• It's been 60 years since the first person flew in space.
  • Since then, we have walked in space and flown to the moon.
  • Today, the global space economy is worth $366 billion and brings many benefits to life on Earth.
  • But space exploration has not been without its difficulties – and so far today it’s machines not men being sent to Mars.

Human space travel is 60 years old this year, and in those six decades it has helped us discover much about the universe. But it has also delivered many practical benefits back home.

From monitoring climate change to connecting people through satellites, space exploration has created solutions to some very down-to-Earth problems. Space technology is vital to global security and even helps to stop illegal logging, illegal fishing and illegal wildlife trade.


Space is also a vital part of the global economy, accounting for $366 billion of economic activity every year, data from the World Economic Forum’s 2020 briefing paper, Six ways space technologies benefit life on Earth, shows.

an explainer detailing six ways space technologies benefit life on Earth
Six ways space technologies benefit life on Earth.
Image: World Economic Forum

Here are 15 images that show the history of those six decades in space.

1. The first man in space

image of soviet cosmonaut Yuri Gagarin, who became the first human to fly in space
Soviet cosmonaut Yuri Gagarin became the first human to fly in space.
Image: Arto Jousi/Wikimedia Commons

On 12 April 1961, Soviet cosmonaut Yuri Gagarin became the first human to fly in space. His single orbit of the Earth ushered in a new age of human space travel. Tragically he was killed in a plane crash just seven years after his pioneering space mission.

2. The first Black astronaut

image of US Air Force captain Robert H Lawrence Jnr, who was chosen as the nations first American astronaut.
US Air Force captain Robert H Lawrence Jnr was chosen as the nation’s first African American astronaut in 1967.
Image: NASA/Flickr

US Air Force captain Robert H Lawrence Jnr was chosen as the nation’s first African American astronaut in 1967 – but he died in a fighter plane crash before he could make his first space flight.

3. The first US space walk

image of Ed White, who became the first American to walk in space
In 1965, Ed White became the first American to walk in space.
Image: NASA/Flickr

4. A man on the moon

image of Neil Armstrong
“That’s one small step for a man, one giant leap for mankind” - Neil Armstrong
Image: NASA/Flickr


Neil Armstrong, who stepped off the Apollo lunar lander on 20 July 1969 with the famous words “That’s one small step for a man, one giant leap for mankind”, took this shot of fellow astronaut Buzz Aldrin walking on the lunar surface shortly afterwards.

5. Earthrise

image of the Earth rising over the Moon’s horizon
The Apollo 11 astronauts were the first to see this spectacle.
Image: NASA/Flickr

The Apollo 11 astronauts were the first people to see the Earth rise over the Moon’s horizon – a striking reminder that they were far from home.

6. A ticker-tape welcome

image of a parade to welcome the crew of Apollo 11 after the first Moon landing
A welcome parade for Apollo 11 after their first Moon landing.
Image: NASA/Flickr

New York laid on one of its trademark ticker-tape welcomes for the crew of Apollo 11 after the first Moon landing. Astronauts Neil Armstrong, Buzz Aldrin and Michael Collins led the parade.

7. International collaboration in action

image of the US Space Shuttle Atlantis docking with Russia’s Mir space station
The US Space Shuttle Atlantis docking with Russia’s Mir space station.
Image: NASA/Flickr

The US Space Shuttle Atlantis docking with Russia’s Mir space station. By July 1995, when this picture was taken, the former space race rivals were collaborating in space exploration. The shuttle ferried two Russian cosmonauts to the space station.

8. A tragic moment

image of the Space Shuttle Challenger tragically exploding during the accident of 1986
The Space Shuttle Challenger explosion resulted in the tragic loss of seven crew members.
Image: NASA/Flickr

The dangers associated with space travel were tragically highlighted by the loss of the Space Shuttle Challenger and its seven crew members on 28 January 1986. TV audiences watched in horror as the spacecraft exploded shortly after launch. Failed seals on a rocket booster were blamed for the accident.

9. The first Black woman in space

image of Mae Jemison became the first Black woman to fly in space on the Space Shuttle Endeavour in September 1992
Mae Jemison - the first Black woman to fly in space on the Space Shuttle Endeavour.
Image: NASA Flickr

In September 1992, Mae Jemison became the first Black woman to fly in space on the Space Shuttle Endeavour. Dr Jemison, a physician with a degree in chemical engineering, worked as a general medical practitioner before joining NASA as a Mission Specialist.

10. Uncovering the secrets of the universe

image of The Hubble Space Telescope
The Hubble Space Telescope.
Image: NASA/Flickr

The Hubble Space Telescope was launched into orbit by space shuttle Discovery in April 1990. In this picture, taken in 1993, NASA astronauts work on upgrades to Hubble, which has a better view of the universe than Earth-based telescopes.

11. Two galaxies meet

space image of two galaxies grazing each other's orbits
Two galaxies grazing each other’s orbits.
Image: NASA/Flickr

This remarkable image from the Hubble Space Telescope shows two galaxies grazing each other’s orbits. The gravitational forces of the galaxy on the left are distorting its neighbour, flinging stars and gas hundreds of thousands of light years across space.

12. The development that revolutionized space travel

image of the Space Shuttle Columbia
The Space Shuttle Columbia broke when re-entering the earth's atmosphere, killing everyone on board.
Image: NASA/Flickr

The reusable US Space Shuttle not only simplified human space travel, its payload bay was used to deliver and recover satellites. But this was not without great risks. This image shows Space Shuttle Columbia lifting off on what would be its last mission in January 2003. The spacecraft broke up on re-entry to the Earth’s atmosphere, killing all on board.

13. A home in space

image of the International Space Station
The International Space Station.
Image: NASA/Flickr

Built in space from components flown into orbit, the International Space Station was completed between 1998 and 2011 with contributions from 15 nations. The 67 metre-long pressurised section has been continuously occupied since November 2000.

14. A helicopter on Mars

image of NASA’s Ingenuity Mars Helicopter
NASA’s Ingenuity Mars Helicopter was the first powered, controlled flight in any world beyond Earth IN 2021.
Image: NASA

NASA’s Ingenuity Mars Helicopter rode to the surface of Mars attached to the Perseverance rover and made its first flight in the thin Martian atmosphere in April 2021. It was the first powered, controlled flight in any world beyond Earth.

15. The future of human space flight?

image of the Boeing CST-100 Starliner spacecraft making a soft landing in New Mexico in December 2019
The Boeing CST-100 Starliner spacecraft .
Image: NASA/Flickr

After the Space Shuttle programme ended in July 2011, the US partnered with Boeing and Elon Musk’s SpaceX for the Commercial Crew Programme to develop reusable craft to fly astronauts to the International Space Station. This image shows the Boeing CST-100 Starliner spacecraft making a soft landing in New Mexico in December 2019.