Up until the late 20th century, space remained a mere dream to mankind. The theme of space exploration found its way into literature in works such as From Earth to the Moon written by Jules Verne in 1865 and H.G. Wells’ The First Men in the Moon, but such fantasies were not made a reality until nearly a century later.
In the early 20th century, American, Russian and German scientists almost simultaneously began work on rocket engines for spaceflight. The 1930s and 1940s revealed long-distance rockets as a possibility in warfare, acting as a catalyst for a missile attack on London in the later years of World War II.
Thus, the fire was lit and the United States and Soviet Union created their own respective programs. On October 4, 1957, the Soviets launched the first artificial satellite, Sputnik, into space. In 1961, the Russian Lieutenant Yuri Gagarin became the first human to orbit Earth, traveling in Vostok 1. Thus, the race was heightened.
The first U.S. satellite, Explorer 1, was launched less than a year after Sputnik, on January 31, 1958. In 1961, Alan Shepard became the first American to travel into space, and a year later, John Glenn became the first American to orbit Earth.
In 1961, John F. Kennedy set a goal: to, within the decade, land a man on the moon and return him safely home. Hence, on July 20, 1969, in arguably one of the most monumental moments in American history, Astronaut Neil Armstrong set foot on the moon. His journey marked the start of a long line of Apollo missions to explore the moon, ending in 1972.
The 1960s paved the way for this moment, marked by unmanned spacecraft missions to photograph and explore the moon. By the start of the 1970s, satellites, used for communication and navigation, were commonplace tools. The Mariner spacecraft was orbiting and mapping the surface of Mars and by the end of the decade, the Voyager had sent back images of Jupiter and Saturn.
Skylab, America’s first space station, was a highlight of the 1970s, as was the Apollo Soyuz Test Project– the world’s first internationally crewed space mission, carrying both Russian and American astronauts.
By the 1980s, satellites were carrying television programs and aiding in discoveries on Earth. They revealed an ozone hole over Antarctica, pinpointed forest fires and photographed the nuclear disaster at Chernobyl (1986). Astronomical satellites revealed new stars and captured images of our galaxy that had never been seen before.
The launch of the space shuttle Columbia in 1981 guided in a new era of reliance on shuttles for civilian and military space missions, fulfilling twenty-four successful shuttle launches before the explosion of the Challenger in 1986. This tragedy caused a reevaluation of the American space program, ushering in a new goal: to make certain a suitable launch system was available when satellites were scheduled to fly. This was accomplished through the use of multiple launch methods and facilities, and more compatible satellite systems. Ultimately, due to the inefficiency and danger of these shuttles, the Space Shuttle program was discontinued and the old shuttles were replaced by new designs.
Meanwhile, the International Space Station, a research laboratory in low orbit above Earth, was created to aid the cooperation of former competitors in space exploration, and still continues to facilitate research today.
Space systems will continue to play a role in homeland defense, weather surveillance, navigation, imaging, disaster sensing, communication, etc. Future space launch systems will be designed to be more efficient, reliable, and safe, as we move into a new era of space exploration. Space programs will continue valuable research and expand towards the exploration and even colonization of other planets, such as Mars.