On 5 October 1957 the Soviet Union succeeded in putting the first man made object into orbit around the Earth. This Satellite was called Sputnik. It was followed a month later by Sputnik II, which carried the first space traveller, Laika the dog. Their launch caused a huge shock all around the world, but especially in the United States, where people had grown used to their countries technological superiority.

The Vanguard rocket exploding (NASA)

The Vanguard rocket exploding (NASA)

In response to Sputnik and Sputnik II, the United States launched the Vanguard test satellite in December 1957. Whereas the Sputnik launches had been a great success, the televised Vanguard launch was a spectacular failure, leading to newspaper headlines such as 'Flopnik' and 'Kaputnik'.

The US Navy's Vanguard rocket rose just over a metre before sinking back down towards the launch pad and exploding when its fuel tanks ruptured. Sputnik had orbited the Earth for more than two months at a height of about 250km, transmitting a regular radio beep back to Earth. The Vanguard test satellite, on the other hand, was thrown clear when the launch vehicle exploded, landing on the ground a short distance away with its transmitters still sending out its own radio signal.

Despite the successful launch of Vanguard 1 in March 1958, there was still a fear of the Soviets gaining the upper hand in space. Later that year the National Aeronautics and Space Administration, or NASA, was created and given control of all non military activity in Space.

NASA took control of the Vanguard programme and went on to launch Project Mercury, which ran from 1959 to 1963. The Mercury programme was designed to discover if man could survive in Space and to put a man into orbit. However, the Americans were again beaten by the Soviet Union, when Yuri Gagarin became the first man to orbit the Earth in April 1961. It was not until almost a year later, in February 1962, that John Glen became the first American to enter Earth's orbit.

Project Mercury was followed by Project Gemini and Project Apollo, both of which focussed on landing a man on the moon. Project Gemini was used to conduct various experiments in space and to work out some of the finer details relating to a manned moon mission. Gemini established that longer duration space flight was possible and also demonstrated that it was possible for two vehicles to rendezvous and dock in space.