By: Heidi DuPuis
Humans have been looking up at the moon & planets for thousands of years, but only in the last century or so have we had the audacity to attempt exploring beyond our own planet.
In 1962, President John F. Kennedy challenged the people of the United States by proclaiming “We choose to go to the Moon in this decade.” The years that followed were filled with news about the various accomplishments of the space program, culminating in the 1969 Moon landing by the astronauts of Apollo 11. After his election in 1980, President Ronald Regan created the “Space Exploration Day” holiday, observed on July 20 each year, the anniversary of that historic day.
There was a lot to the space program that had to precede the actual landing on the moon, however. The Mercury program started in 1958, 4 years before Kennedy’s speech. The goal of those missions was to put a man into orbit around Earth, preferably before the Soviet Union could do so. Although the Soviets won that particular race, the Mercury missions were successful. John Glenn orbited the planet 3 times before his capsule returned to Earth. In total, 6 astronauts were launched into space as part of the Mercury program.
The Gemini missions followed, with 10 crewed missions launched in 1965 and 1966. These capsules were built for 2 astronauts at a time, and the missions included tests of human endurance in space, the first U.S. EVA (Extra-vehicular activity), and the first rendezvous of two spacecraft, Gemini 6 and Gemini 7. Each accomplishment made the goal of a moon landing within the decade more feasible.
The Apollo capsules were designed for 3 astronauts, and the Apollo program had several goals. According to the NASA website, they were as follows:
- Establishing the technology to meet other national interests in space.
- Achieving preeminence in space for the United States.
- Carrying out a program of scientific exploration of the Moon.
- Developing human capability to work in the lunar environment.
The actual moon landing on July 20, 1969 was one of the first global media sensations. Over 600 million people (about a fifth of the world’s population at that time) watched the event live. Today, more than 50 years later, the words of Commander Neil Armstrong as the lunar module touched down on the moon’s surface are familiar to many: “Houston, Tranquility Base here. The Eagle has landed.”
The exploration of our Solar System did not stop with Apollo 11. By the time the Apollo program finished in 1972, 12 astronauts had walked on the moon over the course of 6 different missions, and many more had traveled to orbit the moon without landing. The following year NASA launched Skylab, the first space station for the United States. It was occupied between May 1973 and February 1974 and stayed in orbit for over 6 years. It was the first “crewed research laboratory” in space.
NASA went on to send unmanned probes to visit other parts of the solar system, an endeavor that continues today. The Pioneer 10 was the first man-made object to leave the solar system. Voyager 1 and Voyager 2 launched in 1977, sent to explore the outer planets, giving us our first close-up look at the gas giants beyond the asteroid belt. Voyager 2 is still the only mission that has visited Uranus and Neptune. These missions are still sending back information, though both have now passed into interstellar space, defined as the region between stars.
The 1980s saw the first mission launch of the space shuttle program, which comprised 135 missions before its final landing in 2011. There were 5 reusable shuttles in the program: Atlantis, Challenger, Columbia, Discovery, and Endeavor. The Hubble Space Telescope was launched in April of 1990, nearly 50 years after it was first conceived. Although today the James Webb telescope gets more attention in the media, the Hubble is still in use and astronomers are still making discoveries with it.
Today our exploration of space has not slowed. The International Space Station, a joint effort between the space agencies of the U.S., Japan, Russia, Canada, and Europe, launched in 1998 and is still in use after more than 24 years in orbit, circling the Earth more than 15 times each day. It has been continuously occupied for more than 22 years. NASA is currently planning a series of missions to return to the moon. Named Artemis, this program’s goal includes building a permanent settlement there, with the first landing scheduled for sometime in 2025. Many unmanned probes have been sent to Mars, Jupiter, and Saturn, and a variety of proposals have been drafted to send humans to Mars. Until that time, we must be content with data from the wide range of instruments that have been sent there, including flyby missions, rovers, and even a helicopter, known as Ingenuity.
To celebrate Space Exploration day this year, look up a live feed from the ISS, read a book about the space program, or even look up the International Space Station’s flight path & try to spot it as it flies overhead. Or just turn off the lights, go outside, and look up!
Suggested Reading: Apollo 8: The Thrilling Story of the First Mission to the Moon, by Jeffrey Kluger
Live view from the ISS: https://eol.jsc.nasa.gov/ESRS/HDEV/
Tracking the ISS: https://spotthestation.nasa.gov/tracking_map.cfm