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Oklahomans and Space

History of Space Exploration


Space exploration began in the 1950s during a period called the Cold War. During this time, the United States and Russia, which was then in a group known as the Soviet Union, competed against each other. They both wanted to be perceived as the most powerful country in the world, and were developing increasingly stronger weapons. At the time, many Americans were afraid that the Soviets would attack the United States with these weapons, but this never came to pass.

The US and the Soviet Union also competed to have better technology, including the technology to explore space. This specific competition became known as the “space race.” In 1957, the Soviet Union launched the first man-made satellite into Earth’s orbit, called Sputnik. They would also launch the first human, Yuri Gagarin, into space. American politicians and scientists saw this as a crisis because they thought it meant that the Soviets might win the space race. The US government decided to commit more funds to space exploration. In 1958, the government created the National Aeronautics and Space Administration, or NASA, an independent agency of the federal government responsible for American space exploration, as well as aeronautics and space research.

Eventually, the United States and the Soviet Union decided that it would be easier if they worked together to explore space. This cooperation was a step towards the end of the Cold War and led to the world’s increasing collective knowledge about space, and space program development across the globe. When the Soviet Union dissolved into several countries in 1991, its space program mainly passed to Russia. The US and Russia would continue to work together with space shuttle and space station collaboration programs as well as with the present-day construction and development of the International Space Station.

NASA logo (image courtesy of National Aeronautics and Space Administration).

Astronauts could not get to space without the help those who work in this Mission Control Center in Houston, Texas (22311.S-64-33119, Jerry Elliott Collection, OHS).

History of NASA

Soon after its creation, NASA planned to have human space flight. In 1961, Alan B. Shepard Jr. became the first American in space. John Glenn Jr. would then become the first US astronaut to orbit the Earth in 1962, and Edward H. White Jr. would become the first US astronaut to conduct a spacewalk. In 1961, President John F. Kennedy announced that the United States was going to land a man on the moon by the end of the decade. NASA established the Apollo program with the goal to fulfill this mission. The Apollo program was one of the largest non-military technological projects established by the United States government.

Neil Armstrong became the first human to walk on the moon on July 20, 1969. While taking his first step onto the moon’s surface, Armstrong made one of the most famous statements in history: “That’s one small step for man, one giant leap for mankind.”

In 1975, for the first time, Americans and Soviets worked together in space. American astronauts from the Apollo program and Soviet Soyuz cosmonauts each launched from their own countries and met together in space. This marked the end of the space race, and was a major step towards the ending of the Cold War.

In 1973, NASA launched its first space station, known as Skylab. In 1981, the space shuttle became the first reusable spacecraft launched. In 1998, the American, Russian, Japanese, European, and Canadian space programs worked together to build the International Space Station, or ISS. The purpose of the ISS is to experiment with long-term stays in space with the hope of exploring the possibility of humans living permanently in space. Astronauts started living on the ISS in 2000, and the station is expected to operate through the year 2030. Over 200 people from 20 countries have visited the ISS, making it one of the largest signifiers of international technological cooperation both in (and above) the world.

The International Space Station as of October 4, 2018 (photo courtesy of National Aeronautics and Space Administration).

Space shuttle launch (image courtesy of National Aeronautics and Space Administration).