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To the Moon and Beyond: A brief history of space exploration

Why do we explore? And why do we explore space?

Humans have always been drawn to the stars and the unknown. From the dawn of our species, we have looked up to the stars and wondered. What is up there? Are there other planets like ours? Where did we come from? Space – and its components – can clearly provide the answers to at least some of those questions. If we know where to look.

As to why we explore, well, we’ve never found a scientific answer for that. Is it curiosity? Ambition? There hasn’t, yet, been a scientific explanation for this human drive. We guess you can say that, as a species, we are compelled to know more, to go further, to get answers to the questions that have stayed with us for millennia: Where do we come from? Where are we going? What does the future hold?

There’s certainly a lot left for us to explore here, on Earth. But, for the purpose of this article, we’ll put aside the remaining unexplored 95% of the ocean’s floor and other remote corners of the world to focus on the cosmos.

A small step for a man. A giant leap for humanity.

Whilst space exploration did not properly begin until the 1950s and 1960s, there is one man that is responsible for humans being able to go to space in the first place. In 1942, Wernher Von Braun designed the V2 rocket for the German government. His V2 rocket would go on to be the precursor of all rockets we use today for space flight. Later, Wernher would go on to work for NASA and create the rockets that put the first man on the moon. 

So it begins - Space Exploration through the 1950s

Despite man just starting to fully turn his attention to space, the 1950s saw some of the biggest achievements in Space history. So far. 

In 1957, Russia launched Sputnik 1 into space, marking the official beginning of the space age! Even though there are now over 500 working satellites in orbit, Sputnik will remain forever special. 

A month later, in November 1957, the famous Russian space dog Laika became the first animal to orbit the Earth. Laika traveled in a spacecraft known as Sputnik 2 and her mission helped scientists understand whether people could survive in space.

Which, as it turned out, we can. As long as we’re either in a spaceship or in a spacesuit, but those are mere details right? 

Space Exploration in the 1960s

Following the Laika mission, Yuri Gagarin became the first man in space on the 12th of April 1961. The Vostok 1 spacecraft completed one orbit of Earth and landed about two hours after launch. Two years later, also Russian cosmonaut, Valentina Tereshkova became the first woman in space. Fun fact? A crater on the side of the moon is named after her!

So we figured out how to fly humans into space, what next? Well, we’re sure you can guess.

In 1961, US President John F. Kennedy set a national goal of “Landing a man on the moon and returning him safely to earth within a decade”. This would go on to happen on July 20th, 1969. 

On that day American astronauts, Neill Armstrong, and Buzz Aldrin became the first humans to land on the moon during the Apollo 11 mission. This year we celebrated 50 years since the “giant leap for mankind”. 

There were a total of 12 astronauts that walked the moon as part of the Apollo missions between 1969 and 1972. And, in 1971, American astronauts even enjoyed the use of the Lunar Rover to explore the moon.

So, we got to the Moon. What came next?

Landing 12 people on the Moon remains one of NASA’s greatest achievements. But that’s as far as we went when it comes to manned exploration of space bodies. Yet.

That’s not to say we stopped. Not at all. Advancements in robotics and spacecraft meant that we didn’t necessarily need a human to be there to do the research. Yes, it would probably go faster that way, but, we still need to find a feasible, safe way to keep people on these extraterrestrial bodies for long periods of time. 

By the early 1970s, orbiting communications and navigation satellites were in everyday use, and the Mariner spacecraft was already orbiting and mapping the surface of Mars. And, by the end of the decade, the Voyager spacecraft had sent back detailed images of Jupiter and Saturn, their rings and their moons. 

The 1970s also saw the first manned “Space Stations” come into existence in the form of the American “Skylab” (1973) and the first internationally crewed (American and Russian) space mission – the Apollo Soyuz Test Project.

The Voyager Programme - Humanity's message to the stars

The Voyagers (Voyager 1 and 2) where NASA’s most ambitious project to date. You could say it was NASA’s attempt to go higher, further, faster (we’re not even sorry, Captain Marvel).

