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Ten things you probably didn't know about the space race

24 August 2015 ( 10 October 2019 )

From Laika’s tragic, but hushed-up fate to Yuri Gagarin’s odd toilet habits, some funny and fascinating things happened during America and the USSR’s tussle for space supremacy. We reveal ten of the best.

Yuri Gagarin
Yuri Gagarin before the first space flight, April 12 1961. During his historic Vostok-1 mission, Gagarin wore an SK-1 suit which comprised undergarments, a pressure suit and an orange-coloured over garment. The CCCP lettering on the helmet was a late addition to indicate the cosmonaut’s nationality, in case Russians at the landing site mistook him for an American. Photo: State Museum and Exhibition Centre ROSIZO

1. The space race is older than you think

The Soviet space programme dates back to the Cosmists, a Russian movement in the late 1800s that meditated on the origin, evolution and future of the cosmos and humankind. They influenced scientist Konstantin Tsiolkovsky (1857-1935), who was the first to calculate it was possible to reach outer space using liquid-propellant rockets. He even considered multi-stage launchers (‘rocket trains’) and space suits.

2. The first cosmonauts were stray dogs

While the Americans sent monkeys on test flights, the Soviets preferred dogs; they were more obedient and Moscow street dogs were reckoned to be tougher, too. On July 22, 1951, Tsygan and Dezik reached an altitude of just under 70 miles. When they touched down after 15 minutes, they were the first vertebrates to experience space flight safely. On 3 November, 1957, another stray, Laika, became the first living creature to supposedly orbit the Earth, but it emerged recently that she overheated and died hours after the launch of Sputnik 2.

3. A US satellite has been in orbit for over 60 years

The US Navy’s Vanguard 1 (1958) was the first solar-powered satellite. Although communication with it was lost in May 1964, it remains the oldest manmade satellite still in orbit where it will remain well into the 22nd century. 

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4. Peeing against a bus is good luck for astronauts

On his way to the launch pad in 1961, the first man in space, Yuri Gagarin, asked the bus to stop so he could relieve himself against the back right-hand tyre. Even today, male astronauts are still expected to leave their bus, unzip their suits and do the same. Female astronauts have been known to bring vials of their urine to splash on the wheel.

5. All cosmonauts have to watch an old Soviet film before setting off

The evening before a cosmonaut’s launch it is mandatory to watch the popular 1970 Russian film White Sun of the Desert, which follows the adventures of a soldier who has been fighting in the Russian Civil War. The origin of this tradition is unclear, and several craters on Venus are named after characters in the film.   

6. Alan Shepard was the first man to play golf in space

In 1971, during the Apollo 14 lunar mission, Alan Shepard became the first human to play golf on the Moon. He hit two balls just before lift-off, and drove them, as he put it, ‘miles and miles and miles’.

7. Even during the Cold War the US and USSR cooperated sometimes

The first time that the Cold War enemies cooperated in space was in 1969. When Apollo 11 headed for the Moon it followed in the wake of a Russian unmanned exploration spacecraft called Luna-15. The USSR released Luna 15's flight plan to ensure it would not interfere with the moon landing. Hours before the scheduled American lift off from the Moon, the Russian craft crashed into the surface.

8. The Venera probes made history

Of the ten probes from the Soviet Venera series successfully landed on Venus, Venera 4 (1967) was the first human-made device to enter the atmosphere of another planet – revealing it to be mostly carbon dioxide - and Venera 7 (1970) the first to make a soft landing on another planet.

9. Gemini capsule Molly Brown was named after a Titanic survivor

9. Astronaut Gus Grissom named the mid-sixties NASA two-man Gemini capsule, The Unsinkable Molly Brown, as a jokey reference to how his previous one-man Liberty Bell 7 Mercury spacecraft had sunk shortly after his splashdown in 1961. When NASA asked him to change the name, he suggested The Titanic. The agency relented so it became Molly Brown.  Margaret Brown, nicknamed The Unsinkable Mrs Brown, was a survivor on the Titanic who tried and failed to convince her lifeboat to search the debris for survivors. Her story became a broadway musical. Sadly, Grissom was killed along with fellow astronauts Ed White and Roger Chaffee in an oxygen fire during a pre-launch test for the Apollo 1 mission in 1967. Eventually, in 1999, Grissom’s Mercury space capsule was recovered from the Atlantic.

10. The first space station was named Salyut 1

The first space station was Salyut 1, launched by the Soviet Union on April 19, 1971. In 1986, the Soviet Union launched the first components of the space station Mir, which would become the first space station to be permanently manned.

Read our interview with Dr Maggie Aderin Pocock

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