Image Credit: NASA

History of space exploration

The Sumerians, the Aztecs, and about every known civilization had their own stories on space travel. 

We, as humans have been dreaming of traveling beyond the visible skies for a very long time. Even when we didn’t correctly understand space, it didn’t limit our imagination and desire to travel to heavenly bodies. The Sumerians, the Aztecs, and about every known civilization had their own stories on space travel. 

So to understand the history of space exploration, we will summarize the significant historical events leading up to modern-day space exploration scenarios.  

First Space Flights

Almost all space technologies find their roots in military applications; similarly, the technology that led to the advent of space travel was developed by German scientists during World War II. They tested the V-2 rocket, which became the first manufactured object in space on 3 October 1942 with the launching of the A-4. 

Once the means to travel to space were on hand, it began to develop further to realize space travel. In the cold war era, the Soviets pioneered the technology of first sending man-made objects to space. The first satellite, Sputnik-1, was in space(1957); the Soviets set their eyes on sending the first human into space. They sent the first dog Laika into space(1959), analyzed the data and prepared for the next step, and successfully sent the first human into space. The first successful human spaceflight was Vostok 1 (“East 1”), carrying 27-year-old Russian cosmonaut Yuri Gagarin on 12 April 1961. The spacecraft completed one orbit around the globe, lasting about 1 hour and 48 minutes.

space exploration
A replica of Sputnik 1 is stored in the National Air and Space Museum

The U.S. first launched a person into space within a month of Vostok 1 with Alan Shepard’s suborbital flight in Mercury-Redstone 3. Orbital flight was achieved by the United States when John Glenn’s Mercury-Atlas 6 orbited the Earth on 20 February 1962.

Along with men, women also began to take part in space travel. Valentina Tereshkova, the first woman in space, orbited the Earth 48 times aboard Vostok 6 on 16 June 1963. US Astronaut Sally Ride became the first American woman to visit space in June 1983 when she traveled to space aboard the Space shuttle Challenger.

China first launched a person into space 42 years after the launch of Vostok 1, on 15 October 2003, with the flight of Yang Liwei aboard the Shenzhou 5 (Spaceboat 5) spacecraft.

Landing on the Moon

the fascinating heavenly body in our sky is the Moon. So it was only logical that after the success of reaching Earth’s orbit, we wanted to visit the Moon! During the cold war era, when the Soviets beat the US to space, the next race was to put the first man on the Moon! This time the Americans were successful in achieving this feat. On July 20, 1969, the Apollo mission astronaut Neil Armstrong took “one giant leap for mankind” as he stepped onto the Moon. Six Apollo missions were sent to explore the Moon between 1969 and 1972.

The Apollo 11 Command and Service Modules (CSM) are photographed from the Lunar Module (LM) in lunar orbit during the Apollo 11 lunar landing mission. Credit: NASA
The Apollo 11 Command and Service Modules (CSM) are photographed from the Lunar Module (LM) in lunar orbit during the Apollo 11 lunar landing mission. Credit: NASA

Space transportation systems

After the success of the Apollo missions and the end of the cold war era, the enthusiasm for space travel didn’t completely vanish but did somewhat fade out. The US continued to pursue to explore advanced technologies for human space travel. One of the major ones that were realized was the Space shuttle. In April 1981, the launch of the space shuttle Columbia ushered in a period of reliance on the reusable shuttle for most civilian and military space missions. 

The Space shuttle played a great part in the launch of the first space telescope, the Hubble telescope. The Hubble opened up new horizons of the cosmos to humanity. The discoveries of new galaxies, exo-planets, and stars fueled the curiosity of scientists to explore the Universe further! Furthermore, Hubble established the importance of a space telescope far above the atmosphere of Earth, in space itself, to enable us to look into space and study our Universe. 

The new JWST (James Webb Space Telescope) was launched on 25 December 2021 into Earth’s orbit. It is the largest optical telescope in space, and conducts infrared astronomy. This feature allows it to view objects too old, distant, or faint for the Hubble Space Telescope. This enables investigations across many fields of astronomy and cosmology, such as the observation of the first stars, the formation of the first galaxies, and detailed atmospheric characterization of potentially habitable exoplanets

Twenty-four successful shuttle launches fulfilled many scientific and military requirements. Until Jan. 28, 1986, when just 73 seconds after liftoff, the space shuttle Challenger exploded. The crew of seven was killed, including Christa McAuliffe, a teacher from New Hampshire who would have been the first civilian in space.

This partly led to the gradual retirement of the space shuttle from the US space program. 

Since the space shuttle, advanced space transportation systems have developed, namely the Russian Soyuz being one of the most reliable vehicles transporting cargo and astronauts to and from the ISS. Many US private space companies started to test their vehicles to decrease reliance on the Soyuz! SpaceX’s Dragon is the most flown space transportation system after the Soyuz to the ISS.

Columbia aboard the STS-1 on its maiden flight on 12 April 1981. Credit: NASA

Space Stations

Space stations marked the next phase of space exploration. The first space station in Earth orbit was the Soviet Salyut 1 station, launched in 1971. This was followed by NASA’s Skylab space station, the first orbital laboratory in which astronauts and scientists studied Earth and the effects of spaceflight on the human body. 

From November 2, 2000, when its first crew took up residence, to its completion in 2011, the International Space Station (ISS) serves as a base for humans living and working in space permanently. It will continue to be used in this way until at least 2024.

The station has been continuously occupied since the arrival of Expedition 1 in November of 2000. The station is serviced by various visiting spacecraft: the Russian Soyuz and Progress; the American Dragon and Cygnus; the Japanese H-II Transfer Vehicle; and formerly the Space Shuttle and the European Automated Transfer Vehicle. It has been visited by astronauts, cosmonauts, and space tourists from 17 nations.

