In late 1950s scientists and politicians in the Soviet Union and the United States competed fiercely to perform firsts in space: to launch the first satellite and send the first human beyond the Earth’s atmosphere. The confrontation between these superpowers, and the 1957 launch of Sputnik I, the first man-made object to orbit the earth, resulted in what we now know as the Space Race, an extraordinary timeline of consecutive one-upmanship that produced some of history’s greatest achievements in space.
In the early years of the Space Race, the Americans were the underdogs, beset with problems in their rocket development. But the Americans soon caught up to the Soviet Union’s technological lead. In 1961 the Soviets launched the first human, cosmonaut Yuri Gagarin, into space. Soon after this the Americans celebrated their first astronaut in space, Alan Shepard. As the race gained momentum, the bets grew higher. In the early 1960s, Americans set their sights on the Moon, giving themselves a timeframe of just over eight years.