There's a reason why nothing gets your name written larger in history books than being first at something. Humanity is all about breaking new ground and reaching new frontiers, so of course we idolize those who were the first up Mount Everest, or to find out what happens when you cram a bunch of Mentos up your ass and sit down in a bathtub full of Diet Coke. But a whole lot of these famous firsts are credited to the wrong people, due to politics, bad luck, or outright lies.
For instance ...
5Sally Ride Was Not the First Woman in Space
When it comes to space travel, most of us have room in our brains to remember the first few explorers and maybe one horrific explosion, but all the other astronauts and missions get jumbled together in a hazy mess. We know, for instance, that the first man to orbit the Earth was John Glenn, the first moon walk was Neil Armstrong, and, of course, the first woman in space -- thus striking a mighty blow for gender equality by disproving the myths that menstruating ladies attract space bears -- was Sally Ride.
Yeah, like that space shuttle in the background isn't the least bit suggestive.
Except That ...
Sally Ride wasn't the first woman in space at all, or even the second. Before we get to who it was, take a minute to think back through all the names you know of famous space explorers ... they're all awfully American-sounding, aren't they? Well, your history books didn't do that by accident.
During the space race, every time the USSR accomplished something noteworthy, the United States made a bunch of sitcom-ish gestures in front of the world news coverage while hoping John Q. Public would never notice. Then, once America accomplished the same feat, we'd shower ourselves in accolades and insist that everyone call us pioneers. That's why you probably didn't know that the first woman in space was actually Soviet cosmonaut Valentina Tereshkova.
In June of 1963, when Ride was just 12 years old, Tereshkova was already taking laps around the Earth aboard the Vostok 6. Her first mission made 48 full orbits during 70.8 hours, which works out to one orbit every one and a half hours. Oh, and she was also the first civilian in space. Before becoming a cosmonaut, her only experience with aircraft was abandoning them in midflight as a professional parachutist.
Yet by the time she finally hung up her spacesuit, Tereshkova had racked up more time in space than all United States astronauts combined. Of course she was silly with awards by then for her extraordinary contributions to space exploration, but the U.S. quietly forced an ether-soaked flag over the mouths of history book writers and jotted down Sally Ride's name instead, despite the fact that she was two decades late.
RIA Novosti / V. Malyshev
On the plus side, Tereshkova got hit on by Khrushchev. So there's that.
But don't assume the USSR got a raw deal in the space race, because ...
4The Soviet Union Wasn't the First Country in Space
Because it all happened behind the Iron Curtain, there's still quite a bit we don't know about Russia's space program in the second half of the 20th century. What little we do know is shocking in its complete disregard for life, safety, or anything that might stand between the outer limits of the atmosphere and a dog wrapped in a metal chamber. Russia was like the Rudy of the space race: not very talented or well-suited to the task, but desperately eager and wistful.
"C'mon, coach ... just play us once."
But who can argue with the results? They launched Sputnik into space while the U.S. was still fretting over petty problems like "What happens when it comes crashing back to Earth?" America's whole motivation for going to the moon was that the Russians had beaten it by being the first into space.
Except That ...
They absolutely weren't. While it may be gratifying to know that the reckless, arrogant giant that was the Soviet Union during the middle of the 20th century got beaten at its favorite game, slow your victory lap, because it wasn't the U.S. that beat them. So who was the plucky underdog country who swooped in and stole the win in the space race? Surely it's some country deserving of more renown and celebration for their ... monumental achievement ... oh goddamn it, it was the Nazis.
As early as the 1930s, Nazi scientists were working on developing a long-range ballistic missile for the military. When war broke out, development accelerated, and eventually they formed the V-2 rocket. When Hitler initially saw the slapped-together hunk of explosives, he concluded that it wasn't fit for use -- until late in the war, when he hurriedly approved it as his last-ditch miracle weapon. Fortunately for the rest of the world, the V-2 was absurdly ineffective. The entire program cost more than the Manhattan Project, killed more people in production than it did in actual combat, and was generally so crappy that the Allies decided it was less dangerous to let the rockets hit their targets than to try to blow them out of the sky.
Bundesarchiv, Bild 141-1875A / CC-BY-SA
"Also, we felt kinda sorry for 'em."
But what the V-2 lacked in killability it made up for with revolutionary spaceflight. On October 3, 1942, almost exactly 15 years before the launch of Sputnik, Nazi Germany became the first people on Earth to fire anything into space. They launched a V-2 that went right through the stratosphere, reaching a height of 150,000 feet before it presumably plummeted back to Earth on top of some terrified bystanders.
After the war, the Allies initiated Operation Paperclip, in which the U.S., the U.K., and the Soviet Union traded German scientists like baseball cards and the V-2 became the granddaddy of every modern rocket design around the world. The Soviets would copy the rocket, calling their ripoff the R-1, and several tweaks later, they had the R-7 -- a rocket that could fling an object into orbit. Thanks, Hitler!
National socialism really did us a solid on this one.