Space Firsties During the Cold War

The Cold War between the Soviet Union and United States began in 1947 and ended in 1991.  During this time was much political positioning and nuclear proliferation.  But also an exciting space race to not only advance science but also feed the propaganda machines.  Being first was big news.  So, let’s take a look at all the news worthy space firsties of the Cold War.

As I see it, the space race during the Cold War between two super powers is a series of sprints.  Each sprint ending in a clear space firstie.  The Soviet Union and United States with help from World War II rocketry embarked on a race to the final frontier, space.

Initially, There was the sprint to put something into orbit.  The Americans started small with fruit flies where the Soviets let the dogs out as first living things to space.    However, placing an object into orbit was won by the Soviet Union in 1957 with a ball shaped satellite named Sputnik.  Followed quickly by placing the dog, Laika, into orbit.  Wait, how are we getting Laika back?  Apparently de-orbiting was second on the list.  Sorry, Laika.  Anyway, with the success of Sputnik the space race begins but also signals the end of the first sprint.

Score:  Soviets 2, Americans 0

In 1959, the Soviet Union goes big and aims for the moon and America takes some selfies.  However, the Soviet made Luna 1 misses the moon but takes the participation ribbon for the first artificial object leaving Earth’s orbit.  Luna 1 did also detect the first solar winds.  The Americans take the first photograph from orbit with thanks to Explorer 6.

Score:  Soviets 4, Americans 1

Next milestone was the first man into space.  Congratulations to Yuri Gagarin of the Soviet Union who in 1961 was the first man to space as part of Vostok 1.  The Soviet Union was on a winning streak and in 1965 also added the first space walk to the win column.  Alexey Arkhipovich Leonov performed the first space walk lasting twelve minutes during the Voskhod 2 mission.  The Soviets are making good ground and take a substantial firstie lead.

Score:  Soviets 6, Americans 1

Feeling a little behind in 1961 and to get in the heads of the Soviets, President Kennedy announces that America will land the first man on the moon.  This confidence came from the Freedom 7 (a.k.a Mercury-Redstone) mission. Astronaut, Alan Shepard, racked up the first human-piloted spaceflight, first human-crewed spaceflight, and first complete human spaceflight.  <mic drop>  With a boost of speed in 1962 the United States also takes the first man to orbit the Earth, John Glenn.

The Soviets proving space is not just a man’s playground launched Valentina Vladimirovna Tereshkova to orbit as part of the 1963  Vostok 6 mission.  The Americans would wait until the Space Shuttle era for their first woman to space.  And in 1983 a mere 20ish years later Sally Ride road the Space Shuttle Challenger into space.  To date, Sally Ride is also the youngest astronaut to space.  However, this is firsties and so no points to the Americans.

Score:  Soviets 7, Americans 5

For a couple years unmanned spacecraft firsts took the spotlight.  In 1965, the Americans have a successful Mars flyby with Mariner 4.   The Soviets insert the Venera 3 probe into Venus orbit and stick the landing in 1966.  Note: as Google searches go I’d stay away from the keywords “probe” and “Venus”.

Then 1966 went crazy with firsties.  The American Gemini 8 manned mission has the first space docking.  The Soviets orbit the moon with the Luna 10 space probe.  The American unmanned lunar lander, Surveyor 1, soft lands on the moon.  The two super powers are neck and neck when tragedy strikes.

Score:  Soviets 9, Americans 8

In 1967, both super powers stumble and briefly fall.  Three astronauts die in the American’s Apollo 1 mission on the launch pad.   The Soviet Soyuz 1 has numerous failures including a parachute not opening killing the astronaut on reentry.  Each super power loses 1 point as set backs.

Score:  Soviets 8, Americans 7

Undeterred the Americans rally.  Apollo 8 orbits the moon and celebrates the fist holiday at the moon, Christmas of 1968.  Yes kids, it is the first time Santa Claus orbited the moon.  Finally, in 1969 Apollo 11 lunar lander and crew lands on the moon.  Since the lander found a sweet parking spot why not get out and look around a bit?  So, Neil Armstrong did just that and became the first man on the moon.  Last, the astronauts launched from the moon and returned to Earth.  All of which was not a hoax perpetrated in a sound studio in Hollywood.  The Americans have taken the lead for he first time in firsts!

Score:  Soviets 8, Americans 10, Santa Claus 1

The Soviets had to do some kind of moon thing to try and tie things up.  In 1970, the Luna 16 robotic probe landed, played in the moon dust, made the first moon pie, and brought the moon pie back to Earth.  By “moon pie” I mean rock.  Go you Luna 16.

Reaching down deep the Soviets spur the living in space part of the race.  Salyut 1 in 1971 becomes the first orbiting space station.  In the same year, three cosmonauts moved in for 23 days with a classified amount of vodka.  However, all three cosmonauts died on reentry.  So, 2 firstie points for first space station and living in it.  Minus 1 point for crew death.  However, the score is now tied!

Score:  Soviets 10, Americans 10

America turns towards more distant frontiers.   Mars is the next place to place a footprint.  In 1971, Mariner 9 orbits and completes the first map of Mars.  Later, in 1976, the Viking 1 orbiter would show Mars smiling.  Clearly shown in the Cydonia region  as revealed by “The face on Mars“.  Smiling in the way the Mona Lisa is smiling at any rate.

