Chemistry and Physics

A Brief History of Space Exploration

Christina Giallombardo

Humans have always looked to the stars and dreamed of exploring the unknown. The development of rocket technology during the mid-20th century allowed us to do just that. In this article, Christina charts our history of space exploration.

Following the end of WW2, the two superpowers of the east and west — the USSR and the United States — began a war of ideologies which became known as the Cold War. The space race became a vital competition between the two as both countries raced to be the first to travel into space.

The space race stemmed from the equally important arms race and the growing threat of nuclear war. Sputnik, the first artificial satellite to orbit Earth, was launched on the 4th of October 1957. It was carried by an R7 rocket developed by Sergei Korolev, a rocket designer who also developed the first ICBM (Intercontinental Ballistic Missiles).

The first mammal to go to space from Earth wasn’t actually a human but a stray dog

The signals the Soviet satellite transmitted back to Earth were so strong they could be picked up by an amateur radio operator. The satellite didn’t orbit for long though as in January 1958 the orbit deteriorated and it burnt up in the atmosphere.

In retaliation, the US launched Explorer 1 on 31 January 1958. The satellite was designed by the US army under the direction of Wernher Von Braun, a German engineer who also developed ballistic missiles for Nazi Germany. In the same year, President Eisenhower authorised the formation of the now famous organisation, NASA, which absorbed the NACA and several other research and military facilities, becoming a federal agency dedicated to space exploration.

The first mammal to go to space from Earth wasn’t actually a human but a stray dog found on the streets of Moscow named Laika, who travelled to space on Sputnik II on the 3rd of November 1957. The first human did not enter space until the 12th of April 1961 when Soviet cosmonaut Yuri Gagarin took flight on Vostok I, completing one orbit around Earth lasting 108 minutes.

The USSR also achieved the first spacewalk and launched Vostok 6 where Valentina Tereshkova became the first woman to travel into space. The US responded to the Soviets by launching Alan Shepard into space three weeks later, although this was not on an orbit but a suborbital trajectory — a flight that goes into space but not all the way around Earth — that lasted 15 minutes.

“One small step for man, one giant leap for mankind”

With the goal of reaching space achieved, the USSR and the US looked to the moon as the next battle ground, and this was one race the US won. NASA’s Project Apollo, which evolved from project Gemini, took many astronauts into space from 1968-1972.

Buzz Aldrin descends from the Moon Lander

Buzz Aldrin descends from the Moon Lander as part of NASA’s Apollo 11 mission

The first moon landing took place on the 16th of July 1969 as part of the Apollo 11 mission. 650 million people tuned in to watch Commander Neil Armstrong, Commander Module Pilot Michael Collins and Lunar Module Pilot Edwin “Buzz” Aldrin take humanity’s first steps on the moon, hearing these iconic (and slightly mis-spoken) words for the first time: “One small step for man, one giant leap for mankind.”

The first space station was the Soviet Salyut I, launched in 1971, which was followed by NASA’s Skylab. With the height of space race in the past and cold war tensions dissipating, the old rivalry morphed into a partnership where they worked together to reach new heights. The ISS launched on the 20th of November 1998 with the European Space Agency’s Columbus Laboratory joining in 2008, closely followed by the Japanese Kibo laboratory module a month later.

The new era of space exploration is looking bright and full of opportunities

Sojourner was the first rover to roam the red planet in 1997. It only travelled 100 metres before communication with it was lost, but managed to capture a stunning panorama in this time (below). Since then Spirit, Opportunity, and Curiosity have all explored Mars. Perseverance will touch down in 2021 to look for ancient life and collect samples to return to Earth.

Photo of the Mars surface taken by the Sojourner rover

In recent years, space exploration has been carried out by probes that have made a vast amount of discoveries. JUNO successfully entered Jupiter’s orbit in 2016 and for the first time peered below the cover of dense clouds covering the planet. Voyager I, launched in 1977, became the most distant human-made object to reach interstellar space. Its twin probe, Voyager 2 is the only spacecraft to have visited Neptune and Uranus.

The new era of space exploration is looking bright and full of opportunities, from plans to set up a base on the Moon to sending humans to Mars for the first time. As technology develops and advances, the knowledge we can gain from exploring the final frontier appears infinite.


Christina Giallombardo

Featured image by NASA Goddard Space Flight Center from Flickr. Image licence found here. No changes made to this image.

In article image of the Apollo 11 moon lander by NASA from NASA. Image in the Public Domain. No changes were made to this image.

In article image of Mars by NASA from WikiMedia. Image in the Public Domain. No changes made to this image.

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