Voyager has been the longest ever mission, at 40 years and counting. And together, the twin probes have achieved some pretty extraordinary things. Voyager 1 is currently the only man-made object to ever leave the Solar System. Voyager 2 will join its twin in the next few years as they are currently on different journeys.

Together, the Voyager twin probes have examined Jupiter’s atmosphere, including its hurricanes. Found active volcanoes on Io, one of Jupiter’s moons. Saw evidence of an ocean beneath Europa. Looked in detail at Saturn’s rings. Saw evidence of an atmosphere around Titan, a moon of Saturn and discovered a Great Dark Spot on Neptune, which is a large storm. Since passing the boundary of interstellar space, Voyager 1 has been examining the intensity of cosmic radiation. That’s quite the handful, right?

But, the Voyagers’ legacy won’t only be the research they send back. Their legacy, our legacy, lies in the gold plated records attached to them. 

Both Voyager spacecraft carry recorded messages from Earth on golden phonograph records. The contents of the records were chosen by a committee chaired by the late astronomer Carl Sagan.

We guess you can say the two probes are the equivalent of the classic ‘message in a bottle’. Only this time, we launched it in the cosmic ocean. 

The Golden Records contain a selection of 115 images and a variety of natural sounds. There is also a selection of songs from different countries and eras, spoken greetings in 55 languages (both modern and ancient) as well as a series of printed messages from U.S. President Jimmy Carter and UN Secretary-General Kurt Waldheim and an array of human sounds. 

Here’s Carter’s message on behalf of humanity:

“This Voyager spacecraft was constructed by the United States of America. We are a community of 240 million human beings among the more than 4 billion who inhabit the planet Earth. We human beings are still divided into nation-states, but these states are rapidly becoming a single global civilization.

We cast this message into the cosmos. It is likely to survive a billion years into our future when our civilization is profoundly altered and the surface of the Earth may be vastly changed. Of the 200 billion stars in the Milky Way galaxy, some–perhaps many–may have inhabited planets and spacefaring civilizations. If one such civilization intercepts Voyager and can understand these recorded contents, here is our message:

This is a present from a small distant world, a token of our sounds, our science, our images, our music, our thoughts, and our feelings. We are attempting to survive our time so we may live into yours. We hope someday, having solved the problems we face, to join a community of galactic civilizations. This record represents our hope and our determination, and our goodwill in a vast and awesome universe.”

Jimmy Carter

 

Did you get goosebumps when you read it? Or is it just us?

But, who knows what the Voyagers will encounter on their journey. Are there even other civilizations out there to even listen to our message? Well, scientists believe there are, so… again, who knows? 

The Space Shuttle

In April 1981, something awesome happened at the Kennedy Space Center: NASA launched Columbia, the first reusable space shuttle (albeit only partially) capable of launching into orbit, landing and then being reused again. However, the rockets that launched the shuttle itself were not reusable, hence the partial part. 

Between 1981 and 2011, the Space Shuttle Programme completed a total of 135 missions for NASA. They were used to launch numerous satellites, interplanetary probes, and the Hubble Space Telescope. They were used to conduct space experiments in orbit and played a big role in building and servicing the International Space Shuttle. 

Unfortunately, after a series of tragic accidents, the Space Shuttle Program was retired in July 2011. NASA has been using the Russian Soyuz Spacecraft Program to launch astronauts into space ever since. But, that’s all about to change again with the SpaceX’s Crew Dragon capsule which could, in a couple of months, be ready to fly astronauts into space from American soil for the first time in 10 years.

The International Space Station (ISS)

The ISS is the outcome of what can happen when humanity works together. It was once considered science fiction, something taken out of Star-Wars and not possible in the real world. But, as we’ve started to see more and more of, the line between what is possible and science fiction is an incredibly thin one if we really put our collective brainpower to it.

