they have all been up there on just a small number of different vehicles.
In fact, over the last nearly six decades, only nine spaceships have taken astronauts into orbit, with SpaceX’s Dragon being the latest.
Let’s have a rundown of these 9 ships, their history, and flight details:
Vostok 1 Capsule: USSR 1961
The USSR’s Vostok capsule was the first-ever successful spacecraft to carry a human into orbit.
Yuri Gagarin, the Soviet Union’s cosmonaut was the first man to ever make a space flight, launching the Vostok on 12th of April 1961 and achieving just over a full orbit of Earth before re-entering Earth’s atmosphere.
The Vostok carried just one cosmonaut in its cabin, which was placed on top of a string of life support gas tanks and a pyramid-shaped launching module that was propelled off of the Vostok before re-entry to Earth.
Below the astronaut’s feet, a window was fitted, allowing them to see Earth from space during the orbiting.
Gagarin and the other astronauts that flew in the Vostok had to jettison themselves out of the capsule during its descent back to Earth as there was no landing gear for the Vostok.
This fact wasn’t made public knowledge as the Soviet Union thought this would be used to consider the mission unsuccessful and not a ‘true’ spaceflight.
This design of capsule was used six times to carry astronauts into orbit, all between the years 1961 and 1930, with the last flight carrying the first woman in space Valentina Tereshkova.
Mercury: United States 1962
During the Cold War’s so-called space race, the US and Soviet Union were both trying to beat the other in becoming the world’s first adventurers into space.
The Mercury was the US’s first crewed vehicle, beaten of course by the Soviet Union’s Vostok earlier in 1961.
Just three weeks after Yuri Gagarin’s successful flight aboard the Vostok, the US launched American astronaut Alan Shepard in a suborbital flight on the Freedom 7.
Unlike the Vostok capsule’s six iterations, the Mercury capsules all had individual names.
In terms of structure and appearance, the Mercury capsules were relatively conical in shape and had a large cylinder-shaped segment along the cone’s side.
When the capsule was placed atop of a rocket, the astronaut was placed with his back against the base of the capsule, with the cane pointing skywards.
There was a window that was roughly eye level with the astronaut for viewing.
Voskhod: USSR 1964
Based on the design of its predecessor the Vostok, the Voskhod was designed for more crew members and for spacewalking, an achievement that the Soviet Union had its eyes on achieving next.
First, the Soviet space program had to squeeze multiple people inside the small capsule.
To do this, the engineers of the craft removed the ejection seats entirely and replaced them with stable couches and landing systems instead.
The Voskhod first carried human passengers in 1964 and successfully launched with a crew of three.
They were a cosmonaut, a doctor, and a space engineer. To satisfy the very tight conditions, none of these members wore a spacesuit.
The second changed version of the Voskhod capsule was specially adapted to allow for a spacewalk and carried with it an inflatable airlock.
After first flying an unmanned test mission of this adaption, in 1965 the USSR launched the Voskhod 2, which carried two cosmonauts in spacesuits on a 26-hour flight.
During this last flight of the Voskhod, Alexei Leonov was able to release the inflatable airlock and was in space for a total of twelve minutes whilst achieving for the USSR the first-ever spacewalk.
Gemini: US, 1965
Much like the Voskhod was to the Vostok, the Gemini was at its core an adapted version of the Mercury capsule.
Again, it was designed to let more astronauts aboard and attempted to make advanced tasks possible in the realms of space.
They were designed for two astronauts, and the main task of the astronauts on Gemini was to teach other engineers and astronauts how to dock spacecraft whilst in space.
NASA believed this would be a necessity to land humans safely on the moon’s surface.
The other two objectives of the crew were to extend the length of spaceflight and to undergo spacewalks, a first for US space missions.
On the second manned Gemini mission, the Gemini 4, Ed White was able to perform a 23-minute spacewalk successfully, and the mission lasted a full four days in space.
There were altogether 12 separate Gemini craft missions, all named consecutively by number.
By the 5th manned Gemini mission, the Gemini 7, missions had been elongated to over a week for physicists to determine more about the effects of prolonged spaceflights on the human body.
