The most successful human spacecraft in history

Another spacecraft is set to join the coveted list of machines for successful human spaceflight after the launch and return last week of Boeing’s Starliner crew capsule.

While Boeing will provide much-needed competition to SpaceX’s Crew Dragon program, it will only be the second commercial capsule to take humans to the International Space Station (ISS).

Government agencies paved the way for manned spaceflight, and private companies are now taking over. Here is a brief overview of the history of manned spaceflight and the spacecraft that made it possible.

1. Vostok (USSR, 1961)

Last month marked the 61st anniversary of the first manned spaceflight, performed by Russian cosmonaut Yuri Gagarin aboard a Vostok spacecraft on April 12, 1961. Although the celebrations were marred by Russia’s continued invasion of Ukraine, Gagarin’s historic achievement kickstarted manned spaceflight.

Source: Wikimedia

After launching into space, Gagarin traveled a full orbit of our planet before descending back into Earth’s atmosphere. Since Vostok had no landing gear, Gagarin had to eject on reentry and parachute back to Earth. Vostok had the ability to carry an astronaut aboard a small spherical cabin with a window near the astronaut’s feet.

2. Mercury (US, 1961)

Just three weeks after the Soviet Union launched Gagarin into space, the United States sent its own crewed vehicle into suborbital space as part of Project Mercury. Jeff Bezos’ Blue Origin named its primary launch vehicle, New Shepard, after the first American astronaut to reach space, Alan Shepard.

From NASA to SpaceX: the most successful human spacecraft in history
Source: Wikimedia

In February 1962, astronaut John Glenn’s vehicle reached orbit aboard a Mercury launch vehicle. The last Crewed Mercury capsule flew in 1963.

3. Gemini (US, 1965)

Gemini was essentially an adapted version of the American Mercury capsules, designed to carry two astronauts into space. Similar to the Soviet Union’s Voskot successor, Voskhod, Gemini was designed to allow a human spacewalk to take place.

From NASA to SpaceX: the most successful human spacecraft in history
Source: Wikimedia

In 1965, Alexei Leonov performed the first human spacewalk aboard Voskhod 2, exiting its inflatable airlock for approximately 12 minutes.

This was followed soon after by Gemini’s first spacewalk, performed by NASA astronaut Ed White. Attached to a With a 23-foot tether and 25-foot umbilical, he floated in space for about 20 minutes. The Gemini program has also been notable for teaching astronauts how to dock with other spacecraft in space, a crucial component for future NASA Moon landings.

4. Soyuz (USSR/Russia, 1967)

The Soyuz program is the longest manned space flight program in history. First launched in 1967, Russia has developed ten different versions of the Soyuz spacecraft since then. Soyuz means “union” in Russian.

From NASA to SpaceX: the most successful human spacecraft in history
Source: Wikimedia

During his first launch, the astronaut was killed by a parachute malfunction on re-entry. The Soyuz spacecraft completed more than 150 crewed spaceflights and the vehicle docked with an Apollo command module in 1975 to mark the end of the Cold War space race.

Recently they have been the subject of mockery from Roscosmos chief Dmitry Rogozin, who claimed that the United States could launch into space aboard its “American broomsticks” following the sanctions applied to Russia after his invasion of Ukraine. The SpaceX CEO was quick to name his company’s Falcon 9 an “American broomstick” upon its subsequent launch.

5. Apollo/Lunar Module (USA, 1968)

The Apollo 11 moon landing in 1969 was carried out by three separate spacecraft: a command module, a workhorse service module, and the lunar module that carried Neil Armstrong and Buzz Aldrin to the surface of the Moon.

From NASA to SpaceX: the most successful human spacecraft in history
Source: Wikimedia

The last Apollo mission, Apollo 17, flew in December 1972, marking the last time humans visited the Moon. A milestone that NASA and SpaceX hope to achieve again by around 2025 with their Artemis III mission.

6. Space Shuttle (USA, 1981)

NASA’s Space Shuttle was the first reusable crewed spacecraft. The US space agency built a total of five separate shuttles and sent a total of 135 crewed missions into space between 1981 and 2011.

From NASA to SpaceX: the most successful human spacecraft in history
Source: Wikimedia

Two of the five shuttles were unfortunately destroyed with the Challenger disaster in 1986 and the Columbia disaster in 2003.

7. Shenzhou (China, 2003)

China’s Shenzhou 5 mission on On October 15, 2003, it was the third country to send humans into space when it launched astronaut Yang Liwei into orbit.

From NASA to SpaceX: the most successful human spacecraft in history
Source: CCTV/YouTube Video News Agency

The Shenzhou spacecraft is similar in design to the Russian Soyuz, although larger. It was first launched unmanned on November 19, 1999.

8. Crew Dragon (USA, 2020)

SpaceX’s Crew Dragon capsule brought human spaceflight back to American soil for the first time in nearly a decade in May 2020 with the launch of NASA and SpaceX Demo-2.

From NASA to SpaceX: the most successful human spacecraft in history
Source: Wikimedia

Since then, SpaceX has launched a total of 22 astronauts into space on its Crew-1 through Crew-4 missions, as well as aboard commercial Ax-1 and Inspiration4 launches.

9. Bonus: SpaceShipOne (USA, 2004)

On June 21, 2004, SpaceShipOne, designed and developed by Scaled Composites of Mojave, California, became the first privately-manned space vehicle to launch into space.

From NASA to SpaceX: the most successful human spacecraft in history
Source: Wikimedia

While the spacecraft was purchased and iterated over by Virgin Galactic, the milestone is arguably understated. It was the first private spacecraft to reach space before SpaceX’s Falcon 1 was admittedly the first to reach orbit.

Scaled Composites and SpaceX can therefore be credited with sparking the new space age, in which private companies are gearing up for the first commercial spacewalk and building orbital space stations and lunar landers to enable the next big leap in space. forward for manned spaceflight.

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