The Space Race entered the American consciousness fully with the Soviet launch of their satellite Sputnik on October 4, 1957. Suddenly, Americans who had always assumed that they were ahead of everyone else in terms of technology, found themselves watching a Soviet satellite blinking in the sky, doing something that Americans had not yet achieved. On November 3, the Soviets launched the first animal into space, the dog Laika, who promptly died.
The gap continued, with Americans in hot pursuit. The first American satellite, Explorer 1, was launched on January 31, 1958, less then four months after Sputnik. The same year, President Eisenhower signed an order creating the National Aeronautics and Space Administration (NASA), a federal agency dedicated to space exploration and engineering.
The Soviets struck first again when the put Yuri Gagarin into orbit on April 12, 1961. The United responded by launching Alan Shepherd into a suborbital flight less than a month later. John Glenn became the first American to orbit the earth on February 20, 1962 aboard the Mercury capsule Friendship 7.
Although the Soviet Union achieved longer and longer periods in orbit for their cosmonauts, the United States undertook, subsequent to President Kennedy`s speech to Congress in May, 1961, to reach the moon before the end of the decade. This resulted in the Mercury space program, which completed a number of successful steps before Neil Armstrong became the first man to set foot on the moon on July 20, 1969. In all, a dozen Americans walked on the moon, a feat which has not been duplicated by any cosmonauts before or since.