Space Exploration Timeline, 1960-75

BOLD CAPS = manned missions; Bold lower-case = unmanned probes


  • NASA begins use of two rockets as expendable launch systems (ELS) in its unmanned robotic probe programs: 1) the Atlas-Agena (originally by Lockheed/Convair division of General Dynamics) – continued to 1978, propelled several Mariner, Ranger, and Lunar Orbiter probe missions; and 2) the Delta family of rockets (Boeing) used for myriad communication, meteorological, and scientific missions – still in use (both began as ICBM platforms).
  • MERCURY PROGRAM (1958-1963): first of three manned spaceflight initiatives, Mercury featured one-man orbital flights; saw 19 launches, 2 unmanned test missions, 7 target vehicles, and 10 manned missions. 
  • The return capsule of the U.S. Discoverer 13 Corona mission is successfully recovered from the Pacific Ocean, the first time any man-made object has been recovered successfully from orbit.
  • A Soviet SS-2 missile is successfully launched in a suborbital test from Jiuquan Satellite Launch Center in Inner Mongolia, the first Chinese spaceflight.
  • The U.S. Army Courier 1B, the world’s first active communications repeater satellite, is launched into low earth orbit.


  • “Twenty-Five Foot Space Simulator” chamber built at the Jet Propulsion Lab in Pasadena for testing of spacecraft (probes) in space-like temperatures, radiation, and vacuum pressures; Manned Space Center (LBJ) in Houston builds the “Space Environment Simulation Laboratory” in 1965 for manned missions.
  • Ranger Program (1961-65) begins series of nine unmanned probes to photograph the Moon’s surface and transmit images to earth; first two missions fail. Ranger (and the later Surveyor programs) competed with the Soviet Union’s Luna Program that launched 24 robotic spacecraft to land on, fly by, survey, and study various aspects of the Moon between 1959 and 1976.
  • A 37-pound male chimpanzee named Ham is rocketed into space in a test of the Project Mercury capsule (January 31) designed to carry American astronauts into space.
  • Yuri Gagarin of the USSR is the first human in space (April): launched from Baikonur Cosmodrome in southern Kazakhstan.
  • Mercury: the first American astronaut, Alan Shepard, goes into space aboard Mercury-Redstone 3 (May 5).
  • R. N. Schwartz and Charles Hard Townes publish “Interstellar and Interplanetary Communication by Optical Masers” in Nature, providing a basis for Optical SETI.
  • The Soviet Union launches the Venera Program – 16 missions launched from Baikonur space installation in Kasakhstan, which lasted until 1983 to study Venus.
  • In an address to a joint session of Congress (May 25), President Kennedy asks support for his goal to initiate a project to put a “man on the moon” before the end of the decade.


  • Mariner Mission (1962-73): 10 ambitions missions to explore the Inner Solar System [Mercury, Venus, Mars]: Mariner 1 spacecraft flew erratically several minutes after launch and had to be destroyed (July 22); five weeks later; Mariner 2 heads for Venus & becomes first probe to carry out a successful planetary encounter.
  • Ranger 3 space probe misses the moon by 22,000 miles; Ranger 4 crashes into the moon.
  • Mercury – aboard Friendship 7, John Glenn orbits the Earth 3 times in 4 hours, 55 minutes, becoming the first American to do so.
  • Mercury Program: Scott Carpenter becomes the second American to orbit the earth aboard Aurora 7.
  • PROJECT GEMINI (1962-66): second of three manned spacecraft initiatives – developed space travel techniques in preparation to reach the moon, enlarged vehicle capacity to two men, practiced orbital rendezvous, extended crews’ duration in space, and ironed out problems of ground communication and control with facilities in Florida (Launch Complex 19/Cape Kennedy) and Texas. 
  • Construction starts on the “Launch Operations Center” on Merritt Island, Cape Canaveral, FL; 210 square miles, one of ten NASA centers; since 1968 has been the primary launch faculty for manned space flight with Apollo, Skylab, and the Space Shuttle coordinated through it; now called Cape Kennedy. 


  • The “Manned Spacecraft Center” opens in the Clear Lake area of Houston after two years of construction; now consists of 100 buildings, designated “Space City” in 1967; renamed the Johnson Space Center in 1973.
  • NASA launches the last mission of the program Mercury 9 (May); NASA Administrator James E. Webb tells Congress the program is complete, June 12.


