Famous space firsts that you might have missed

Yuri Gagarin, Neil Armstrong, Laika the dog – all pioneers that will live long in the history of spaceflight, but there are a few other famous space firsts that often get overlooked.

3rd August 2017
Famous space firsts that you might have missed © Sovfoto/UIG via Getty Images

We all know that Yuri Gagarin was the first man in space, and that Neil Armstrong and Buzz Aldrin were the first people on the Moon, but there are plenty of other space firsts that might have slipped under your radar. 

First animals in space

Fly © iStock

Some flies – 1947

Ah Laika, the adorable Soviet space dog that went from scouring the streets of Moscow to orbiting the Earth. Alas, for all the fame and glory she was posthumously awarded, she wasn’t the first living creature in space. That award goes to some fruit flies aboard an American V-2 rocket in 1947, which reached an altitude of 108km. And unlike the unfortunate Laika, they were also the first creatures to return alive. 

First space tourist

© Alexander Nemenov/AFP/Getty Images
© Alexander Nemenov/AFP/Getty Images

Dennis Tito – 28 April 2001

If you thought the ferry to France for last year’s holiday pinched at the pocket, just compare that to the $20m it cost US entrepreneur Dennis Tito to catch a rocket to the International Space Station as the first space tourist. Bon voyage!

First humans to see the far side of the moon

© NASA/Bill Anders
© NASA/Bill Anders

Apollo 8 crew – 24 December 1968

The crew members of the Apollo 8 mission were an intrepid bunch of space travellers, who not only were the first to leave low Earth orbit, the first to see the planet Earth as a whole, but also the first to see the far side of the Moon. Astronaut William Anders' enduring image of that mission, AS8-14-2383, is one of the most famous space images of all time, Earthrise. You can see more incredible images taken by NASA astronauts here.

First woman in space (and first civilian)

Valentina Tereshkova - 16 June 1963 © Sovfoto/UIG via Getty Images
© Sovfoto/UIG via Getty Images

Valentina Tereshkova - 16 June 1963

You’d struggle to find someone who doesn’t know that Yuri Gagarin was the first man in space, but Valentina Tereshkova was not only the first woman to make the trip, but as a textile worker (and amateur skydiver), she was also the first civilian.

First member of royalty in space


Sultan bin Salman Al Saud – 17 June 1985

Sultan bin Salman Al Saud’s voyage into space aboard the Discovery Space Shuttle was no royal jolly, but as a member of the Royal Saudi Air Force with 1,000 flight hours experience, he was expertly put to work as a payload specialist. This voyage also made him the first Muslim in space.

First (and only) deaths in outer space

© Sovfoto/UIG via Getty Images
© Sovfoto/UIG via Getty Images

Georgy Dobrovolsky, Vladislav Volkov, Viktor Patsayev

Tragedy struck on 30 June 1971 when after re-entry, the recovery team opened the capsule of the Soyuz 11 mission to discover that all three of the Russian crew had died. During the descent, a breathing valve had broken and the drop in pressure asphyxiated the cosmonauts within seconds. The accident occurred at 168km above the Earth’s surface and to date are the only fatalities that have occurred while in space (an altitude of 100 km above sea level, known as the Kármán line, is conventionally considered the start of outer space).

First sport on the Moon

Alan Shepard – 6 February 1971

You would hope that for Alan Shepard, your enduring legacy to the history of space travel would be that you were the first American in space, but most people will know him as the first astronaut to play golf on the Moon. Still, that’s not a bad way to spend your retirement we suppose.

First cartoon character in Space

© Rolls Press/Popperfoto/Getty Images
© Rolls Press/Popperfoto/Getty Images

Astérix – 26 November 1965

Ok, we’ll admit that this is a bit of a stretch but France’s A-1 satellite (which also happens to be the first satellite launched by a nation independent of the USSR and USA) was named after the diminutive Gaul. We wonder if it used any magic potion to get there…?

First Briton in space

© Sovfoto/UIG via Getty Images
© Sovfoto/UIG via Getty Images

Helen Sharman - 18 May 1991

As part of ESA, Europe's equivalent of the American or Russian space programmes, Tim Peake may be the first official British astronaut, but there have been many more Britons that have been to space before him. The first was Helen Sharman, a civilian chemist who spent eight days on the spacestation Mir as part of Project Juno, a cooperartion between British private companies and the Soviet Union.

First untethered spacewalk

© Encyclopaedia Britannica/UIG Via Getty Images
© Encyclopaedia Britannica/UIG Via Getty Images

Bruce McCandless II – 7 February 1984

You’ve probably all seen this image before, but do you know which brave soul untethered himself from the relative safety of the Challenger Space Shuttle? That would be Bruce McCandless II. We hope George Clooney’s performance in Gravity doesn’t send shivers down his spine.

First Indian in space

Subhav Sharma [Public domain], via Wikimedia Commons
Subhav Sharma [Public domain], via Wikimedia Commons

Rakesh Sharma – 3 April 1984

After Russia, the USA and China, the next nation aiming to make an independently manned mission to space is India. India’s first manned space mission is planned for 2021, which would make it 37 years since Rakesh Sharma, a former Squadron Leader and pilot of the Indian Air Force, became the first Indian in space.

First cat in space

No worries if you can’t speak French, it’s probably just saying something like ‘I can haz space kitteh’

Félicette – 18 October 1963

Russia sent the first dog into space and the USA the first monkey, but France was hot on their tails (excusing the pun), launching Félicette, one of 14 space-trained kitties, aboard a research rocket. Félicette’s 15-minute voyage took her more than 150km over the Earth’s surface before returning in purrrrr-fect condition. She is still the only cat in space (except maybe this one).

First marathon in orbit


Sunita Williams – 16 April 2007

The thought of running 42km is enough to make most of us wheeze, but try doing that is zero-gravity and strapped down to a treadmill. That's what US astronaut Sunita Williams had to do when she completed the 2007 Boston Marathon in 4h 24m. She would go on to repeat the feat again a year later, although this time safely on terra firma.


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