Yuri Gagarin and he is considered the world's most famous astronaut to this day.

Yuri 1

Despite Yuri Gagarin being a decorated member of the Soviet Air Force and an active member of the space race and thus of the Cold War, his famous quote while orbiting the Earth was against war: “Orbiting Earth in the spaceship, I saw how beautiful our planet is. People, let us preserve and increase this beauty, not destroy it!”


The legendary Mercury Seven was a group of seven astronauts selected to pilot the manned spaceflights of the Mercury program from May 1961 to May 1963. These seven American astronauts were Gus Grissom, John Glenn, Scott Carpenter, Wally Schirra, Gordon Cooper, Deke Slayton, and Alan Shepard, who became the first American in space almost three weeks after Yuri Gagarin. Fun fact: The main character of the Mass Effect series, Commander Shepard, is named after this Shepard.

mercury 7

Of the Mercury Seven, only John Glenn, who was the oldest by the way, is still alive today. Glenn went on to become a US senator and on October 29, 1998, while still a senator, he became the oldest person to fly in space at the age of 77.


On June 16, 1963, the USSR achieved another first by sending the first woman into space, Valentina Tereshkova. Valentina also became the first civilian in space since she wasn’t a professional astronaut but an ordinary cotton mill worker, who was included in the male-dominated Soviet space program for diversity.


In 1965 Soviet cosmonaut Alexei Leonov spent twelve minutes outside the Voskhod spacecraft; in doing so, he performed the first spacewalk in history.


However, something many people ignore about the first spacewalk is that it almost turned into a tragedy. When Alexei Leonov tried to return to the capsule, he realized that his suit had over-pressurized to the point where he couldn’t fit through the hatch. Only after he released the excess air was he able to get back inside.

Leonov 2

Way before Apollo 11 and Neil Armstrong landed on the moon, the Soviet Luna 9 had become the first spacecraft to soft-land there in 1966. A few months later Luna 10 would become the first satellite to orbit the moon.

Luna 9

The year 1967 was the most deadly of the space race for both sides. In January, American astronauts Gus Grissom, Ed White, and Roger Chaffee were killed when a fire ignited in their Apollo 1 capsule while performing a test on the launch pad. A few months later the Soviet cosmonaut Vladimir Komarov was killed when the parachutes of his Soyuz 1 capsule failed to open properly following reentry. In the same year two more American astronauts, Edward Givens and Clifton Williams, were killed in an automobile accident and a plane crash, respectively.

dead astronauts

In 1968 another unfortunate accident marked the space race. The first man in space, Yuri Gagarin, would lose his life in a plane crash at age 34.

Gagarin 3

On July 20, 1969, Neil Armstrong and later Edwin “Buzz” Aldrin became the first men to walk on the moon while crewmate Michael Collins orbited the moon alone. After years of Soviet space dominance the USA took the lead and made history by putting the first man on the moon.


After the successful moon landing of Apollo 11, ten more American astronauts would walk on the moon from Apollos 12, 14, 15, 16, and 17.


At age 47 Alan Shepard commanded the Apollo 14 mission, piloting the lander to the most accurate landing of the Apollo missions. He became the fifth and oldest person to walk on the moon, and the only astronaut of the Mercury Seven to walk on the moon. He also became—believe it or not—the first man in history to play sports on the moon; he hit two golf balls, driving the second, as he jokingly put it, “miles and miles and miles.”


David Scott was the commander of the Apollo 15 mission, becoming the seventh person to walk on the moon and the first person to drive on the moon. However, he’s best remembered for paying tribute to all the heroic astronauts—American and Russian—by placing the so-called Fallen Astronaut on the top of Mons Hadley on the moon. Just before the launching of Apollo 15 Scott asked Belgian artist Paul Van Hoeydonck to create a small aluminum sculpture of an astronaut in a spacesuit, to commemorate astronauts and cosmonauts who have died in the advancement of space exploration.

Fallen Astronaut

What shocked every single astronaut who walked on the moon was its distinctive smell; in other words, the moon really stinks.

moon smell

Jim Lovell, whom Tom Hanks played in Apollo 13, became the first of only three people to fly to the moon twice, and the only one to have flown there twice without landing.

jim lovell

We all know about the first man in space and the first man to walk on the moon but not many are aware of the last man to walk on the moon. Harrison Schmitt was the last person to step onto the moon but Eugene Cernan was the last person to step off the moon and thus the last man to technically walk on it. They were both members of the Apollo 17 mission that took place between December 11 and 14, 1972.

Eugene Cernan