40 years ago today, Apollo 11 successfully landed the first man on the moon. This American achievement was monumental, but it would have never happend if the Russians had not fueled the race to space. Two days after the United States announced its intention to launch an artificial satellite, on July 31, 1956, the Soviet Union announced its intention to do the same. Sputnik 1 was launched on October 4, 1957, beating the United States and stunning people all over the world.
For a dozen years before the moon landing, the Russians racked up an extraordinary array of superlatives. It was the first to send a craft into orbit, with the Sputnik satellite in 1957. The first human to go into outer space was Russian Yuri Gagarin in 1961. Moscow sent the woman into space, Valentina Tereshkova in 1963; and Alexei Leonov was the first person to venture outside a spacecraft into the endless cosmos, in 1965.
Russia even got to the moon first when the unmanned Luna 2 crashed in 1959. But the drama of the first human footprint on an extraterrestrial body eclipsed everything the Soviets had worked so hard to achieve.
The Soviet space program pioneered many aspects of space exploration. Here's a list from Wikipedia:
1957: First intercontinental ballistic missile, the R-7 Semyorka 1957: First satellite, Sputnik 1 1957: First animal to enter Earth orbit, the dog Laika (pictured) on Sputnik 2 1959: First firing of a rocket in Earth orbit, first man-made object to escape Earth's orbit, Luna 1 1959: First data communications, or telemetry, to and from outer space, Luna 1. 1959: First man-made object to pass near the Moon, first man-made object in Solar orbit, Luna 1 1959: First probe to impact the Moon, Luna 2 1959: First images of the moon's far side, Luna 3 1960: First animals to safely return from Earth orbit, the dogs Belka and Strelka on Sputnik 5. 1960: First probe launched to Mars, Marsnik 1 1961: First probe launched to Venus, Venera 1 1961: First person in space (International definition) and in Earth orbit, Yuri Gagarin on Vostok 1, Vostok programme 1961: First person to spend over a day in space Gherman Titov, Vostok 2 (also first person to sleep in space). 1962: First dual manned spaceflight and approach, Vostok 3 and Vostok 4 1963: First woman in space, Valentina Tereshkova, Vostok 6 1964: First multi-man crew (3), Voskhod 1 1965: First EVA, by Aleksei Leonov, Voskhod 2 1965: First probe to hit another planet (Venus), Venera 3 1966: First probe to make a soft landing on and transmit from the surface of the moon, Luna 9 1966: First probe in lunar orbit, Luna 10 1967: First unmanned rendezvous and docking, Cosmos 186/Cosmos 188. (Until 2006, this had remained the only major space achievement that the US had not duplicated.) 1969: First docking between two manned craft in Earth orbit and exchange of crews, Soyuz 4 and Soyuz 5 1970: First samples automatically returned to Earth from another body, Luna 16 1970: First robotic space rover, Lunokhod 1 1970: First data received from the surface of another planet (Venus), Venera 7 1971: First space station, Salyut 1 1971: First probe to orbit another planet (Mars), first probe to reach surface of Mars, Mars 2 1975: First probe to orbit Venus, first photos from surface of Venus, Venera 9 1984: First woman to walk in space, Svetlana Savitskaya (Salyut 7 space station) 1986: First crew to visit two separate space stations (Mir and Salyut 7) 1986: First permanently manned space station, Mir, which orbited the Earth from 1986 until 2001 1987: First crew to spend over one year in space, Vladimir Titov and Musa Manarov on board of TM-4 - Mir
Sources: LA Times, Wikipedia