The Russians in Space
Even before the First World War, space exploration was a well established discipline pioneered by Konstantin Tsiolkovsky who is considered the father of human space flight. During his lifetime he published over 500 works on space travel and similar subjects and even found time to write sci-fi novels.
The research and development of rockets suitable for powering spacecraft found its main funding from military budgets. So, it was the advent of the First and Second World Wars that saw rocket development accelerate. As their power, and hence payload capacity, increased so did their capacity to escape the pull of Earth´s gravity and reach into space and beyond.
Although the Russian rocket scientists lost the Nazi´s chief rocket scientist, Werner von Braun, when he surrendered to the American Army towards the end of the Second World War, they did manage to obtain some drawings of the German V2 rockets. Aided by German prisoners, they built a replica V2 and named it the R1 under the direction of "The Chief Designer". This was the codename given to protect a design engineer by the name of Sergey Pavlovich Korolyov and his true identity was only revealed after his death.
Just like von Braun, Korolyov was fascinated by the idea of using rockets for space travel, much to the annoyance of his military paymasters. The R7 rocket, a much improved R1, was the first intercontinental ballistic missile with a range of nearly 9,000 km. Its first successful flight was in 1957 at the Baikonur Cosmodrome and later that year it launched the very first satellite, Sputnik1, into Earth orbit. It transmitted scientific data back to the ground for 3 weeks until its batteries failed, and it eventually burnt up in Earth´s atmosphere after 92 days.
Losing to the Russians spurred the American space program onwards and the beginning of the `Space Race´ between the two was marked by the launch of the American Explorer1 spacecraft in early 1958. Explorer1 orbited the Earth for over 12 years, much longer than its mission duration. Its data confirmed the presence of the Van Allen radiation belts - two torus-shaped belts of plasma that wrap concentrically around the Earth´s magnetic axis.
Although the American space program outstripped the Russian program in the race to the Moon, present day spaceflight still depends on Russian spacecraft and expertise. About 3 or 4 times a year, Russian Soyuz rockets launch Progress cargo spacecraft with supplies to dock with the International Space Station. In fact they have kept the Space Station functional as, with the Space Shuttle grounded, the only other way up is hitching a lift aboard a Russian spaceship.