  • Ranger Program: American robotic space probe Ranger 7 sends back the first close-up photographs of the moon, 1,000 times clearer than anything ever seen from Earth-bound telescopes (July 31).
  • The Soviet Union launches the Voskhod 1 into Earth orbit as the first spacecraft with a multi-person crew and the first flight without space suits.
  • Jet Propulsion Lab engineer Gary A. Flandro discovers an alignment of the planets of the outer solar system – Jupiter, Saturn, Uranus, Neptune – that occurs only every 175 years; proposes from this discovery the “Planetary Grand Tour” to take advantage of the “gravity-assist” method for cheaper and faster space travel, and NASA launches the general outer Solar System missions of Voyager I and II. From Fladdro’s research also came the Galileo mission to Jupiter, Cassini to Saturn, and New Horizons to Pluto.


  • Mariner: traveling for eight months, Mariner 4 flies within 6,100 miles of Mars and sends photographs of its surface in radiogram form to California’s Jet Propulsion Laboratory, July 14/15 (Mariner 3: launch failure)
  • Ranger 8 crashes into the moon after a successful mission of photographing possible landing sites for the Apollo program astronauts; Ranger 9 with unprecedented Eastman Kodak cameras transmits further images before crashing (as planned). 
  • PIONEER II PROGRAM (1965-1973), a series of 6 missions of great ambition and variety to explore Venus, interplanetary weather, and the Outer Solar System [Jupiter, Saturn][Pioneer I = 1958-60]
  • The Soviet Union launches Venera 2 which flies within 15,000 miles of Venus; launches Venera 3 space probe  toward Venus; March 1, 1966, becomes first spacecraft to reach the surface of another planet.
  • NASA launches Gemini 3, the United States’ first two-person space flight (crew: Gus Grissom and John Young)
  • At the Hammaguira launch facility in the Sahara Desert, France launches a Diamant A rocket with its first satellite, Asterix-1 on board, becoming the third country to enter space.


  • Lunar surveying/photographing program “Ranger” ends; carried on by the five-mission two-year  Lunar Orbiter Program (1966-67) to identify sites for Apollo landings; maps 99% of lunar surface and sends back first Earth-Moon photo.
  • Surveyor Program (1966-68): a spectacular series of seven (two crashes) unmanned missions to test various locations on the lunar surface for soft landings. Probes take between 60-65 days to reach Moon; launched on Atlas-Centaur rockets/built by Hughes Aircraft Co. Surveyor 1 launched by the United States in May; lands in June in the Ocean of Storms and returns pictures from the lunar surface.
  • Surveyor 3 crashes near Copernicus crater (Sept. 23).
  • The unmanned Soviet Luna 9 spacecraft makes the first controlled rocket-assisted landing on the moon; Luna 10 later becomes the first spacecraft to enter orbit around the moon.
  • NASA spacecraft Gemini 8 conducts the first docking in space, with an Agena target vehicle.


  • Mariner 5 probe flies by Venus.
  • Apollo 1 destroyed in a fire on the launch pad.
  • Surveyor 4 robotic probe crashes on the small Lunar mare, Sinus Medii (June).
  • Soviet cosmonaut Vladimir Komarov is killed during the landing of Soyuz 1.
  • Soviet Venera 4 probe descends through the atmosphere of Venus, which it analyzes; finds Venus’s magnetic field to be much weaker than Earth’s.
  • Apollo Program: NASA launches a Saturn V rocket carrying the unmanned Apollo 4 test spacecraft from Cape Kennedy.
  • The United States, Soviet Union, and UK sign the Outer Space Treaty.


  • Zond Program: Soviet spacecraft Zond 5 becomes the first vehicle to circle the moon (September 18) and return to splashdown on Earth. It traveled 600,000 miles; carried the first living organisms, including two Russian tortoises, Piophila, mealworms, plants, and bacteria.
  • NASA launches Apollo 7 (October), the first manned Apollo mission, with astronauts Wally Schirra, Donn Fulton Eisele, and R. Walter Cunningham aboard. Goals for the mission include the first live television broadcast from orbit and testing the lunar module docking maneuver; astronauts don newly-completed pressure suits (A7L), a masterful combination of science and design.
  • Apollo 8 enters moon orbit. Frank Borman, Jim Lovell, and William A. Anders are the first men to see the far side of the moon and planet Earth as a whole. Anders takes photograph entitled “Earthrise;” Apollo crew broadcasts reads from Genesis on Christmas Eve.


