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Space Exploration: The Past, Present, and Future

That's one small step for man. One giant leap for mankind.

Image courtesy of Guardian Design Team.

Space exploration has progressed a lot since the first person stepped foot on the moon. But what is space exploration? Is it discovering what life there is on other planets? Is it the use of technology and astronomy to explore outer space? The answer is yes, but a more specific definition according to Britannica, space exploration is “the investigation, by means of crewed and uncrewed spacecraft, of the reaches of the universe beyond Earth’s atmosphere and the use of the information so gained to increase knowledge of the cosmos and benefit humanity.” With the development of technology in the past century, it has become possible to send people and animals to space, take pictures of the galaxy, rovers to roam on different terrain, prove scientific theories, and more.

Image courtesy of Dave Simonds, The Economist.

Timeline of Significant Events in Space Exploration

It is hard to find a “start” to space exploration as there were many technological developments leading up to the “beginning” of space exploration. It takes years of preparation of research and design for rockets and other technology and oftentimes, they fail to work.

USA - the United States of America, USSR - the Union of Soviet Socialist Republics (existed from 1922 - 1991).

  1. WAC Corporal 1946 (USA): The first successful US-designed rocket that could reach the end of space while lifting 20 pounds of instruments.

  2. V-2 1946 (USA): The first pictures taken from Earth from an altitude of 40 miles, 70 miles, and 101 miles. V-2 was a modified version of the V-2 rockets that became the first artificial object to take a photograph of Earth from space.

  3. The Space Race: The point where space exploration began to pick up was in 1955 when the space race between the two Cold War rivals, the United States of America and the Soviet Union started. The Space Race was an arms competition race to see which was the first country to progress further in space and essentially the first country to land a person on the moon

  4. Sputnik 1 1957 (USSR): The first artificial human satellite in space. After it was launched, it was able to successfully enter Earth’s orbit. The success of this launch shocked many people, thus beginning the “space age”. The purpose of Sputnik was for scientific research and how well this model was able to function in the space environment.

  5. Sputnik 2 1957 (USSR): The second spacecraft launched into outer space, but also the first biological spacecraft. Biological space crafts are special types of satellites that take a living organism with them. In this case, the first living being, Laika, a dog was sent up to space. Unfortunately, it was planned she would not be able to safely return back to Earth and she died a few days later in space.

  6. Explorer 6 1959 (USA): The first image of Earth ever by a satellite.

  7. Vostok 6 1963 (USSR): Carried Valentina Tereshkova who became the first woman in space. She completed 48 orbits around the Earth, the data collected from this mission was able to contribute to a series of biomedical and scientific research.

  8. Luna 10 1966 (USSR): The first artificial satellite to orbit the moon and orbit a body that wasn’t the Earth. The data returned told us that the moon had a weak to non-existent magnetic gravity and a distorted gravity field in comparison to Earth.

  9. Apollo 8 1968 (USA): The first successful spacecraft carrying a crew to orbit the moon and return back to Earth safely. This was the first time we saw the Saturn 5 rocket in use.

  10. Apollo 11 1969 (USA): The most (arguably) well-known part of space exploration was the first humans on the moon. The Saturn 5 carried “Commander Neil Armstrong, Command Module Pilot Michael Collins and Lunar Module Pilot Edwin "Buzz" Aldrin into an initial Earth-orbit of 114 by 116 miles.

  11. Luna 16 1970 (USSR): The first automatic (without a crew) robotic probe to land on the moon and collect samples.

  12. Salyut 1 (USSR): The first-ever space station. A space station serves as “living quarters and scientific laboratories.”

  13. Pioneer 10 1972 (USA): The first spacecraft to fly away from the sun to Jupiter, Saturn, the Milky Way Galaxy, and the stars. The Pioneer 10 made close up observations and images of these planets. Fun fact: it is a ghost ship meaning that it is coasting through space, as “Earth’s first emissary into space, [it] is carrying a gold plaque that describes what we look like, where we are and the date the mission began.”

  14. Mariner 10 1974 (USA): The first picture of Venus from space and the first close-up images of Venus and Marsalso making it the first spacecraft to visit two planets in one mission.

  15. Venera 13 1982 (USSR): The first lander to transmit colour images of the surface of Venus. It was also the first to sample the soil and record the sound from Venus.

  16. Voyager 1 1990 (USA): Before the voyager, there were only images of individual planets but on this mission, NASA was able to capture the first image of the entire solar system.

  17. Mir 1995 (Russia): The longest duration spaceflight (437.7 days) set by Valeri Polyakov.

Image courtesy of WCPO Cincinnati.

Where are we now?

Space exploration has been glorified by movies and conspiracy theories, but from the significant events listed above, we as humans have still collected a lot of data and research on our solar system and space transportation. Humans since the Apollo missions have been more “often conducting experiments on themselves to determine the effects of weightlessness, or microgravity, on the human body” outside the Earth’s atmosphere. There is a current space outpost, the International Space Station (ISS), which has been there since 2000 with astronauts abroad conducting scientific research. The main contributors to space exploration, national space agencies in 14 different countries in 2018, have attempted to collaborate to one common goal, to “expand human presence into the solar system, with the surface of Mars as a common driving goal”. So far in the pandemic, they are working towards this united goal with the addition of private sectors and companies like SpaceX.

The Future of Space Exploration

Unlike the way the space program started, NASA will not be racing a competitor. Rather, we will build upon the community of industrial, international, and academic partnerships forged for the space station. Commercial companies will play an increasing role in the space industry: launching rockets and satellites, transporting cargo and crew, building infrastructure in low-Earth orbit. NASA will continue to be a global leader in scientific discovery, fostering opportunities to turn new knowledge into things that improve life here on Earth.

- NASA, Letter to the Future

Many national space agencies are following in the footsteps of NASA and trying to figure out larger questions such as "are we alone" and "is the colonization of Mars possible"? They are seeking to find these answers with future missions to the moon with a plan for astronauts to land on the moon again by 2024, while private companies have been more focused on colonizing Mars and space travel. This is a growing industry with many companies striving to make travel more affordable and accessible with ideas such as space tourism and space orbiting hotels. Elon Musk has said his life goal is, “to create a thriving Mars colony as a fail-safe for humanity in case of a catastrophic event on Earth, such as a nuclear war or Terminator-style artificial intelligence coup.”

Although chances are we may not be in space or be the people colonizing Mars in our lifetime, we never know how far and fast space exploration can develop.


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Article Author: Kelley Liang

Article Editor: Linda Duong