5 Sputnik, the First Satellite
On October 4th, 1957, the Soviet Union shocked the west with its successful launch of an orbiting satellite. Sputnik 1 was a mere two feet in diameter, and its only function was to send out radio waves that could be tracked from earth. But the successful launch and orbit of a satellite displayed the technological prowess of the Russian science community and opened the floodgates of innovation and experimentation that would inform much of next few decades.
4 Gypsy and Dezik, the First Canine Cosmonauts
While the United States spent much of the late 1940s and early 50s blasting various animals off into space (we launched everything from mice to monkeys to fruit flies), most all of our “astronauts” died in flight. On July 22nd, 1951, the Soviets launched two dogs, Gypsy and Dezik, off into space… and amazingly both of these courageous canines made it back to earth alive! Sadly, Dezik died during a subsequent mission.
3 Yuri Gagarin, the First Man in Space
On April 12th, 1961, the Russians claimed what was arguably the single largest victory of the Space Race: they put a human being in space. And he even made it back in one piece! Gagarin was just a few weeks past his 27th birthday when he blasted into the history books as the first human being to exit our planet’s atmosphere and enter the realm of space riding in the space capsule Vostok 1.
2 Valentina Tereshkova, the First Woman in Space
Not content to have sent the first man into space, the Soviets were soon blasting the first female out of this world, too. At the time of this writing, Valentina Tereshkova is still living. At the time of her historic flight, she was 26 years old. Aboard the spacecraft Vostok 6, on June 16th, 1963, Ms. Tereshkova spent three days in orbit. Now in her late 70s, she has volunteered to spend a good deal more time than that, saying she would gladly accept a one-way mission to Mars.
1 Luna 2, the First Moon “Landing”
That’s right, the Soviets even beat us to the moon! Sort of. On September 14th, 1959, the Soviets smashed a small spacecraft named Luna 2 (this was a second attempt, after Luna 1 went hurtling past the moon and off into the solar system) into the lunar surface. Later spacecraft in the Luna program conducted a range of experiments, testing everything from radiation to lunar soil. Luna 9 even sent back pictures from the surface of the moon in the year 1966, three years before American astronauts would stand upon our celestial partner. But Luna 2 will always be remembered as the first manmade object to reach another heavenly body.