The Soviets also are looking for little green peeps in 1971 with a series of Mars firsts.  Mars 2 impacts Mars for a first and not the last crash into Mars.  Mars 3 softly lands and sends signals back to Earth.  This feels like only 1 point as Mars 2 had a greater mission than to just crash.  Giving the Americans a tenuous lead.

Score:  Soviets 11, Americans 12

Pioneer 10 is launched in 1972 and has many firsts.  The first mission to the asteroid belt and leave the inner solar system.  In 1973, the first Jupiter flyby. Ten years later it will be the first spacecraft to leave the solar system and pass Neptune’s orbit in 1983.  Unfortunately, communications were lost in 2003 where it told its sister, Pioneer 11, “I told you so”.  Also unfortunately, Pioneer 11 lost communications ability in 1995.  This gives Pioneer 10 the official robotic firstie last word.  More importantly is Pioneer 10’s stardom (pun intended).  Several science fiction movies have featured Pioneer 10.  Pioneer 10 was always known as a bit of a diva.

Score:  Soviets 11, Americans 15

In 1975, the Soviets collaborate on space and Indian ports.  India builds their first satellite, Aryabhata, which the Soviets launch for India.  The collaboration allowed Soviets to use Indian ports for tracking ships and launching vessels.  A power failure crippled the satellite after four days.  However, the Soviets claimed the satellite worked longer.  This may also be the first intergovernmental space help desk issue.  For the help desk issue I’m giving India the point.

Score:  Soviets 11, Americans 15, India 1

Viking 1 lands on Mars in 1976 and embarks on many firsties for the Americans.  The first ever lander on Mars.  The first clear pictures of Mars up close.  The first testing for biological evidence.  The first accidentally overwritten control software.  Uh, oops.  Mental note, when uploading the new battery software do not make room by deleting the antenna positioning data.

Things are then a  bit slow for three years but they were building years.  In 1977, Voyager 1 and 2 are launched.  The Soviet Salyut 6 space station has not one but two docking ends making it the envy of 1977 space stations.  Navstar 1 American made GPS satellite is launched in 1978.

Then 1979 happens.  US built Pioneer 11 is the first to fly by Saturn.  Europe successfully launches its first French built launch vehicle.  Last but certainly not least, Skylab crashes into the Australian grasslands and becomes the first satellite to do so.  I guarantee Skylab hit at least one rabbit but no koalas.

We have not done points for awhile so let’s take a look.   The score is close coming into the Viking 1 paragraph for the super powers.  Viking 1 awards Americans 3 firstie points with no points for software bugs for 18 points.  I’m not rewarding 1977 and 1978.  Pioneer 11 gets a point for Americans but Skylab is a set back point so that is a wash. Europe managed some points as well.  So, looks like we are at Americans 18, Soviets 11, India 1, Europe (thank you France) 1.

The Space Shuttle Columbia lifts off in 1981 as the first reusable orbital space vehicle for a firstie point.  But wait, that’s not all.  In 1983 the first American woman, Sally Ride,  rides to space aboard the Space Shuttle ChallengerValentina Tershkova enjoys a been-there-done-that moment and no point for the Americans.  The first Manned Maneuvering Unit (MMU – phonetically pronounced “muh muh you” which is generally accompanied by “gesundheit!”) is the first in untethered spacewalks in 1984 earning a point.  Also in 1984 is the Space Shuttle Challenger crew repair of the Solar Max satellite.  Tragically, both shuttles on later missions were destroyed killing their crews.  Challenger’s tragedy was in 1986 and Columbia’s in 2003.  The 1986 set back loses 1 point.  Recent shuttle missions have been to the International Space Station in case the orbiter became too damaged for reentry the crew would be safe.

In 1985, a comet is buzzed by the International Cometary ExplorerVoyager 2 does a flyby of Uranus.  Heh heh, he said “Uranus”.

Score:  Soviets 11, Americans 20, India 1, Europe 1, International 1

Mr. Gorbachev tear down that wall!  Yup, its 1989 and near the end of the cold war when the Berlin Wall falls.  Voyager 2 zips by Neptune for the first flyby of the blue planet.

Space races take money and resources and when your competition is trying to bankrupt you in an arms race it makes space firsties difficult.  In 1991, the Soviet Union collapses under economic strain and internal conflict.  The last firstie in the Cold War goes to the Americans for an asteroid flyby of 951 Gaspra by the Galileo Jupiter probe.  Galileo is heading to Jupiter to orbit and study the gas giant.

Final Score:  Soviets 11, Americans 22, India 1, Europe 1, International 1

The Soviet Union enjoyed an early lead but in the end the United States takes double the space firsties.  We also start to see international involvement overtime and that is true today.  In 1998, the International Space Station was built in space.  This was a joint effort between the USA (NASA), Russia, Europe (ESA), Canada, and Japan.  The European Space Agency (ESA) alone is most of Europe with 22 member states!  Not to mention all the shared data to scientists around the world.  Space exploration and study has now become a borderless effort and one more akin to an Earth wide effort.  Any firstie now will go in the Earth column.


Special thanks to for an excellent 50 years spaceflight timeline.  Also to Wikipedia for an awesome Timeline of Space Exploration.


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