The following mission of the Gemini 8 in 1966 completed their last priority and successfully docked the capsule to the unmanned Agenda spacecraft.
After the success of all of the Gemini missions, and the final Gemini 12 mission in November 1966 achieving 3 separate spacewalks, docking with the Agenda, and a prolonged time in space, NASA concluded it was ready to start exploring the possibility of lunar landings.
Soyuz: USSR/ Russia 1967
The Soyuz spacecraft design is still in use today ferrying cosmonauts into space, though of course, they are pretty different from those used in the late 60s!
Shortly after the Voskhod craft was taken out of use, the Soyuz, meaning Union in Russian, crewed its first flight in 1967, though its sole cosmonaut Vladimir Komarov was killed during re-entry due to a parachute malfunction.
There have been many variants of the Soyuz since then, each based on a basic three-part system.
Sitting centrally, is the descent module, holding the astronaut, on one side is the orbital module which has a living space and docking mechanism, and to the other side is a propulsion module carrying fuel, engines, and solar panels.
Of these parts only the descent module is designed to return to Earth, the other parts being broken off in space.
The Soyuz spacecraft has made almost 150 manned flights since 1967.
The Soyuz was also the vehicle that docked with the Apollo Command module to mark the end of the Space Race in 1975.
Still in use today, NASA astronauts and other internationals have ridden in them to go to orbiting laboratories in space after the NASA space shuttle was retired from use in 2011.
Apollo/ Lunar Module: US, 1968
The Apollo program had the main aim of being the first ship to carry humanity to the moon.
The vehicle also put together tweaks from the previous Gemini and Mercury capsules to increase space for the astronauts and create room for larger crews.
This command module was intended to carry the astronauts to orbit, to lunar orbit, and then back home, with lunar modules attached that would take two astronauts down to the surface of the moon.
The first launch of the Apollo 1 was meant to be in 1967, but disaster occurred and flash fire in the command module killed the three crew members.
NASA then spent the next almost two years improving its fireproof standards before its first successful crewed flight in 1968 on the Apollo 7.
As we all know, Apollo 11 famously landed its lunar module on the moon.
The Apollo did two other missions before Apollo 13 suffered an explosion 200 000 miles away from Earth, luckily the 3 crew members were able to come back to Earth on the lunar module, which was of course not designed for an Earth re-entry. The last Apollo flight was the Apollo 17 in 1975.
Space Shuttle: US, 1981
Almost a decade after the Apollo program, the Space Shuttle was built as the first reusable spacecraft.
There were 5 separate shuttles built between its inception in 1981 and retirement in 2011, carrying a total of 135 missions during that time.
They were the Challenger, Columbia, Discovery, Atlantis & Endeavour.
Marking the first massive design leap in spacecraft, the shuttle had a plane-like orbiting body, two rocket propellers, and a large orange fuel tank, the one part that was designed to eject.
Of the five shuttles, two were destroyed, killing all crew.
The first was the Challenger in 1986. Carrying teachers and engineers, Challenger exploded in the sky after an anomaly in the launch.
The second was the Columbia in 2003 that fell apart upon re-entry.
Shenzhou: China, 2003
The Shenzhou, meaning divine vessel, is China’s spacecraft vehicle line, and they have successfully launched astronauts into space a total of six times, the most recent in 2016.
It’s built in a similar capsule-like structure to the Russian Soyuz with a three-part module design and has the capacity for 3 taikonauts.
Space X Crew Dragon: US, 2020
The successful orbital launch of the SpaceX Crew Dragon marks it as the first collaboration between NASA and privately funded space travel, under the eye of billionaire Elon Musk.
As the first commercially built orbiting ship, the Crew Dragon is based upon SpaceX’s successful Dragon Cargo ship, with both of them together having made 32 total trips to orbit, and 29 dockings to the International Space Station.
Since the Space Shuttle’s retirement in 2011, the SpaceX Crew Dragon is the new way for NASA astronauts to fly to the ISS.
With other attempts made, such as Amazon’s Jeff Bezos’ Blue Origin flight into suborbital space, there are a few big-name billionaires seeking fame and fortune within the stars, eager to exploit space for commercial gain.
Whatever your thoughts on this, it’ll be interesting to see who’s next to make it happen!
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