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3.19 History of Space Exploration

While Newton provided the physical laws that form the basis of travel beyond the Earth in the 1700s, it would take several hundred years for the technology to implement those ideas to be developed. Now, with the space age less than fifty years old, we have traveled beyond our own solar system. 

During the Cold War period, both the United States and the Soviet Union developed plans to launch the first artificial satellites into space for military purposes. Space was a new arena for conquest. The Soviet Union won this race when they launched the first successful artificial satellite in 1957, a small science probe called Sputnik I. This unexpected success shocked the world and prompted the speedy development of an American space program. Meanwhile, the Soviet Union launched the first person into space in 1961, when popular Soviet pilot Yuri Gagarin made the first trip around the world in space. The Soviets also crash-landed the first human-made object on the Moon and launched probes toward Mars and Venus. 

In response to these achievements, the United States made ambitious plans to improve science education and research funding on their side of the seas. President John F. Kennedy made space exploration a centerpiece of the U.S. program to win the Cold War. NASA, the National Aeronautics and Space Administration, was founded to be a leading force in space technology and science. Kennedy committed the U.S. to land humans on the Moon by the end of the 1960s, galvanizing the American space effort. The result was the Apollo program. We now know the Soviets secretly started their own Moon landing program at the same time as Apollo, building an enormous rocket booster and a lunar landing module. They abandoned this program after unmanned tests of their large rocket failed in dramatic explosions. In 1968, the astronauts of Apollo 8 were the first humans to leave Earth's gravity, in a scouting expedition for a lunar landing site. A year later, Neil Armstrong and Buzz Aldrin were the first humans to set foot on another world. 

Public interest in the space program peaked at this time. Moon landings over the next three years placed 12 Apollo astronauts at six different lunar sites. However, public appetite for the expensive Apollo program diminished, and it was abandoned in 1972. 

In the succeeding years, several nations sent robotic probes to other planets, returning the first close-up views of their surfaces. A Soviet robotic probe returned the first soil samples from the Moon. Another Soviet probe survived a descent through the hot, turbulent atmosphere of Venus, and took the first photos of its surface. The Soviets also crash-landed probes on Mars, and later a U.S. spacecraft landed on Mars and returned the first photos of its surface. A pair of American probes explored all four giant planets and their satellites, and the European Space Agency, a consortium of European nations, launched the first probe to make close-up images of the nucleus of a comet. The result of all this activity is that we have made fly-bys and taken close-up pictures of every large solar system object except Pluto and other dwarf planets. 

Human space flight also moved forward. The U.S. developed the Space Shuttle system for delivering satellites and scientific experiments to orbit. The Space Shuttle was originally designed to be a "space truck," with weekly launches and eventually even paying passengers. But technical problems and the catastrophic losses of Challenger and Columbia have slowed the program. Nevertheless, the shuttle was the best way for the U.S. to get a large payload into orbit. The recent end of the shuttle program has brought upon a reliance of the U.S. on Russian space agency to take American's to space. This will likely continue until the next generation of commercial shuttles becomes available in the next few years.

At the same time, the Soviets concentrated on building a space station. Russian cosmonauts on the Mir space station set world records for living more than a year at time in orbit. Understanding the effects of extended weightlessness on humans is essential if we are ever to send people to Mars or other planetary destinations. 

The space age was born out of the competition and paranoia of the Cold War. The superpowers raced to lead the world in science and technology. Since the end of the Cold War, budgets for space exploration, as well as broader scientific research, have been cut. Space exploration is expensive. In an era of tight funding, international collaboration is required to make progress. The International Space Station has been an example of successful cooperation between the U.S. and Russia since its launch in 1998. Similarly, current plans for robotic probes to Mars involve the coordinated efforts of the U.S., Russia, Europe, and Japan. A race that was initiated by competition between nations is now only possible with their cooperation.


Yuri Gagarin, the first human to fly in space, saying hello to the press during a visit to Malm?, Sweden 1964. Click here for original source URL.


Sputnik I exhibit in the Missile & Space Gallery at the National Museum of the United States Air Force. Sputnik, which means "satellite" in Russian, was the Soviet entry in a scientific race to launch the first satellite ever. Click here for original source URL.


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