Space exploration has come a long way in such a short period of time. You could almost say that it has come giant leaps and bounds from where we started.
Think about just how far this very specific field of exploration has come, just for a moment.
In the space (pun intended) of less than a hundred years, we have gone from being able to achieve powered flight in less than a minute, to sending space-faring machines into the deep corners of our solar system and beyond.
From only ever knowing one world to stepping on the surface of another.
From being tied to Earth, to having a permanent space of living outside of earth’s atmosphere.
From rockets that can barely get off the ground to rockets that are capable of taking us to other worlds.
From barely even being able to see what was out there, to seeing pictures from Mars, Saturn, Jupiter, Neptune, Pluto… The list goes on.
We’ve been able to go further away from home than any human civilization before us; we’ve seen more planets than anyone else has ever seen; we’ve sent probes to every planet in the Solar System; we’re planning on sending humans to Mars by 2030, and then eventually going further out to the asteroid belt beyond that.
Space exploration truly is the greatest frontier we have found. And already, in the short span of a century, so much has happened.
Here is our list of some of the most important moments of that journey so far. As we celebrate where we are going, let’s take a moment to appreciate what has come so far.
The Launch Of Sputnik I (October 4th, 1957)
Of course, we can’t talk about the greatest moments of space exploration, without mentioning the event that kick-started it all.
On October 4th, 1957, the Soviet Union launched the first artificial satellite into orbit around the Earth.
It was called “Sputnik”, or “Satellite” as its official Russian name translates.
This launch came at an extremely crucial point in the Cold War when the United States and USSR were still vying to demonstrate their political, economical, military, and in this case, technological power over the other.
Even before the official race to space had even begun, the desire to show off their technological prowess was underway.
Both the US and the USSR had publicly declared their intent to launch an artificial satellite into space in the mid-1950s, with the first proposals coming from Soviet scientist Korolev in December of 1954.
As history has shown, the Soviets would get to space first.
By launching Sputnik, the Soviets showed the Americans that they too had the technology to put satellites into orbit around the Earth, which would be a massive blow to the American’s national pride, and was one of the factors that would spur the United States government into creating NASA the following year.
And with this launch, the world changed forever.
Laika, The First Living Creature In Space (November 3rd, 1957)
The first good boy in space (or rather, good girl), Laika was a former stray Samoyed terrier dog that would unwittingly become an icon of the space race.
Whilst several different animals had been sent up to the edge of space since the ’40s, from fruit flies to rhesus monkeys, Laika was the first complex living creature to be sent into Earth’s orbit.
Less than a month after the launch of Sputnik, Soviet scientists were already trying to determine if living creatures could survive out in the vacuum of space.
Their solution to this question was simple: Send a living creature out into space, and see how well they fare.
Laika was strapped inside a metal capsule with a harness, as well as some equipment to monitor her condition, along with several kilos of food and water in gelatinized form, and launched into outer space aboard a rocket.
Unfortunately, her capsule was not designed to reenter Earth’s atmosphere, and Laika, either through suffocation or heat exposure, died whilst in orbit around the Earth, becoming the first death of the space race as well.
Her death was not in vain, however: Soviet scientists were able to learn crucial information about how animals, especially mammals, reacted to being in space and zero-G.
The US would later send two monkeys, Able and Baker, into space, and they would be the first creatures to return from space.
And Laika’s successors, the two dogs Belka, Strelka, as well as the several other animals they were sent into orbit with, would be the Soviet’s first animals that were sent into space and safely returned.
None of this would likely have been possible without Laika’s maiden voyage into the stars.
Explorer 1, The First US Satellite (January 31st, 1958)
Not to be outdone by their Soviet rivals, scientists in the US would soon send up their satellite in orbit around the Earth. Carrying a wide range of scientific testing equipment, Explorer 1 was the first successful US satellite.
Launched on January 31st, 1958, Explorer 1 orbited the Earth at an altitude of 930 miles and completed its mission nearly three months later, returning data gathered during its travels.
This would go down as the first successful test of a satellite from the United States and would be considered the official start to the space race, with both the US and the USSR now having proven themselves able to send spacecraft into orbit.
Interestingly, Explorer 1 would continue to orbit the Earth until 1970, meaning that it was still orbiting when Apollo 11 would eventually make its historic journey!
Yuri Gagarin, The First Man In Space (April 12th, 1961)
Following up on the success of the US satellite, Yuri Gagarin became the first human to travel into space when he made his flight aboard Vostok 1.
Aboard the craft, Gagarin would spend more than just over an hour in orbit before coming back to Earth. After landing, Gagarin would become known as “the first man in space”, and was even awarded the title of Hero Of The Soviet Union.
However, even though Gagarin had flown into space, the Soviets did not consider him for any further space missions in the future, after the disaster of the Soyuz 1 rocket killing its crew.
Fearing that the space race may end up killing one of its national heroes, the Soviet Union banned him from ever participating in another space flight.
As such, Gagarin never flew another mission into the cosmos, although he would later go on to fly regular aircraft many times over the next few decades.
However, the fact that so many of the major firsts in the space race had been performed by the Soviet Union, including the first full orbit of a cosmonaut and spacewalk, would spur the United States into further funding space exploration, with Alan Shepard being the first US astronaut in space in May of the same year, as well as John F. Kennedy’s iconic declaration to put a man on the moon by the end of the decade in 1961 as well.
Mariner 2’s Flyby Of Venus (December 14th, 1962)
One of the most famous achievements of the 1960s, Mariner 2 was the first spacecraft to fly past another planet.
Launching on December 14th, 1962, Mariner 2 was tasked with flying past Venus, and taking measurements of the solar wind, and any other potential data on Earth’s twin.
After traveling through the outer atmosphere of Venus, the spacecraft came close enough to take some photographs of the surface, which showed that the planet was covered in clouds, and was extremely hot.
After the flyby of Venus, Mariner 2 continued a heliocentric orbit around the sun, and continues to do so to this day!
First Pictures Of Mars (June 14th, 1965)
In the same year that the Soviet Union would conduct the first spacewalk in human history, the US was conducting a very different kind of mission, with Mariner 4 being the first spacecraft to take pictures of the red planet.
After flying past Mars, the spacecraft would then begin transmitting images of its surroundings back to Earth, allowing us all to see one of our closest planetary neighbors up close for the first time.
Although some photos were blurry due to the distance between the camera and the surface of the planet, others showed features like canyons and mountains which we could previously only have dreamt about seeing.
Whilst these images did dispel any notion of life being found on Mars, they did help kick-start new interest in studying the planet and would become a template for how scientific study of other planets could be carried out.
Apollo 11: Man On The Moon (July 20th, 1969)
We couldn’t have a list and not mention this one, could we?
On July 20th, 1969, Neil Armstrong, along with Buzz Aldrin, became the first people to walk on the lunar surface, and the first humans to step foot on another world.
This momentous event sparked a whole new age of exploration, with people now realizing just what was possible in space.
It also allowed scientists to look at the Moon from a completely new perspective and helped them understand more about the formation of the Solar System.
This would also effectively show that America, despite its slow start, had effectively won the space race against the Soviet Union, who, despite many successful unmanned missions, had difficulties sending manned flights to the moon.
Throughout space exploration, there has always been an element of competition between nations, but it is clear that the spirit of cooperation has always remained present.
From the early days of the Space Race, when both countries worked together to send men to the moon, to the modern-day, where NASA and Roscosmos work together to explore deep space, the spirit of collaboration never really dies.
Space Exploration is something that should remain open to everyone, no matter where you live or what country you come from.
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