The building of the ISS was surely made easier by the invention of the Space Shuttle. But, the first segment of the ISS was launched via a Russian proton rocket named Zarya (Sunrise) on November 20th, 1998. A month later, the first U.S. component launched using the Space Shuttle. However, the ISS is still a work in progress. As recently as 2008, European and Japanese lab modules were added to the ISS and new updates and improvements are being made constantly.

The research performed on the ISS is crucial for any future deep space manned missions. Through the R&D scientists are doing on the ISS, we are learning a great deal about what it takes to create and test critical systems, efficient communications technologies, and protections for humans that would work on a deep space mission.

The Future of Space Exploration - Everything’s cool, it’s the future!

This year we celebrated 50 years since we first landed on the moon. A giant milestone in the history of space exploration and humanity as a whole. 

But what are our plans? Are we going to colonise Mars? Build a Lunar city? Space elevator? Reach warp speed and travel to another planetary system? Finally, build a Starship? 

Unfortunately, the answers to some of those questions are still just sci-fi. Some, however, are no longer topics taken out of the Martian or Star Wars. There are already well-drawn plans for manned missions to the Moon and Mars in the next 5 to 10 years, that, as ambitious as they might seem now are starting to seem more and more like something that can be actually accomplished in that time-frame.

In the past years, we’ve seen a rise in the popularity, and influence of private space companies such as SpaceX and Virgin Galactic. Both companies have brought some incredible advancements to space flight technology. But out of the two, the one that has received the most attention and has had the biggest “breakthroughs” is definitely SpaceX.

For a long period of time, the issue with space travel has been (and still is) money. The majority of the launch costs come from building the rocket. Which, as you can imagine, gets quite expensive if you can only use it once. Now, imagine that a rocket can be used as many times as a plane and can re-launch as fast as a plane. If you have been paying attention to the news in the past couple of years, you know that what we just said isn’t just an imagination exercise, but it is indeed reality (well… almost reality). 

SpaceX made history in on December 21st 2015 with the Falcon landing. The company achieved the world’s first landing of an orbital class rocket, passing their first milestone into making rockets as reusable as airplanes. 

Two years later, in March 2017, they made history again. The Falcon 9 rocket launched a geosynchronous communications satellite after having been previously used to launch a cargo resupply for NASA in April 2016. 

However, the ultimate goal for SpaceX and its infamous founder, Elon Musk, is to launch people to Mars by 2024. Now, we know, we know, this is all highly ambitious, but there is a high chance that it will happen considering the fact that they just revealed the Starship (the rocket they will use for the Mars mission) this past week. 

Yes, you heard it right, a Starship. And before your excitement takes you away as it did us, it’s not a Milenium Falcon, but it’s as close as we’ll get for a while.

SpaceX is not the only private ‘space’ company making breakthroughs in space tech. Richard Branson’s Virgin Galactic recently said they are ready for commercial space flights as early as next year and their Gateway to Space spaceport is now ready to host eager space travelers waiting for their launch. 

Virgin Galactic's Gateway to Space

Lockheed Martin is working together with NASA to finish work on the Orion deep-space ship and work on the Lunar Gateway – a new exploration and science outpost in orbit around the Moon. Jeff Bezo’s Blue Origin has also entered the race for space with their own range of reusable rockets.

There are also multiple research and exploration missions scheduled for the next 3 years by the US, Japan, India, China, UAE, and many other countries with the goal of researching as much of the Moon and Mars’s environments as possible in preparation for safe manned-missions in 2022 and beyond. 

This interest from private companies in space has definitely had a huge role to play in the reborn interest in space and space exploration in every single one of us. And that’s a good thing. We need something to look forward to. To keep our innate optimistic and ambitious spirit alive and kicking. To think about the future and say, you know what? That’s pretty awesome! And we believe that space is the place to do that.

“You want to wake up in the morning and think the future is going to be great – and that’s what being a spacefaring civilization is all about. It’s about believing in the future and thinking that the future will be better than the past. And I can’t think of anything more exciting than going out there and being among the stars.”

Elon Musk, SpaceX

On that note, don’t ever fear to reach for the stars!