  • Mariner 6 & 7 makes its closest fly-by of Mars (3,524 kilometers): detects water on Mars surface; atmosphere of CO2.
  • Soviet Union launches Soyuz 5.
  • Apollo 9 tests Lunar Module.
  • Venera 5, a Soviet space probe, lands on Venus.
  • Venera 6 begins to descend into Venus’ atmosphere sending back atmospheric data before being crushed by pressure.
  • Apollo 10 flies lunar module within 15,400 meters of Moon’s surface; tests all components for upcoming first manned Moon landing.
  • Apollo 11 (July 16-24) first men, Neil Armstrong and Buzz Aldrin in Lunar Module Eagle, land on the Moon [July 20] and name their landing spot “Tranquility Base.” Michael Collins in the Command Module; stay on lunar surface roughly 12 hours. 
  • Apollo 12, the second manned mission lands on Moon, November 19; astronauts Charles Conrad & Alan Bean land at Oceanus Procellarum (“Ocean of Storms”) and become the third and fourth men to walk on the Moon.


  • Japan and China becomes the fourth and fifth countries to launch satellite into orbit using their own rockets.
  • Explorer I reentry (after 12 years in orbit).
  • Apollo 13 experiences serious mechanical malfunctions; returns safely to earth.
  • Venera 7 transmits first spacecraft to successfully transmit data from another planet, Venus.
  • Luna Program: Soviet Union lands Lunokhod 1 on Mare Imbrium (‘Sea of Rains”); first roving remote-controlled robot on the Moon.


  • Mariner 8 (May 9): failed to launch; Mariner 9 is launched toward Mars, May 30 [both 8 & 9 on Atlas -Centaurs); arrives November – first spacecraft to orbit another planet (beats Soviets); sends pictures from the Red Planet into 1972.
  • Apollo 14 lands third manned Moon mission.
  • Mars Probe Program: Mars 2 launched by the Soviet Union.
  • The crew of the Soyuz 11 spacecraft is killed when its air supply leaks out through a faulty valve during re-entry preparations, the only human deaths to occur outside Earth’s atmosphere.
  • Apollo 15 astronauts become the first to ride a rover a day after landing on the lunar surface (July 31).


  • President Nixon orders the creation of a SPACE SHUTTLE program.
  • Pioneer 10 robotic space probe, weighing 571 lbs (manu. by TRW), to travel to the Outer Solar System; studies Jupiter and its environs and solar winds; plutonium-powered; is first machine to encounter the asteroid belt between Mars and Jupiter; sends first close-up images of Jupiter.
  • Apollo 16 launched.
  • The United States launches Landsat 1, the first Earth-resources satellite.
  • Apollo 17 launched; crew takes “Blue Marble” photograph of Earth (right).
  • The Soviet unmanned spacecraft Luna 20 lands on the moon.


  • Mariner 10 launches Mercury (Nov 3); flies by Venus in February; reaches Mercury on March 29, 1974, first space probe to reach that planet.
  • Comet Kohoutek is discovered
  • Pioneer 11 (the twin of #10) flies through the asteroid belt, past Jupiter, to become the first probe to encounter Saturn. Pioneer 10 & 11 are the first man-made objects to have enough escape velocity to leave the Solar System. 
  • SKYLAB, the United States’ first space station, launches in May; in operation until February 1974; three separate three-astronaut crews see service; abandoned with irreparable malfunctions; orbit decays and falls out of the sky July 11, 1979 scattering debris across Western Australia and the Indian Ocean .
  • Soviet Mars 5 space probe launched.


  • After 84 days in space, the last crew of the temporary American space station Skylab return to Earth.
  • Soviet space probe Mars 5 orbits Mars; Mars 6 flies by and ejects a capsule that hits Mars; Mars 7 launches a capsule that misses Mars completely.
  • Mariner 10 flies by Venus.


  • Aryabhata, India’s first satellite, is launched using Soviet boosters.
  • Apollo-Soyez Test Project: an American Apollo and a Soviet Soyez spacecraft dock with each other in orbit, marking the first such link-up between spacecraft from the two nations.
  • Viking Program: two planetary probes (August/September) to photograph Mars; and land on the planet in 1976 (launched with Titan IIIE-Centaur rockets); sets up the start of two Voyager Missions in 1977 to Jupiter, Saturn, Uranus, and Neptune to complete the JPL’s “Grand Tour” proposed in 1964 ! 

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