This week marks the anniversary of the first time a human, Soviet cosmonaut Yuri Gagarin, went into space. It's also the anniversary of the inaugural launch of NASA's space shuttle program. We've assembled a slideshow representing some of the spacecraft used for manned space travel in the past, present, and future. Seen here is Gagarin before he took off on his 108-minute orbit around the Earth, an event that shocked the world and accelerated the space race between the Soviet Union and the U.S.
Seen here is the small Vostok 1 capsule which Gagarin flew in. The dangerous mission almost ended in disaster when the capsule had difficulty separating from the final stage of the rocket until just before re-entry. Gagarin was forced to eject from the Vostok 1 during re-entry and use his own parachute. Every year, people celebrate Yuri's night on April 12. See more photos about Gagarin's historic flight, which made him the most famous person on the planet.
One year later on February 20, 1962, John Glenn became the first American to orbit the Earth. This "Friendship 7" capsule, which was part of the Mercury program, took Glenn on a four-hour, 55-minute space flight. Read an interview with Glenn, aged 90, done around the 50th anniversary of his famous mission. Friendship 7 is in the Smithsonian National Air and Space Museum.
The Gemini mission followed the Mercury program and had the goal of taking two astronauts into space and lasting two weeks during space flight. There were 12 flights, including two unmanned test flights of equipment. Other goals were to dock with orbiting vehicles and to perfect methods of entering the atmosphere.
The event that captivated the world was a man landing on the moon in 1969, which was followed by more Apollo missions. Shown here is the Apollo's lunar module which landed on the moon and returned Apollo astronauts to the orbiting command module in 1972. This photo shows the lunar module during its ascent. Thrusters are on the sides, and the hatch allowing access to the moon's surface is visible in front.
In 1981, NASA launched the first space shuttle, a program that lasted 30 years. In its missions, the spacecraft carried people into orbit many times and launched, recovered, and repaired satellites. It also contributed to research and was instrumental in building the International Space Station. This image shows that first orbiter, the Columbia, on its return flight to Earth with its two-man crew on April 14, 1981, headed toward the dry lake bed at Edwards Air Force Base in California. See more on the space shuttle here.
The International Space Station began continuous operation in late 2000. The ISS, including its solar panels, covers about same area as an American football field. It has orbited the Earth tens of thousands of times, performed countless experiments, and dozens of space walks. Seen here is the one millionth photo taken from the ISS.
The first manned spaceflight by a private company was in 2004 in SpaceShipOne, seen here on top White Ship, its mother ship. This craft, capable of doing suborbital flight, was the winner of the $10 million XPrize for private space travel. It also marked the entry of technology industry billionaires who finance space travel. This one was built by Mojave Aerospace Ventures, which was a joint venture between Microsoft co-founder Paul Allen and Scaled Composites.
With astronauts stationed at the ISS, a need arose for spacecraft to transport cargo to and from space, which is starting to be done by commercial companies. Commercial rockets can also launch payloads, such as satellites. NASA contracted with SpaceX to carry cargo to the International Space Station which it plans to do in the months ahead. Seen here is recovery of the Dragon craft. SpaceX was the first private company to retrieve a craft from orbit. See more images about SpaceX here.
The European Space Agency's Automated Transfer Vehicle-3 (ATV-3) is the world's largest spacecraft now that space shuttle flights have ended. The unmanned resupply vehicle made its third visit to the International Space Station, delivering 7 tons of critical supplies including fresh food, water, clothing, spare parts, and experiments. See more about the ATV-3 here.
Another space startup is Blue Origin, which is backed by Amazon CEO Jeff Bezos. The long-term goal of Blue Origin is to make space travel by humans less expensive and reliable. It's designing a rocket that allows for vertical takeoff and landing with a number of astronauts.
SpaceShipTwo is another ship designed for space tourism. Like SpaceShipOne, it's a suborbital craft which is launched from a mother ship. The craft, which is still being tested, is being developed by Virgin Atlantic and Scaled Composites.
Late last year, Paul Allen announced another venture with Burt Rutan, who worked on SpaceShipOne, to build a craft capable of quick space travel more cost effectively than done before. This craft would be the largest aircraft ever built and be able to do space travel the way that airplanes transport people now, according to the company.
If you're doing space tourism, you may want a space hotel. Las Vegas-based Bigelow Aerospace is a private company founded by a hotel magnate that aims to build a commercial, inhabitable complex in space by 2015. This illustration shows a Boeing spacecraft approaching an inflatable hotel made by Bigelow Aerospace.
SpaceX's Dragon is designed as a reusable spacecraft. Like the European Space Agency's ATV-3, it's designed for fully autonomous docking with the International Space Station, as depicted here in this illustration. SpaceX was contracted for at least 12 flights to deliver cargo.