We all know that Neil Armstrong was the first man on the Moon. And we’ve all seen the Stars and Stripes embedded into the surface, a declaration that the United States was the victor of the Space Race. But surely it was about far more than simply conquering the Moon’s surface?
There’s no denying just how much the US and NASA have done and continue to do for space exploration. But we shouldn’t forget the contribution of the Soviet Union in our pursuit of the stars. In fact, while the Soviet space program was mired in secrecy and tragedy, some of the achievements of its engineers and cosmonauts deserve unprecedented acclaim.
10. First Satellite
Sputnik 1, the first craft to bear that famous name, was a humble 58-centimeter sphere featuring simple radio antenna. Not much to look at, it triggered the Space Race when it was launched from Site No. 1 in Kazakhstan on October 4, 1957. Sputnik 1 entered the Earth’s orbit successfully, transmitting radio signals to the eager designers and engineers, as well as Soviet leader Nikita Khrushchev.
Completing 1,440 Earth orbits during its two months in space, Sputnik 1 proved a shock to American commentators. America’s view of its own nation as the major technological superpower was suddenly thrown into question, and the perception of the Soviet Union as a poor, limited nation was shattered.
9. First Animal in Orbit
While often misrepresented as the first animal in space, Laika was actually the first animal to orbit the Earth. Although it may seem a less auspicious title, it was a long way away, both figuratively and literally, from the dog’s days walking the streets of Moscow as a stray. Boarding Sputnik 2 on November 3, 1957, Laika was to pave the way for human space flight, with the impact of space travel on living creatures recorded through her experience.
Trained alongside two other dogs, Albina and Mushka, Laika was ultimately chosen for a mission that, for her at least, would last but a few hours. Laika would die from overheating not long after entering orbit, a fact not revealed until 45 years after the event. Until 2002, Russian officials had reported that Laika had survived for six days aboard Sputnik 2 before perishing due to oxygen depletion. Such misdirection would not be the first, nor the last, of the Space Race.
8. First Images of the Dark Side of the Moon
The far side of the Moon represents one of great fascination, and not solely among fans of British prog-rock. Thanks to the Luna 3 program of October 1959, unseen views of the Moon were recorded for the very first time, with mountainous terrain and low valleys captured in 29 breathtaking images taken over a 40 minute period.
The images revealed that the surface of the far side of the Moon differed significantly from the side facing Earth. In contrast to the many areas of lunar malaria (dark plains formed by ancient volcanic eruptions) so distinctive of the Moon’s Earth-facing appearance, experts could only record two dark, low-lying areas. These would be given the monikers the Sea of Moscow and the Sea of Desire.
7. First Animals Returned From Space
As tragic as the tale of Laika is, it would be only three years until the Soviet Union was able to send living creatures into orbit and return them back to terra firma. An unlikely squadron of cosmonauts comprising of two dogs, a grey rabbit, 42 mice, two rats, flies and several plants would board Korabl-Sputnik 2 on August 19, 1960 to embark on a landmark journey that would see them achieve what no other creatures had before: a return home safely from Earth’s orbit.
The two dogs, Belka and Strelka, were the undoubted stars of the voyage, achieving international fame more commonly afforded to their human counterparts. Strelka in particular would go on to play an important role in international relations — of the six puppies she mothered, one would be presented to Caroline Kennedy, JFK’s daughter, in 1961.
6. First Human in Outer Space
The name Yuri Gagarin is synonymous with adventure and bravery, with Gagarin becoming the first man to achieve orbit as part of the famous Vostok space program in April 1961. As part of the elite Sochi Six cosmonaut candidates, Gagarin was subjected to almost superhuman feats of endurance both physical and psychological in order to prepare for voyages into what, for human travelers at least, was largely unknown.
Gagarin was selected to pilot a tiny Vostok spacecraft, and was assigned the duty of being first in space. Boarding the craft at the Baikonur Cosmodrome, Gagarin’s cry of “Let’s go!” at the moment of take off would go down in history as a symbol of the fearless, resolute nature of Soviet space exploration. Not bad for a boy that once studied tractors.
5. First Woman in Space
While perhaps not renowned for its feminist sensibilities, that the Soviet Union accommodated female space voyage is an achievement that often goes unheralded. Following the successful missions of Gagarin and Gherman Titov (who himself would make history by being the first person to spend 24 hours, sleep and vomit in space), Soviet engineers determined that sending a woman into space was the next logical step.
With more than 400 applicants whittled down to a shortlist of five candidates, it would be Valentina Tereshkova that would embark on the momentous journey aboard Vostok 6. Just 26 years old, Tereshkova would be a pioneer for space exploration, orbiting the Earth 48 times in the space of three days. Upon her return, Tereshkova would be awarded the Hero of the Soviet Union, an honor bestowed upon all cosmonauts in the Soviet program.
4. First Spacewalk
For Alexey Leonov, trying to convey his experience of March 18, 1965 must’ve been as improbable as it was impossible. Leonov, a former pilot in the Soviet Air Force, would go down in history for a feat of bravery like no other — he was the first man to step outside a spacecraft and embark on extra-vehicular activity, more commonly known as a spacewalk. While it may have been a struggle to truly convey this weightless, isolated feeling, Leonov was able to beautifully recount the experience of that 12 minute sojourn from the capsule of Voskhod 2:
What struck me most was the silence. It was a great silence, unlike any I have encountered on Earth, so vast and deep that I began to hear my own body: my heart beating, my blood vessels pulsing, even the rustle of my muscles moving over each other seemed audible. There were more stars in the sky than I had expected. The sky was deep black, yet at the same time bright with sunlight.
3. First Space Station
At the start of the 1970s, and following Armstrong’s walk on the surface of the Moon, Soviet attention focused on developing a space station that could remain in orbit and accommodate visiting crews. The inaugural space station was Salyut 1, and its legacy endures to this day in the shape of the International Space Station.
Like many tales from the Soviet space program, there’s a degree of sadness surrounding Salyut 1. The crew of the first vessel to successfully dock, Soyuz 11, spent 23 days aboard the station creating history. But the magnificent feat was scarred by their return to the surface, with a pressure-equalization valve opening prematurely during re-entry, causing all three crew members to suffocate.
2. First Probe to Land On Mars
We’ve all been impressed by the staggering images fed back by NASA’s Mars Exploration Rover, yet without the Soviet Mars program of 1971 it’s conceivable that such a mission would still be years away. Launched on May 28, Mars 3 was an unmanned space probe featuring a lander with two television cameras. Though it successfully negotiated a descent to the Martian surface on December 2, the project wasn’t without hiccups. Following transmission of the very first image from the surface of Mars, connection with the lander was severed after just 14.5 seconds, with the cause of failure thought to have been a powerful dust storm.
1. First Permanently Manned Space Station
Following the success and tragedy of Salyut, the development of a replacement space station was soon undertaken. Plans for the Mir space station would originate in 1976, with the orbital assembly phase following a decade later in what would become one of the defining missions of space exploration.
Assembly began with the Mir Core Module, followed over the next decade by interlinked components such as the Kristall Technology Module and the Docking Module. Of course, the reason for the inclusion of Mir on this list lies in the fact that it would become the first space station to be permanently manned, with crews from around the globe occupying the station from 1989-1999 — a truly international undertaking for humanity.
Michael is a copywriter for copywriting agency Minerva Copywriting. In addition to space travel, he is fascinated by the darker sides of history, Batman comics, and films. You can email him today and follow on Twitter. He may even follow you back.