The rockets that defined space travel

Published 7:41 PM ET, Wed February 3, 2021
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2020: Rocket technology has come a long way since the start of the space age. Humanity's next giant leap is sending astronauts to Mars, with NASA hoping to do this by the mid 2030s. But to reach the red planet, explore the surface, and safely return home, new technologies must be deployed. One option being considered is nuclear-powered rockets. This design, by USNC-Tech, could travel from Earth to Mars in just three months, says the company. Click through to see the evolution of spacecraft, and how far we've come.
1944: The first rocket capable of reaching the edge of space was the V-2, a long-range ballistic missile. Developed by German engineers during World War II, its full name -- "Vergeltungswaffe Zwei" (Vengeance Weapon Two) -- was given to it by Joseph Goebbels, the Nazi minister of propaganda. Despite being used as a lethal weapon the V-2, which was powered by a liquid ethanol fuel, signaled the dawn of the space age, with the Allies scrambling to acquire the technology once the war had ended. Bundesarchiv, Bild 141-1880:CC-BY-SA 3.0
1957: The Soviet Union won the first leg of the space race, launching its intercontinental ballistic missile, the R-7, on October 4. This put Sputnik -- the world's first artificial satellite -- into orbit. The following month, a second satellite, Sputnik 2, was sent into space carrying a small dog called Laika, the first living creature in orbit. While she did not survive the mission, she blazed the way for all humans that followed.
NASA/Asif A. Siddiqi
1958: Explorer 1 was the first US satellite to enter space, on January 31 from Cape Canaveral in Florida. It was launched on top of Jupiter C, a ballistic missile, and carried scientific instruments, such as a cosmic ray detector designed to measure the radiation environment in Earth's orbit. The satellite made a total of 58,000 orbits then burnt up after entering the planet's atmosphere in 1970. NASA
1959: Despite only reaching the edge of space, the X-15, a rocket-powered plane, was crucial in informing the design and engineering of later American spacecraft, such as NASA's space shuttles. The bullet-shaped plane completed 199 test flights over nine years, and was flown by just 12 pilots, including Neil Armstrong, who would go on to lead the first moon landing in 1969. It was the quickest manned aircraft ever to fly, reaching speeds of 4,520 miles per hour (7,274 kilometers per hour) in 1967. NASA
1961: Pipping the US to the post, Soviet cosmonaut Yuri Gagarin became the first human in space, leaving Earth on April 12, aboard the Vostok 1 rocket -- just 25 days ahead of the first manned American suborbital flight. His space flight, which lasted 1 hour 48 minutes, orbited Earth once before reentering the atmosphere. At 20,000 feet, Gagarin ejected himself and parachuted to ground, landing in Kazakhstan. AFP/Getty Images
1962: In the fine art of one-upmanship, on February 20, the US sent John Glenn into orbit in the Mercury Atlas 6 rocket named Friendship 7. The spacecraft orbited Earth three times, reaching speeds of 28,000 kilometers per hour (17,000 miles per hour) and an altitude of 260 kilometers (161 miles). Four hours and 55 minutes later, it landed with a splash in the Atlantic Ocean. Glenn and his capsule were recovered by a US Navy ship 21 minutes later.
1967: By now the US had set its sights on a moon landing, and NASA was busy designing a rocket for that purpose. It built the Saturn V, a huge and powerful rocket. At 111 meters (364 feet) tall, it was about the height of a 36-story building, and weighed 2.8 million kilograms (6.2 million pounds). The first Saturn V test launch was in 1967, but two years later it made its first lunar landing mission, launching Apollo 11 (pictured). NASA
1969: Apollo 11 lifted off from NASA's Kennedy Space Center at 9:32am on July 16, carrying Neil Armstrong, Michael Collins and Edwin "Buzz" Aldrin. Four days later, Armstrong set foot on the moon. He was followed to the surface by Aldrin, while Collins remained in lunar orbit. The crew spent under three hours walking on the moon's surface, collecting 47 pounds of lunar material to be analyzed back on Earth. NASA
1973: Skylab was America's first space station and crewed research laboratory. It was built using the modified stage of a Saturn V rocket, which was fitted with living quarters for three astronauts. Skylab launched into space on May 14, and spent six years in orbit, home to three successive crews. The longest stay for any crew on the station was 84 days. NASA
1981: Columbia was the first space shuttle to fly in space. The shuttles were designed as reusable vehicles to ferry satellites and components into orbit, to build the International Space Station (ISS). But in 2003, on its 28th flight, the space shuttle broke up on its return to Earth, killing all seven astronauts on board. NASA suspended space shuttle flights for more than two years as it investigated the disaster.
2010: The 2010s was the decade in which commercial spaceflight really took off. It started with Falcon 9, a rocket built by Elon Musk's SpaceX, which launched the unmanned Dragon space capsule into orbit. The Dragon circled Earth twice before landing in the Pacific Ocean -- becoming the first orbital spacecraft launched and recovered by a private company. Matt Stroshane/Getty Images North America/Getty Images
2017: US company Rocket Lab enters the commercial launch market with the maiden flight of its Electron rocket, lifting off from New Zealand's Mahia Peninsula. The Electron, designed to offer cost-effective rocket launch services to the small satellite market, successfully reached space but failed to orbit.
Rocket Lab
2020: SpaceX launched a Falcon 9 rocket on May 30, this time carrying two astronauts in a Crew Dragon capsule. The test mission reached the International Space Station (ISS) and returned safely on August 2. It was the first launch of an American crew since the conclusion of the Space Shuttle program in 2011. In November, a Crew Dragon returned to space with four astronauts on board for a six-month science mission on the ISS. Handout/Getty Images North America
2020: NASA engineers have started to assemble the massive rocket designed to take the first woman and the next man to the moon in 2024, as part of the Artemis program. The first booster segment of the Space Launch System (SLS) was stacked on top of the mobile launcher in preparation for its maiden flight next year. Once fully assembled, the SLS rocket will stand taller than the Statue of Liberty and have 15% more thrust at liftoff than the Saturn V rocket -- making it the most powerful rocket ever built.
NASA/Cory Huston