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With the launch of Sputnik ("satellite") on October 4, 1957, the Soviet Union stunned the world, started the Space Age, and ignited a "space race" with the United States. Almost all the early space "firsts" were made by the Soviets, including the first intercontinental missile, first satellite, first robotic spacecraft to the Moon, first man in space, first woman in space, and first spacewalk. Their automated lunar spacecraft even returned Moon samples to Earth.
However, the USSR never landed a cosmonaut on the Moon, partly because it was not able to develop a rocket with enough power and reliability. After America's Apollo 11 Moon landing in 1969, the Soviets began to pursue longer-term goals. They sent automated probes to explore Venus and Mars. They established a permanent presence in space, by adapting their Moon-era hardware into orbital space stations called Salyut and by using Soyuz spacecraft to ferry crews and supplies for longer and longer missions. In 1986 Salyut was succeeded by the modular space station, Mir, on which some crew members spent a year or more.
More on Soviet/Russian Spacecraft
Video Tour of Space Flight History
Russian Space Stations: Fact Sheet (PDF)
Mir's Spaceflight Records
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Responsible NASA Official: John Ira Petty