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When the U.S. space program began in 1959, there were only seven astronauts in the entire country. There are currently 50 active astronauts, 35 management astronauts, and nine candidates currently in the U.S. space program. In total, 330 astronauts have been selected in the 20 groups from 1959 through today.

The first person to travel in space was a Russian, Yuri A. Gagarin, on April 12, 1961. The United States quickly followed suit, launching Alan Shepard, the first U.S. astronaut, into space on May 5, 1961. These men may have been the first to experience space, but the work of other pioneers made space travel possible. Robert H. Goddard of the United States and Hermann Oberth of Germany are recognized as the fathers of space flight. It was Goddard who designed and built a number of rocket motors and ground tested the liquid fuel rocket. Oberth published The Rocket into Interplanetary Space in 1923, which discussed technical problems of space and described what a spaceship would be like. Although there were few significant advances beyond this until after World War II, the Soviets and Germans did carry on experiments in the 1930s, and it was quite evident in the 1940s that space flights were to become a reality.

The U.S. space program began operations on October 1, 1958, when the National Aeronautics and Space Administration (NASA) was created. NASA was created largely in response to Soviet success at launching the world's first artificial satellite in 1957. The United States and Soviet Union continued space flights through the 1960s. Astronauts practiced maneuvering spacecraft and working in space on these missions. There were several firsts in this decade also: The Soviet Union placed the first spacecraft with more than one person into space in 1964; in 1965, Russian cosmonaut Alexei Leonov became the first person to step outside a spacecraft. NASA's first goal, to put a man on the moon by the end of the 1960s, was accomplished in 1969 when Neil Armstrong and Edwin Aldrin Jr. were the first people to set foot on the moon. Both countries continued developing their programs throughout the 1970s, when astronauts carried out the first repair work in space.

It was during the 1970s when it became evident that a space station—a permanent orbiting laboratory in space in which astronauts could come and go and work from—could be a reality. The concept of a staffed outpost in Earth's orbit has been something people have imagined for years. In May 1973, the United States launched the Skylab space station. Skylab hosted crews for stays of 28, 56, and 84 days and proved that humans could live and work in space for extended periods. Crews conducted medical tests and made astronomical, solar, and Earth observations. However, Skylab was not designed for resupply or refueling and was brought back to Earth in 1979.

In the 1980s, the United States began working with 15 other countries on planning on what became the International Space Station. The United States launched the first reusable manned spacecraft, the space shuttle Columbia. The Soviets also began using space shuttles during the 1980s and launched their version of a space station, Mir. Despite the progress of recent decades, however, both countries were still learning. On January 28, 1986, the U.S. space shuttle Challenger exploded shortly after takeoff, killing all seven crew members. Tragedy struck the space shuttle program again on February 1, 2003, when the Columbia broke up during reentry into the Earth's atmosphere, killing all seven crew members.

In late 1998, the Russian aerospace program delivered the first component of the International Space Station (ISS). An initial crew of three began living aboard the space station in late 2000.

The space shuttle program ended in July 2011 when the space shuttle Atlantis touched down for the last time. As a result, astronauts are now ferried to the ISS by rockets from the Russian space program instead of being launched in U.S. spacecraft. NASA is working with the private aerospace company Lockheed Martin to develop the Orion Multi-Purpose Crew Vehicle, which will eventually carry astronauts to perhaps the moon, asteroids, and Mars. In the future, astronauts will also have the opportunity to work for private aerospace companies that are involved in space exploration and space tourism.  

NASA has also initiated the Commercial Crew and Cargo Program, which aims to "stimulate efforts within the private sector to develop and demonstrate safe, reliable, and cost-effective space transportation capabilities." Private companies involved in this program include SpaceX, Blue Origin, Boeing, Paragon, United Launch Alliance, and Sierra Nevada Corporation. 

In 2019, NASA's Artemis program was preparing to send the first woman and next man to the Moon by 2024. The mission also would pave the way for humans to explore Mars in the future.