Any person more or less savvy in the history of space expiration will tell you that the first artificial satellite was launched by the USSR. But was it truly the first man made object in space? Surprisingly, the answer to this will depend on how you define space — there is still no universal border, and different agencies officially recognize slightly different altitudes as the ‘beginning’ of space.
Today, a universal measure is the Karman line, 100 km above our planet’s equator. This is not an orbit yet — the closest, low earth orbit begins at 250 km altitude. Still, with a 15-20 km variation depending on the country, the Karman line is a widely recognized nominal border of space. With this in mind, what was the first man-made object in space? Well, definitely not the Soviet Sputnik, so keep reading for more facts about other man-made objects to make history.
The first man-made objects in space were rockets, not satellites. In June 1944, Germany made history by sending its ballistic missile into suborbital space. This was not the first V2 rocket test, but this one managed to soar over the Karman line (100 km) and NASA-recognized space border (122 km). According to some estimates, this V2 version went as high as 180 km. Previous tests managed to reach roughly 85-90 km altitude, which is also impressive for that time.
So, did Germany have its space program during WWII? Not in a sense, we understand them now. However, after Germany’s defeat, major scientists, including V2 inventor Wernher von Braun, relocated to the US to keep working on their inventions. This is how in 1949, the first US man-made sounding rocket “Bumper-WAC”, reached an altitude of 393 km. So, who put the first man-made object in space? No matter how you look at it, it was a German-built rocket — in sub-orbit, at least. Later on, with US’s scientific contribution, “Bumper-WAC” officially reached orbit.
Of course, neither German nor US-built rockets managed to stay in space for too long. So, when talking about the first man-made object in space that actually stayed there for a few weeks at least, we must recall man-made satellite launches. As already mentioned, USSR’s Sputnik became the first man-made object to reach orbit in 1957. According to Orbital Today, the space race was gaining momentum at that time, so it is not surprising that the US launched a satellite of their own, Explorer-1, shortly after. In fact, the US-built Explorer, launched in January 1958, was only a few months behind Sputnik. Notably, this first man-made satellite object in US history went to space on a Jupiter rocket, also built by the German scientist Wernher von Braun.
First Man-Made Object on the Moon & Mars
Launching the first man-made objects to orbit only increased tensions between two major space power of the time, so soon enough, man-made objects reached our natural satellite, Moon. Here, the Soviets managed to take the lead, too, landing a man-made Luna station on the Moon on 13 September 1957. This station was unmanned, but it went down in history as the first man-made object to transmit signals from Moon back to Earth. However, the US managed to do even better, landing the first astronauts on the Moon in 1969.
Mars, too, was eventually caught in the ‘become first’ US-USSR space battle. Once again, USSR took the lead by landing its first man-made interplanetary probe, Mars-1, in 1962. There were a few other landing attempts, but all of them failed. The USA did not have much success in sending man-made objects to Mars either, as both its original Viking and Mariner programs from the 1960-70s failed. However, the USA achieved astonishing success in the 1980s with Pathfinder and Sojourner rovers — the first man-made Mars exploring objects to have sent valuable data back to Earth.
Still, the most impressive man-made object to become the first in outer space is the Voyager-1 probe launched by the US in 1977. This was the first man-object probe to have travelled so far — no other man-object ever covered such a large distance. More importantly, Voyager-1 sent massive amounts of data about our solar system, and even though it should soon leave it, this probe justly deserves its spot on this man-made object list.
These are some examples of the first man-made objects in space and on other celestial bodies, but they will most certainly not be the last. With today’s pace of space exploration, we should soon have bases on Moon and Mars and, eventually, may even start to colonize other planets. Right now, we all waiting to see when the first astronauts land on the Red Planet!