Some images from the early days of space technology in the mid 1960s

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Original prints in our collection, mostly courtesy NASA. Not to be copied for commercial use.

What came before this era? See images from the early days of rocketry: 1940s and 1950s

Satellites and related


Britain was the 3rd nation into satellite technology, their programme spanning most of the 1960s. They began developing the Black Knight rocket in the 1950s but this programme was cancelled in 1965 in favour of Black Arrow. Black Arrow was developed to the stage where it could launch a satellite (which it did) but was cancelled in 1971. So just as commercial space science was begining in the 1970s, Britain had taken the political decisions to cancel both its rocket and satellite programmes - a gigantic failure of foresight by all concerned (the politicians of the time carry the can for this).

Ariel -1 was the first of 6 Ariel satellites. It also represented the first ever international satellite cooperation, since it was launched by an American Thor-Delta rocket in April 1962. Ariel-1 was a research satellite to explore the influence of the Sun on radio communication. The photo shows it on a test stand shortly before launching.

Early Bird - aka Intelsat-1

Early Bird was the first commercial communications satellite placed in geosynchronous orbit, launched in April 1965 for the International Telecommunications Satellite Consortium. It was the first satellite to provide sustained TV coverage between North America and Europe and was located at 28 degrees west. The picture shows it being lifted on an arm prior to launch. It's actually much smaller than the picture implies for it was just 760 mm high and weighed 34.5 kg. NASA's Syncom-3 satellite launched the previous year had shown the possibility for geosynchronous communications satellites in relaying the 1964 Tokyo Olympic Games across the Pacific to the US.

Early Bird satellite

Soviet tracking station

The tracking station of the CCCP Ministry of Communications near Moscow. The competition between Russian and American space endeavours was not just about landing men on the Moon (and returning them). The Russians took the first picture of the far side of the Moon (as early as 1959); they were the first to make a soft landing on the Moon (in 1966) and were the first to explore Venus, sending numerous probes in the 1960s before finally achieving a landing in the 70s.

Russian tracking station

Development of the ion engine

3 technicians peering through the windows of a vacuum chamber containing an early version of an ion engine. An ion engines has been used to propel a probe (ESA's Smart 1) to the Moon, albeit slowly (2003-2006). They are also found on the Deep Space 1 mission and Dawn mission (to Vesta and Ceres) and will be on ESA's BepiColombo mission to Mercury.

Ion engine

Ion engine test craft

SERT-1 (Space Electric Rocket Test) spacecraft ready for launch in July 1964. You're not alone if you haven't heard of this craft but it was the first craft to test an electron-bombardment ion engine (seen in the front) in space. The engine was built by NASA's Lewis Research Center and operated successfully in space for over half an hour.


Nuclear power source

SNAP (Systems Nuclear Auxiliary Power Program) was not a nuclear rocket but a nuclear system for space use that would generate eletrical power - a nuclear reactor in space. It was launched in 1965 and is still in orbit though no longer producing any power. Many other nuclear powered sources have since been sent into space. Outer solar system probes to Jupiter, Saturn and beyond pretty well need them since solar energy is in comparataively short supply at this distance from the Sun and such missions need to be powered for years.


Nuclear Rockets

Nuclear rocket test facility

The NERVA (Nuclear Engine for Rocket Vehicles Application) Engine test asembly at Jackass Flats, circa 1966. The reactor (bottom) is fed liquid hydrogen by a turbo pump from storage tanks that passes it into the reactor as a coolant. The 'test cell' (the business end of the rocket) is fed very hot hydrogen. The heated hydrogen emerging from the rocket cell provides the thrust. The facility includes a substantial radiation shield between reactor and test cell. In this facility the components are not arranged as they might be in some future rocket but are being individually tested.


Nuclear rocket testing

Testing the Nuclear Engine for Rocket Vehicles Application (NERVA) circa 1965. The engine met the specification set for a manned flight to Mars (yes, Mars), which shows how high ambitions were in the 1960s.

NERVA 1965

Nuclear rocket firing

Test facility at the Jackass flats in Nevada with the NERVA nuclear powered rocket engine firing, circa 1966. The engine is below the tower. The hot hydrogen propellant is sweeping up freezing condensation from the cryogenic liquid hydrogen feed pipes. Above this frost the hot gas distorts the image of the background snow-covered hills.


Phoebus 1-B

As the sign says, the Phoebus 1B nuclear powered rocket motor being moved to its test site in early 1967. This reactor produced about 1.5 GW of power, serious power but the right ball-park needed for rockets.

Phoebus 1B

Deliberate destruction of the Kiwi reactor

The Kiwi nuclear reactor power source was deliberately destroyed in the Nevada desert to simulate the effect of an aborted launch. The photo does not convey the radioactive contamination created, some of which is no doubt still there.

KIWI reactor destruction

Imagined nuclear rocket at the Moon

Mock up of an imagined spacecraft powered by a nuclear rocket, near the Moon with Earth and Sun in the background.

KIWI reactor destruction

The 'space race'

The H-1 engine

New Orleans - John Hill (in fashionable checked jacket) chief of NASA Michoud Office Engine Operations audits the checklist for the newly acquired H-1 rocket engines from Rocketdyne, a division of North American Aviation. Eight H-1 liquid fuelled engines were scheduled to power the Saturn IB.

The H-1 engine was a direct development of the war-time V2 engine.

H-1 rocket engines

Gemini return power

1963. Two technicians beside the ring-mounted motors that would bring the two-man Gemini capsules out of orbit, initiating their return to Earth.

Gemini return ring

The first Apollo

At least 20 technicians look at the first Apollo spacecraft to be tested for the Moon project, prior to shipment to Cape Kennedy.

The first Apollo capsule

Man looks at Asia from space

India from space, taken by Gemini 11 astronaut Richard Gordon in 1966 with a hand-held camera from an altitude of 850 km. The Arabian Sea is to the left, then India and Sri Lanka, then the Bay of Bengal. The radar aerial of the docked Agena craft is visible.

The 2-man Gemini missions preceeded the Apollo flights. This mission still holds the record for the highest manned orbital space flight (just over 1300 km), apart from the Apollo lunar missions that left Earth orbit.

India from Gemini 11

Space station imagined

Aspirations in 1965 - Russian animated model of a projected Space Station with a central stem surrounded by 6 sealed sections containing the control room, a lab, a garden, orienting controls, a docking station and a heliostation. As history unfolded, the Soviet Mir space station (1986 - 2001) didn't look anything like this and neither does the International Space Station.

Imagined Space Station