The Geography of Space Exploration: Who was the Third Country in Space?

Danny Bednar
9 min readMar 26, 2018


Why four different countries can make the claim

After the Soviets and the American, who was next to get such views? (Image: Pixabay)

It’s well known that nearly all early space accomplishments were achieved by either the Soviet Union or the United States. Broadly speaking, the Soviets were the first to realize a number of initial space milestones. Including being the first to launch a satellite. In the early days of the Space Age it was typically the U.S. coming in second— until of course, America’s centrally directed and publicly funded space agency beat those filthy socialists to putting humans on the Moon.

But after these lead contestants of the Space Race, who came next?

In the Canadian space community it is celebrated that the Great White North was the third country to enter space. This is correct, Canada was the third country to build and operate a satellite in orbit. However, you may also hear, from time to time, that France, Czechoslovakia, or China were the also the third countries in space…So what gives?

Well let’s sort this out, and afterwards we can all be the “well actually…” people who interject whenever they hear ‘third country in space’ claims.

First however, a side discussion is in order. You may have noticed I said “operate a satellite in orbit”. The Soviet satellite Sputnik 1 was the first artificial object to orbit the Earth. However, Sputnik is sometimes given the misnomer of ‘first object in space’. This is not correct — the first object in space would be whatever rocket was the first to leave Earth’s atmosphere. This happened at least a decade before Sputnik.

So why do we focus on orbit? Why not discuss who was the third country to get to space period? Because determining the first, second, and third countries to launch things beyond the atmosphere is a tricky discussion.

Sputnik, the first human made object to orbit the Earth, but not the first object in space (Image: Public Domain).

The development and testing of rockets was a very active field in the early 20th century — mostly in Germany, Russia, and the United States. A veritable rabbit hole of books on the history of rocketry await you in trying to sort out who got how high first. This question is further complicated by the varying definitions of what it means to ‘enter space’.

As a friend doing science outreach recently learned, some people — flat Earthers — believe the Earth’s atmosphere abruptly stops and space starts. The reality of course is that Earth’s atmosphere dissipates. As you go further from the Earth it slowly gets thinner and thinner. However, no matter where the line is drawn, it remains a mostly arbitrary claim that a certain ‘thickness’ of atmosphere is or is not space.

While specific rocket altitude and space definition debates remain, there may also be a historical reason we don’t often discuss the first object in space. Debates aside, it is commonly accepted that the first country to put something in outer space was likely Nazi Germany. This is an unfortunate and tragic component of the history of space exploration as the governing party of this achievement carried out unparalleled atrocities in the 20th Century. Sadly, the rocket program, like all state programs under the Nazi government, was facilitated by slave labour and stolen wealth from the Holocaust.

A V2 rocket being readied for launch in Blizna, Occupied Poland (Image: Public Domain)

But, even Nazi Germany isn’t always considered the first country in space. If you search “first object in space” in Bing (that’s right, Bing), you’ll see a article discussing how a Bumper-WAC rocket became the first human-built object to enter space. Despite what half of Youtube would have you believe, NASA isn’t lying. The article is simply using a different definition of where space begins than the common 100 km (Karman Line).

This is a small sample of the issues that await any simple determination of “first object in space” (as well as second or third). That is why for this article I have chosen more easily defined, and well-recorded, achievements, such as construction, orbital operation, and launch to orbit.

So let’s get on with it.

Build and Operate a Satellite

1st — Soviet Union (Sputnik 1, 1957)

2nd — United States (Explorer 1, 1958)

3rd — Canada (Alouette 1, 1962)

If you ask Jeeves “who was the third country in space”, you get a few different answers. However, if your question is a bit more specific, and your boolean logic sound, then you will come across Canada…or the United Kingdom.

Alouette 1, the satellite that gives Canada its claim to third (Image: Government of Canada)

On September 29th, 1962 a U.S.-built Thor-Agena rocket launched from Vandenberg Air Force Base in California. Its payload was a 145 kilogram satellite mostly assembled in Ottawa, Ontario at the facilities of the Defence Research Telecommunications Establishment (DRTE). Like many government programs, DRTE has been shifted around and renamed over the years but it now resides within Canada’s Ministry of Innovation, Science and Economic Development, alongside the Canadian Space Agency (CSA).

The Canadian-built satellite was part of an agreement by NASA and the Canadian Government, after Canuck scientists John Chapman and Eldin Warren submitted a proposal for a satellite that would monitor the Earth’s ionosphere (a portion of the Earth’s upper atmosphere doused in solar radiation that was of interest to those wishing to use space to transmit, or even bounce, radio signals).

Eventually, multiple satellites would be launched as part of an agreement between Canada and the United States to further study the ionosphere. More than a national accomplishment, Alouette 1 was a legitimate scientific payload that took over one million measurements of the ionosphere over an incredible ten year mission (despite only being designed to operate for a single year).

That being said, the Brits have a fair claim as well. The United Kingdom, operated (though didn’t build or launch) the Ariel 1 satellite five months prior to Alouette. Like the Canadian satellite, Ariel 1 was launched by NASA, but unlike Alouette, it was built in the United States by NASA. Nonetheless, being the third country to have a ground station operating a satellite is worthy of a nod, and perhaps rightful co-claim to third in space.

