The most successful human spacecraft in history

Another spacecraft is close to joining the coveted list of machines to achieve successful human spaceflight following last week’s launch and return of Boeing’s Starliner crew capsule.

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

Government agencies led the way for human spaceflight, and private companies are now taking the mantle. Here’s a brief look at the history of human spaceflight and the spacecraft that made it possible.

1. Vostok (USSR, 1961)

Last month was the 61st anniversary of the first human spaceflight, conducted by Russian cosmonaut Yuri Gagarin aboard a Vostok spacecraft on April 12, 1961. Though celebrations were marred by Russia’s ongoing invasion of Ukraine, Gagarin’s historic achievement kickstarted human spaceflight.

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

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

2. Mercury (US, 1961)

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

From NASA to SpaceX: The most successful human spacecraft in history
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In February 1962, astronaut John Glenn 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 U.S.’s Mercury capsules, designed to carry two astronauts to space. Much in the same fashion as 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 carried out the first human spacewalk aboard the Voskhod 2, exiting its inflatable airlock for roughly 12 minutes.

This was followed shortly by Gemini’s first spacewalk, carried out by NASA astronaut Ed White. Attached to a 23-foot tether and 25-foot umbilical, he floated in space for roughly 20 minutes. The Gemini program was also of note for teaching astronauts to dock with other spacecraft in space, a crucial component for NASA’s future Moon landings.

4. Soyuz (USSR/Russia, 1967)

The Soyuz program is the longest-lasting human spaceflight program in history. First launched in 1967, Russia has developed ten different iterations of the Soyuz spacecraft since that time. Soyuz means “union” in Russian.

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

On its first launch, the astronaut was killed by a parachute malfunction on reentry. Soyuz spacecraft have made 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 focus of jibes by Roscosmos chief Dmitry Rogozin, who claimed the U.S. could launch to space aboard their “American broomsticks” following sanctions applied to Russia after its invasion of Ukraine. SpaceX CEO was quick to name his company’s Falcon 9 an “American broomstick” on its subsequent launch.

5. Apollo/Lunar Module (US, 1968)

The 1969 Apollo 11 Moon landing was carried out by three separate spacecraft: a command module, a workhorse service module, and the lunar module that took 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 final Apollo mission, Apollo 17, flew in December 1972, marking the last time humans made it to the Moon. A milestone NASA and SpaceX hope to achieve again by around 2025 with their Artemis III mission. 

6. Space Shuttle (US, 1981)

NASA’s Space Shuttle was the first reusable crewed spacecraft. The U.S. space agency built a total of five separate shuttles and sent a total of 135 crewed missions to 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 15 October 2003 made it the third country to send humans to space when it launched astronaut Yang Liwei into orbit.

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

The Shenzhou spacecraft is similar in design to Russia’s Soyuz, though it’s larger. It was first launched without a crew on November 19, 1999.

8. Crew Dragon (US, 2020)

SpaceX’s Crew dragon capsule brought human spaceflight back to U.S. soil for the first time in almost a decade in May, 2020 with NASA and SpaceX’s Demo-2 launch.

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

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

9. Bonus: SpaceShipOne

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

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

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

Both Scaled Composites and SpaceX, therefore, can be credited with igniting the new space age, in which private companies are building orbital space stations and Moon landers to enable the next great leap for human spaceflight. 

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