The race to space began in the late 1950s and 60s during the Cold War.
The space race was a big part of the Cold War, and it started with the U.S.S.R. launching a probe into orbit around Earth on October 4, 1957.
This probe, Sputnik, was basically a metal ball. A Soviet R-7 intercontinental ballistic missile carried it into orbit, making it the first man made object in space as well as the first one in orbit.
Americans did not like this; they had no idea whether or not Sputnik was spying or weaponised, and they did not have a way to defend against it. Furthermore, since that missile could go to space, it could also carry a warhead to almost any place on the planet.
However, shortly afterwards in 1958, America launched its own probe, Explorer 1, into space. Also that year, President Dwight Eisenhower created NASA.
Getting Humans to Space
Yuri Gagarin from the Soviet Union was the first man in space.
He went up in the Vostok 1 spacecraft on April 12, 1961.
He orbited Earth once; he was in space for 108 minutes.
He parachuted out of his capsule, which would technically make the space flight illegitimate, but the U.S.S.R. kept it secret and told everyone otherwise.
Just three weeks after Gagarin's flight, the United States made Alan Shepard the first American and the second person in space.
He went up in a Mercury capsule called Freedom 7 on May 5, 1961.
He did not orbit, but he did actually go into space, and his landing was legitimate, unlike Gagarin.
Getting Something to the Moon without Crashing (i.e. probes)
The Soviets were the first to execute a controlled landing on the Moon.
The Luna 9 probe accomplished that feat; the Luna space probes, in fact, studied the Moon from 1959 to 1976, and the Luna 9 was one of the many probes in that series.
Luna 9 was launched on February 9, 1966 and successfully landed on the Moon's surface without crashing. It took the first ever pictures of the Moon's surface.
On the other hand, the U.S.A. launched its first successful no-crash landing Moon probe on May 30, 1966.
The probe was called Surveyor 1; it reached the Moon 63 hours after launch, and it collected and recorded a large amount of data for the upcoming Apollo missions.
Getting Humans to the Moon
For this huge innovation in the development of the Space Race, America finally won, making the dash to get a crew onto the Moon's surface before the U.S.S.R.
The mission was Apollo 11, one of the series of missions leading up to and more after making a crewed landing on the Moon. The crew of the mission was Neil Armstrong, Buzz Aldrin, and Michael Collins.
Apollo 11 was launched on July 16, 1969, and successfully landed the first crew on the Moon and brought the crew home.
The Soviets, however, never got a crew to the Moon.
The Soyuz program and the N-1 rocket design were started to make a Moon landing, but the main designer/engineer leader of the Soviet space program died, passing off the projects to the second in command.
The first Soyuz mission (Soyuz 1) exploded, killing Vladimir Komarov in 1967
Also, the other tests of the N-1 rocket, unmanned, also failed and exploded.
Some Important Rockets through the Space Race
A Soviet R-7 ICBM carried Sputnik 1 into orbit.
A modified Jupiter-C booster called Juno 1 carried Explorer 1 into orbit.
Another slightly changed/improved Soviet R-7 ICBM carried Vostok 1 with Yuri Gagarin into orbit.
An American Redstone rocket carried the Mercury capsule with Alan Shepard into space.
An American Atlas missile carried John Glenn into orbit.
The largest and most powerful rocket ever built and used is the Saturn V. It carried some of the Apollo missions, including Apollo 11, to the Moon.