Ariel 1, the United Kingdom’s claim to third in space, launched in 1962 (Image: Public Domain)

Launch a Satellite

1st — Soviet Union (Sputnik 1, 1957)

2nd — United States (Explorer 1, 1958)

3rd — France (Asterix, 1965)

France has a long and fascinating history in space, including Felicette, the first space cat. Immediately upon the dawn of the Space Age, Charles de Gaulle and successive leaders were committed to making France a formidable space power. With the little satellite Asterix, they started down such a path.

On November 26th, 1965 France’s space agency Le Centre National D’Etudes Spatiales (CNES) launched a Diamant rocket from Algeria (another wrinkle in the discussion is the presence of launch sites in colonial territories, but that’s a story for another day).

The Diamant rocket was designed and built in France, and was the first non-super-power launch vehicle capable of putting a satellite in space. The rocket delivered Asterix, a 42 kilogram satellite (at the time known as A1).

Fifty years later, France remains a central component of the European Space Agency (ESA), and its Ariane rocket family is among the most reliable in the world. So reliable that it is being trusted with the incredibly valuable, and somewhat precious, James Webb Space Telescope, set for launch in 2019.

The French constructed and launched Asterix (Image: Public Domain)

Person in Space

1st — Soviet Union — (Yuri Gagarin, 1961)

2nd — United States — (Alan Shepard, 1961)

3rd — Czechoslovakia — (Vladimir Remek, 1978)

Much like the distinction between object in space and launching an object into space, there are different answers when determining the third country with a person in space versus the third to launch a person into space. The latter only happening this millennium.

By the mid-1970s the Soviets had decided to branch out their space program to Warsaw Pact allies (the Warsaw Pact was essentially the Soviets’ version of NATO). The initiative was called Interkosmos and it eventually included non-Warsaw Pact members such as France. However, the first country to send a cosmonaut to space as part of the program was Czechoslovakia. Of course, Czechoslovakia is now two distinct nation-states, The Czech Republic (now Czechia) and Slovakia, the former a full member of the European Space Agency and the latter a cooperating member.

Vladimir Remek, (Image:

Vladimir Remek was a Czech pilot in the Soviet Air Force before training to become a cosmonaut for the Interkosmos program. On March 2nd, 1978, Remek and Soviet Commander Aleksei Gubarev launched towards the orbiting Salyut 6 space station from the Baikonur Cosmodrome in Kazakhstan (producer of world’s most superior potassium). After nine days in orbit, Remek returned home, later becoming an army official and politician.

As discussed by Carol Norberg in her book Human Spaceflight and Exploration, Interkosmos largely consisted of military pilots from Soviet Bloc countries who were given opportunities to bring spaceflight experience back to their respective nations. Ultimately nine crews of Soviet and ally cosmonauts went to space between 1978 and 1981, mostly visiting Salyut 6. This program was a precursor to seats on the Russian spacecraft Soyuz being made available to western nations and eventually private citizens.

Launch a Person to Space

1st — Soviet Union — (Yuri Gagarin, 1961)

2nd — United States — (Alan Shepard, 1961)

3rd — China — (Yang Liwei, 2003)

In recent years there has a been new claim to ‘third in space’ as China launched it’s first crewed mission Shenzhou 5 on October 15, 2003 carrying taikonaut Yang Liwei. Yang Liwei, originally a pilot in China’s People’s Liberation Army, orbited the Earth 14 times before landing in Mongolia after just under 22 hours in space. The Chinese National Space Administration (CNSA) has since launched nine other astronauts to space and are planning to build a modular space station similar to Mir and the International Space Station in the coming decades.

Yang Liwei, first Taikonaut (Image: Dyor)

This launch made China the third country to launch a human to space using their own rocket (Long March 2F) and spacecraft (Shenzhou). Before this, all other international spacefarers had flown on either the Russian Soyuz or the U.S. Space Shuttle. The Shenzhou is a Chinese build very similar in design to the Russian Soyuz. The Long March family of rockets is continuing to be developed, with a heavy launch vehicle (one that can send people to the Moon or Mars) in the works.

Ultimate Winner: Team Earth

So, there you have it — Canada, France, Czechoslovakia, and China were all the third country in space. In the end, its not really a race; unless you are a fervent nationalist, who cares where the person was born, or the satellite built? While it’s fun to look back and sort out what happened where, if you’re worried about the nationality of the first person who will step on Mars or which country will be first to put a lander on Europa, then frankly you’re doing space exploration wrong (though ruling regimes don’t get a pass, that’s another story for another day).

Part of the point of space exploration should be to remind us that we’re all on this (warming) rock together. As the history of space exploration has shown, there are some important questions that can be answered by a few of us leaving from time to time.

Danny Bednar (Twitter: @SpaceProfessor2) is a PhD candidate and instructor in the Department of Geography at Western University in London, ON, Canada. He researches and teaches courses on climate change adaptation, geopolitics, and space exploration.



Danny Bednar

Geography PhD, part-time professor and author with a 9-5 at my local space agency. Writing about space exploration, metal, classical music, & hockey.