Private Space sector

The last decade has witnessed a series of rises in private space companies. These companies have opened doors of vast opportunities for space exploration that have enabled humans to fast-track the development of space technologies. These companies not only provide solutions to the national space companies with their expertise and technologies, but they have also developed their own ventures targeting various space industry sectors, including space tourism. 

Richard Branson’s Virgin Galactic was the first private space company that aimed to realize the space tourism sector. After multiple test flights of their space vehicle, Virgin Galactic’s VSS Unity entered outer space in December 2018 as part of its testing process, bringing the possibility of regular commercial spaceflights. In 2019, Beth Moses, Virgin Galactic’s Chief Astronaut Officer, became the first woman to fly to space on a commercial vehicle.

SpaceX is also one of the leading private companies pioneering modern-day space travel. From sending automated vehicles since 2012 with cargo to the ISS, The first crewed flight launched on May 30, 2020, and carried astronauts Doug Hurley and Robert Behnken to the ISS. Since then, there have been six crewed space flights to the ISS.

SpaceX Crew-7 is planned to be the seventh crewed operational NASA Commercial Crew flight of a Crew Dragon spacecraft and the thirteenth overall crewed orbital flight. The mission is planned for launch in August 2023

Inspiration4 was a 2021 human spaceflight mission operated by SpaceX on behalf of Shift4 Payments CEO Jared Isaacman, a privately chartered spaceflight by Jared! The mission launched the Crew Dragon Resilience on 16 September 2021.  It became the first crewed orbital mission with no professional astronauts on board!

Elon Musk’s plans for Mars are very elaborate, and he has the vision to make a Martian colony. He has fast-tracked many technologies necessary to take humans to Mars, and his company is truly revolutionizing the space sector.

Jeff Bezos’ Blue Origin is also among the private space companies taking leap steps in Space tourism. After 15 flights of its space vehicle “Shepard,” Blue Origin sent the crewed mission with four passengers aboard the NS-16 flight on 20 July 2021.  Jeff BezosMark BezosWally Funk, and Oliver Daemen. At 82 years old, Funk was the oldest person; at 18, Daemen was the youngest to travel into space. To date, Blue Origin has flown six commercial crewed flights.

Presently, the high costs of space tourism and its accessibility to common people remain the biggest challenges for private companies. This can change based on the increasing number of private space companies entering the space tourism sector. 

Mars- The next frontier

We have sent many space missions consisting of satellites to Saturn, Jupiter, and Pluto, along with sample return missions to Asteroids as well (Hayabusa and OSIRIS-REx). We even sent two probes, Voyager 1 and Voyager 2, into deep space. In August 2012, Voyager 1 became the first human-built spacecraft to enter interstellar space! All in the pursuit of understanding the aspects of these heavenly bodies and space as well. 

However, the most visited heavenly body other than Moon is Mars, the red planet. It has been a part of our mythological stories and legends for a long time! It is one of the most sought celestial objects in the sky. Its close position with Earth in the solar system got it the title “Earth’s sister planet” and has intrigued scientists with its interesting atmospheric and geological factors. Due to these factors, once humans visited the Moon, the next logical interest was the exploration of Mars.

The first mission to explore Mars was the Mars Pathfinder. It was launched on December 4, 1996, and landed on Mars Ares Vallis on July 4, 1997. It was designed as a technology demonstration of a new way to deliver an instrumented lander and the first-ever robotic rover to the surface of the red planet.

As of December 2022, there are three operational rovers on the surface of Mars, the Curiosity and Perseverance rovers, both operated by the American space agency NASA and the Zhurong rover, part of the Tianwen-1 mission by the China National Space Administration (CNSA). There were data about the geology and atmosphere of Mars. NASA is even planning to bring back a soil sample of Mars that the Perseverance rover has collected. 

The upcoming missions to Mars are the ESA’s ExoMars and India’s Mars Orbiter mission 2.

All these missions will help us to understand Mars with an aspect that one day, we will send the first human-crewed mission to the red planet!

The Artemis program & Lunar Gateway

The Moon was the place to visit in the cold war era that ushered in the space race. This decade has seen a start of a new space race. The Moon has become the destination for many space missions due to a couple of main reasons. The Moon has an abundance of REMs (Rare Earth Minerals) and other precious minerals. This caught the interest of many Government and Private space companies to pursue the prospect of mining the Moon. The other reason is deep space exploration. As Mars missions begin to take shape, the Moon can become a base to send future missions to Mars and into deep space. With the absence of an atmosphere & gravity similar to Earth, the launch costs can be greatly efficient on the Moon.

The Artemis program is NASA’s series of missions to enable humanity’s return to the Moon. NASA will collaborate with US commercial and international partners to establish the first long-term human-robotic presence on and around the Moon. The Gateway, a vital component of NASA’s Artemis program, will serve as a multi-purpose outpost orbiting the Moon that provides essential support for a long-term human return to the lunar surface and a staging point for deep space exploration.

We covered the aspects of Artemis and the Lunar gateway in detail in our article: Here

After looking back at the history of Space exploration, it can be said with certainty that we have come a long way since we started to get out of Earth’s orbit. We have taken the next steps to becoming a space-faring species, and it’s about time to become a multi-planetary species. The future of space exploration is bright, and we live in interesting times! It might take a decade to advance our present technology into more reliable systems that take us to Mars (and even beyond) to visit it and settle there and develop a Martian society! 

Let’s hope we take the next giant leap for mankind as a unified human race with equal opportunities for all nations to contribute and develop together in space exploration.