We humans have always had a hunger for knowledge. That feeling, combined with our unending curiosity has driven us to look up into the night sky and dream of one day exploring the vast universe around us. It’s only natural that we would wish to see, touch, and feel all that we can in the pursuit of knowledge.
It is this drive that has fueled the history of space exploration. From glimpses into other worlds, to manned missions to space, join us as we chronicle this rich and fascinating part of our history, examine the motivations behind it, and look into the future to see where our next steps will take us.
Throughout our history, humans have always been fascinated with the stars, and the universe that lies just outside the boundaries of our world. Primarily, astronomers have used telescopes to observe and make assumptions about what they see. However, human spaceflight, satellites, and robotic space rovers have made it possible to physically leave our planet.
Space technology has evolved immensely in recent years. Let’s go back though, to the beginning of this wondrous era of human history. While the history of astronomy dates back to times long before recorded history, our modern era saw the beginning of our major strides.
It began during World War II when German scientists were testing their V-2 rocket. On October 3rd, 1942, they launched the A-4 into space, marking the first man-made object to exit our atmosphere. As time went on, the German’s continued researching rocket technology for both military and civilian purposes.
On May 10th, 1946, the U.S launched a V-2 into space to perform experiments on cosmic radiation. This was also the same year the the first pictures of Earth were taken from space. In 1947, the first animal experiment was performed when fruit flies were sent into space on modified V-2 rockets.
The rocket missions were short lived, in October of 1957, the Soviet Union launched an unmanned satellite into space called the Sputnik 1. It remained in orbit until January of the following year, transmitting data in the form of beeps that were used to analyze the density of electrons in the ionosphere, along with temperature and pressure. The success of the Russian satellite prompted the United States to enter into what we’ve commonly known as “the space race,” where both countries continuously tried to beat each other.
The United States was able to launch their own satellite in January of 1958 entitled Explorer 1. The Soviet Union also launched the first animal into orbit in November of 1957. The passenger was a dog named Laika.
The first time a human left the Earth was on the Vostok 1 rocket, launched by Russian in April of 1961. On board was the 27 year old cosmonaut Yuri Gagarin. During the flight, the ship completed one orbit around the Earth which took an hour and forty-eight minutes. This milestone was a major win for the Soviet space program.
The United States put together a suborbital flight within a month called Mercury-Redstone 3 which carried astronaut Alan Shepard. In February of 1962, Mercury-Atlas 6 carried John Glenn in an orbit around the Earth. The Soviet Union continued to make strides when they launched Valentina Tereshkova, the first woman into space, on the Vostok 6. She orbited the Earth 48 times onboard the ship in 1963.
China also joined the field of space exploration in 2003 when they sent Yang Liwei into space on board the Shenzhou 5.
The first object to successfully reach another body in space was the Luna 2, launched by the Soviet Union in 1959. This device reached the surface of the moon and on impact scattered Soviet emblems across the surface. Subsequent missions in the Luna series were able to land on the Moon, and another was able to begin orbiting it.
The first manned landing was performed by the Apollo 11 mission on July 20, 1969. The first humans to set foot on the moon were Neil Armstrong and Buzz Aldrin. It was during this mission, broadcasted live on television, that Neil Armstrong said his famous quote: “That’s one small step for man, one giant leap for mankind.”
This success signaled the end of the Space Race and brought to fruition a goal set forth by U.S President John F. Kennedy. During a speech before Congress, he said “before this decade is out, of landing a man on the Moon and returning him safely to the Earth.”
Many other satellites and unmanned objects have made successful flyby missions near other planets. Below is a list of these missions and the planet’s they were sent to:
In the 1980’s, orbiting satellites became a major asset for sending and receiving signals, pinpointing locations on the Earth, and monitoring events like forest fires and the Chernobyl disaster in 1986. Meanwhile, other types of satellites continued to record and send back new information about distant stars.
In April of 1981, the space shuttle Columbia launched a new era of spaceflight with a reusable craft for exiting and entering the Earth’s atmosphere. There were twenty-four missions successfully completed before a tragedy struck in 1986. This shuttle exploded in mid-air after takeoff and killed all seven crew members instantly.
There was a rough period for space exploration before any sort of missions resumed. A major milestone occurred on August 24th, 1990 when the shuttle Discovery deployed the Hubble space telescope, affording us a powerful tool for seeing deep into our universe.
