Fifty Years of Human Spaceflight

The Dream Comes True

Newspaper clip for Yuri Gagarin

On April 12, 1961, the Soviet Union launched Yuri Gagarin on a successful one-orbit flight. The U.S.S.R. quickly publicized the historic feat—a major propaganda victory. The Soviets placed five more cosmonauts in orbit over the next two years, including the first woman in space.


Mission Country Date Pilot Flight Time Orbits
Vostok USSR April 12, 1961 Yuri Gagarin 1:48 1
Mercury/Freedom 7 USA May 5, 1961 Alan Shepard 0:15 suborbital
Mercury/Liberty Bell 7 USA July 21, 1961 Virgil Grissom 0:15 suborbital
Vostok 2 USSR August 6-7, 1961 German Titov 1 day, 1:18 17
Mercury/Friendship 7 USA February 20, 1962 John Glenn 4:55 3
Mercury/Aurora 7 USA May 24, 1962 Scott Carpenter 4:55 3
Vostok 3 USSR August 11-15, 1962 Adrian Nikolaev 3 days, 22:22 64
Vostok 4 USSR August 12-15, 1962 Pavel Popovich 2 days, 22:52 48
Mercury/Sigma 7 USA October 3, 1962 Walter Schirra 9:13 6
Mercury/Faith 7 USA May 15, 1963 Gordon Cooper 1 day, 10:20 22
Vostok 5 USSR June 14-19, 1963 Valery Bykovsky 4 days, 23:07 81
Vostok 6 USSR June 16-19, 1963 Valentina Tereshkova 2 days, 22:50 48


Yuri A. Gagarin 1934—1968

Yuri Gagarin

Yuri Gagarin was a young Soviet air force pilot when selected with 20 others for cosmonaut training in 1960. His historic single orbit around Earth on April 12, 1961, took only 108 minutes from ignition to landing. After Gagarin returned and the Soviet press released news of his flight, he became an international hero.

Alan B. Shepard Jr. 1923—1998

Alan Shepard

U.S. Navy test pilot Alan Shepard joined the astronaut program in 1959. He became the first American and the second man in space on May 5, 1961, when he piloted the Mercury spacecraft Freedom 7 on a 490-kilometer (300-mile), 15-minute suborbital flight.

What's in a Name?

Cosmonaut and astronaut are two words that mean the same thing. Both words have the same Greek root, naut, meaning sailor. Cosmo comes from the Greek word for space. Astro comes from the word for stars. When the Soviet Union announced Gagarin's flight, they used the word cosmonaut to differentiate him from America's astronauts. Previous generations of Russian space enthusiasts had referred to space travelers as astronauts.

Vostok 3KA
1:3 scale model

Vostok 3KA (1:3 scale model)

Vostok 3KA spacecraft carried Yuri Gagarin and other Vostok cosmonauts into space in the early 1960s. This model includes the launch vehicle's upper stage that lifted the spherical craft above Earth's atmosphere. The spacecraft also had a conical equipment module at its base that carried oxygen and fuel. Engineers coated the spacecraft with a metalicized film to make it highly reflective and visible in the night sky. This model was one of a series made for display in the late 1960s and early 1970s. Gift of the Tsiolkovsky State Museum of the History of Cosmonautics

Vostok 3KA (full-size spacecraft)

Crew: 1
Length: 5 m (16 ft 5 in)
Diameter: 2.3 m (7 ft 6 in)
Mass: 2,460 kg (5,423 lb)
Manufacturer: OKB-1

1:3 scale model

Mercury (1:3 scale model)

Astronauts flew two suborbital missions and four orbital missions in Mercury capsules from 1961 through 1963.

Titanium was used throughout the capsule because of its light weight and strength. An ablative heat shield on the blunt end, and special shingles on the conical and cylindrical sections, protected against the tremendous heat of reentry. The orange launch escape tower had solid rocket motors to separate the capsule from the launch vehicle in the event of an emergency. If not used, it was jettisoned during the launch.

Almost all the spacecraft's systems worked well during each of the six crewed flights. When failures occurred, a redundant automatic system took over, or the astronaut performed the task using manual controls. As a result of this success, NASA modified the capsule very little during the Mercury program. Lent by NASA Marshall Space Flight Center

Mercury (full-scale spacecraft)

Crew: 1
Length: 3.3 m (10 ft 11 in)
Diameter: 1.9 m (6 ft 2 in)
Mass: 1,341 kg (2,956 lb)
Design: NASA Langley Research Center
Manufacturer: McDonnell Aircraft