Pioneering Space Exploration: Five Individuals Leading the Pack

It’s been nearly 50 years since the first human stepped onto the surface of the moon. This was at the height of the Cold War when space exploration was dominated by the Soviet Union and the US, with the one superpower leading the other’s achievement again and again. These were exciting times for the pioneering space exploration industry. The pace of innovation has dwindled since then — until the past decade, when more countries, private firms, and individuals have begun to push the boundaries of space endeavors. This article looks at pioneers within the space exploration industry.

First Human in Space

The biggest milestone in space exploration is certainly when the first human made it outside of the Earth’s orbit. In 1961, Russian cosmonaut Yuri Gagarin launched into space inside a spherical Vostok 1 capsule, orbited Earth once during a 108-minute flight, then landed safely in a Russian field. He died in 1968 in an accident during a military training flight, at the age of only 34. The space flight was a major victory for the Soviet Union and spurred the Cold War space race with the US for decades to come.

First Female in Space

Two years after the Soviet Union’s first major space travel achievement, the first female, Valentina Tereshkova, made it to space. The 26-year-old Tereshkova piloted the Vostok 6 capsule, completing 48 orbits of Earth and staying in space for nearly three days. Before her major accomplishment, Tereshkova was a textile-factory assembly worker and an amateur skydiver. To this day, Tereshkova is the only woman to have completed a solo space mission and remains a prominent icon in Russia. At the age of 76, she expressed her desire to go to Mars, although she noted that her age didn’t make her the perfect match.


To this day, Tereshkova is the only woman to have completed a solo space mission


First Moon Walk

Only a month after Gagarin became the first human in space, astronaut Alan Shepard became the first American to do the same. It was only nearly a decade later, in 1969, that the National Aeronautics and Space Administration’s Apollo 11 mission touched down on the surface of the moon. Astronauts Neil Armstrong and Buzz Aldrin spent more than 21 hours on the surface of the moon. Armstrong studied as an aeronautical engineer and fought as a pilot in the Korean War. He is best known for the line “That’s one small step for [a] man, one giant leap for mankind” upon setting foot on the moon.

First African in Space

At the age of 28, in 2002, millionaire entrepreneur Mark Shuttleworth became the first African to venture into space. After selling his digital certificate company Thawte to Verisign for USD 575 million, the South African flew to the International Space Station (ISS) as a member of the crew of Soyuz mission TM-34. Shuttleworth spent a year in training for the flight, eight months of that in Star City, Russia, before rocketing off to the ISS. He is the world’s second space tourist, following millionaire Dennis Tito’s mission in 2001. Tito reportedly paid USD 20 million to travel to the ISS.

First Private Space Travel

The privatization of space travel became a reality in 2010 when California-based company Space Exploration Technologies (SpaceX) launched its Dragon capsule atop a Falcon 9 rocket into space. The spacecraft completed two trips around the Earth before splashing down in the Pacific Ocean. Headed by South African-born Canadian American entrepreneur Elon Musk, SpaceX became the first private company ever to launch a spacecraft to Earth orbit then recover it after re-entry. Only six nations or governmental agencies had accomplished the feat before. The company has since broken new ground in successfully demonstrating reusable rockets that can safely re-enter the Earth’s atmosphere after orbit, drastically cutting expenses for space travel. Going forward, SpaceX’s first cargo mission to Mars is scheduled for 2022 and has spurred similar ambitions from governments and private enterprises around the world, marking a renewed enthusiasm for space travel today.


‘Afronaut’ tech entrepreneur Mark Shuttleworth (left) spent eight days aboard Soyuz mission’s TM-34. Elon Musk (right) has become a globally recognized and influential contributor to space-related developments, having founded SpaceX. Both Shuttlewoth and Musk are of South African heritage


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