During this time, the International Space Station was slowly being established. This floating laboratory is a shining example of how people who were once competitors can put their differences aside to benefit humanity as a whole. At any given point, there are several astronauts on board the station ranging from American, to Russian in nature.
Once more tragedy struck in 2003 when the space shuttle Columbia broke apart during its reentry, killing everyone on board. Manned spaceflights have since become a rarity. The National Aeronautics and Space Administration, (NASA) who is responsible for all of the United States’ space programs, continues sending various unmanned probes and rovers into space.
In recent years, third party companies have been developing methods of bringing civilians safely into space and back. These include SpaceX and Virgin Galactic. The year 2012 was important for space exploration as well. The Voyager 1 probe, launched in 1977, finally entered interstellar space beyond our solar system.
Also, NASA’s Curiosity rover completed its trip and landing on Mars in 2012. It was as big as a car and was fully equipped with new technology and instruments to examine the surface. This brings us to the present, where space travel still finds its way into the news, but much of the funding it has seen in the past is now focused on other things.
While curiosity and the pursuit of knowledge are major motivators for exploring the universe, there is also plenty of tangible potential for various aspects of our society. The biggest question lies in the expenses that are required for such programs.
One of the major arguments comes in the form of minerals and resources that other planets could offer. Asteroids in particular contain billions of dollars in minerals and metals that could be extracted and used to offset the cost of these programs.
Another major argument in favor of space travel is that humanity will eventually go extinct if we remain on Earth. Between possible calamities, a lack of resources, epidemics, nuclear weapons, and more, there are plenty of ways that we could be wiped out.
Stephen Hawking, a world renowned theoretical physicist commented saying: “I don’t think the human race will survive the next thousand years, unless we spread into space. There are too many accidents that can befall life on a single planet. But I’m an optimist. We will reach out to the stars.”
Currently, NASA has plans to get people back on the moon by 2020. At this point, a forward base will be established to visit Mars and other planets. The moon will be a perfect place to prepare humans for extended missions to other worlds.
In the NASA Authorization Act of 2010, a list of objectives were set forth to define the future of the American space program, in addition to funding for the top goals. One of these includes the construction of the Space Launch System (SLS) which will be able to send the Orion Multi-Purpose Crew Vehicle, among other items into Earth’s orbit and beyond. The goal is to have a more safe and affordable method of entering space. Another similar pursuit is the concept of placing artificial intelligence systems into space to handle the sensitive and complicated aspects of extended space travel.
Ideally these programs would have almost zero margins for error, and would be able to autonomously conduct their responsibilities. The three goals of such a program are as follows:
The first steps in this goal began when NASA launched their autonomous science experiment (ASE) in November of the year 2000. This satellite is capable of analyzing, planning, and executing observances from its place in Earth’s orbit. To date, the device has sent over 10,000 unique images.
No longer is humanity divided in this goal, space has become a place where people of all different nations can work together towards a common goal. The chief scientist at NASA, Ellen Stofan expressed the administration’s goal to have humans on Mars by the 2030s.
Meanwhile, a private company by the name of Mars One has been making promises that it will have people living on Mars by 2024, several years before NASA plans to make it happen. The not-for-profit organization has been receiving funding from the Interplanetary Media Group. Ultimately, 24 contestants will be chosen for a one-way trip to Mars, and many issues have begun to arise as to whether such a mission will be possible.
Between the lofty goals of NASA and the equally futuristic goals of private companies, the future is quite similar to the history of space exploration. We are still seeking out and finding that hunger for new and exciting vistas and worlds. We have the means, we need only focus on cooperating and working together.
To date, the longest time humans have spent in space is on the International Space Station, which has been in use for over 14 years. The cosmonaut Valeri Polyakov still holds the record for the longest time spent in space. He spent 438 days away from the Earth and his record has yet to be beat.
We still struggle with the ability to live outside of the Earth’s influence. Even on the ISS, bone and muscles begin to deteriorate in the low gravity. In addition, the human immune system loses its efficiency, plus there are issues of being exposed to cosmic radiation that is normally deflected by the Earth.
We’ve already made the preparations though, including a document that outlines the basis for laws in space and on foreign planets. With plans laid out for peaceful colonization and laws against transporting weapons, establishing military bases, and more, the groundwork has been laid for us to take these steps in both peace and awe.
We anxiously push forward; distracted by the other burdens of our daily lives and the constant struggles for peace on the planet we were all born on. Let us hope we can put our differences aside and pursue space exploration into the universe all around us.