It could be said that human beings began to conquer space with their imagination, long before their technology made it a reality. For centuries, the musings of authors and scientists brought space to Earth, with varying degrees of success; while the first literary stories seem naïve to us today, such as Johannes Kepler’s Somnium (1634) or Cyrano de Bergerac’s bizarre journey to the Moon (1657), scientists also committed their share of noteworthy blunders, such as the canals on Mars.
Unfortunately, however, it was not imagination that finally drove the conquest of space, but discord: when on 29 July 1955 US President Dwight Eisenhower declared that his country would soon launch “small Earth circling satellites” as a contribution to the International Geophysical Year (1957-58)—an announcement that could be described as the firing of the starting pistol of the space race—this was neither a mere scientific project, nor the real beginning of anything. Since the end of World War II, the two great powers allied against Nazism had already been engaged in a Cold War, a competition to prove that their power was greater and their technology superior—in short, that their political, economic and social system was better. One of the areas in which this war was to be fought was space, considered strategic for national security and a terrain to be dominated in the race to develop nuclear ballistic missiles.
It took the Soviet Union only four days to react to its adversary’s announcement with a similar one. The space race was on, and it began already propelled by the technological advances that both powers had developed over the years. The USSR soon took the lead with the launch of the first satellite, Sputnik 1, on 4 October 1957. The Soviet bloc was also ahead in the milestones of crashing the first device into the Moon (Luna 2, on 13 September 1959) and, above all, of propelling the first human being into space on 12 April 1961, cosmonaut Yuri Gagarin in the Vostok 1 spacecraft. And although the US would respond in less than a month with Alan Shepard’s suborbital flight in Mercury-Redstone 3 (or Freedom 7), it would not match Gagarin’s achievement until the following year, with John Glenn in Mercury Friendship 7.
But Gagarin’s feat had also served to mark what was to be the goal of this race: on 25 May 1961, US President John F. Kennedy addressed Congress and argued for the goal of “landing a man on the Moon and returning him safely to the earth”. While new milestones were being achieved, some of the first heroes also fell by the wayside: on 27 January 1967, the three Apollo 1 crew members, Gus Grissom, Ed White and Roger Chaffee, died in a fire in their spacecraft during a test, and three months later, on 24 April, cosmonaut Vladimir Komarov died when he plummeted to the ground in Soyuz 1.
Although the USSR had won the first rounds of the space race, the US eventually bagged the conquest of the Moon. The six Apollo missions that successfully landed on the Moon were accompanied by the famous “Houston, we have a problem” of Apollo 13. In the face of its rival’s lunar victory, the Soviet Union concentrated its manned missions on Earth orbit, which with the end of the Apollo programme also became the only destination for NASA astronauts and other new players on the space chessboard. Since 1972, no human being has travelled beyond low Earth orbit. Today we are finally witnessing the first steps of a promised return to the Moon with NASA’s Artemis programme, which may in the future open the door to the conquest of the next frontier: Mars.