The History of Space Exploration

In one sense, space exploration is as old as Mankind itself, staring up at the Heavens, but it was not until the 1950s that man made objects could be sent out beyond the Earth’s atmosphere. The capture of German rocket scientists by the USSR and the USA at the end of the Second World War brought new expertise to these two nations, which became locked in a ‘Cold War’struggle for global supremacy.

The Soviet Union led the way. In October 1957 the world was startled by the news that the first man made satellite had been launched into orbit. This was Sputnik 1. It was followed by Sputnik 2 in November, and this was carrying a dog, Laika. Sadly, the dog died of heat and panic.

Panic pretty well describes the reaction of the USA and ‘the West’ generally. The Soviets looked to be far ahead in space technology and there was the prospect of them dominating outer space and raining down missiles from there on their enemies.
Soviet (and Communist)prestige gained massively in the eyes of the World. The USA had to respond, but its first attempt to do so in December 1957 using a Vanguard rocket was a failure. It was not until February 1958 that the USA managed to launch a satellite, Explorer. Thereafter, the USA launched monkeys into space. The first, Gordo, returned safely to Earth, but drowned when its capsule sank before recovery in the south Atlantic. The next monkey was luckier. Interestingly, humans were only the third of Earth’s species to make it into space!

However, the USSR was still leading the way. In September 1959 a Soviet satellite Lunik 2 became the first man made object to leave Earth’s gravity. It was sent to crash land into the Moon. Then Lunik 3 went around to the dark side of the Moon and transmitted the first pictures of this back to Earth. In April 1961 the Soviets launched the first man into space. Major Yuri Gagarin was launched from the Baikonur space center on a one orbit, 108 minute flight and returned safely to a hero’s welcome. Again the USA felt it essential to try to match the USSR.

On May 5th 1961, Commander Al Shepard was launched on a 15 minute sub-orbital flight of 115 miles in a Mercury capsule and returned safely. The first American to truly orbit in space was Major John Glenn who completed three orbits in February 1962. Meanwhile though, President J.F. Kennedy had publicly committed the USA to landing a man on the Moon and returning him safely. In doing this, he threw down the gauntlet to the Soviets. The race was on to be first.

The American space program was a stepped one. Mercury single seater space capsules came first. These were able to explore the practicalities of flying in space. They could try out controls to enable pitch, roll and yaw, the three key maneuvering variables, to be mastered. Then came the twin seat Gemini craft, which were able to explore and practice the skills needed for rendezvousing with other craft and ‘docking’, which would be necessary on any moon flight. Lastly came the Apollo craft, three seaters intended to actually make the moon landing missions. These had to detach from and re-dock with their lunar module, which was the part that would actually descend to and return from the lunar surface.

The Soviets also produced a series of capsules, Vostok, Voskhod and Soyuz, but by the late 1960s it was clear that the USA had overtaken the USSR in the space race. The Soviets denied they were in a race now! So, a series of Apollo missions tried out the technology so brilliantly developed and in December 1968 Apollo 8 went around the Moon and returned to Earth. In July 1969 Armstrong, Aldrin and Collins crewed Apollo 11 on the first moon landing. The Soviets followed up with a robot probe collecting moon rock samples in September 1970. More Apollo moon landings followed, but the program was canceled before the last scheduled flights, with the last manned mission occurring on 14th December 1972. Since then, up to 30.07.2007, no human has visited the moon, though schemes for ‘moon bases’ reach the papers from time to time.

Space exploration has tended to concentrate upon sending probes to Mars and the outer planets and developing reusable space vehicles. The USA launched a floating laboratory, Skylab, in 1973. It burnt up on re-entry in 1979. The USSR launched a space station, Mir, in 1986. Currently, there is an international space station, visited and replenished regularly by USA and Russian space craft carrying astronauts from many nations.

Meanwhile, Viking space probes were sent by the USA to soft land on Mars, 1975, and Voyager was launched in 1977 to take advantage of the alignment of the great planets Jupiter, Saturn, Neptune and Uranus. Using each planet’s gravity in turn, it flew close by transmitting invaluable data back to Earth before ‘sling shotting’ on its way to its next destination. It is still transmitting now in 2007 and is set to be the first man made object to leave the Solar System. Other probes have been sent to explore Jupiter, (Galileo) and Saturn, (Cassini Huygens). More recently, several nations have sent probes to Mars and the USA has successfully soft landed robot vehicles complete with experiments. The aim is to find out if water and life exist on Mars, as a preliminary to launching a manned expedition to the ‘red planet’ within the next twenty years.

Rocket and space vehicle technology has tended to lag behind the sophistication of probes and satellites and can be expected to make a considerable leap forward in the next generation. Presently, the Russians still use the Soyuz capsule (which has proved incredibly durable) and rocket technology of the 1970s. The USA has developed the Space Shuttle, first launched in 1981, but even this is really 1970s technology and has been beset by design glitches.

Space exploration is massively expensive and does not offer any immediate practical return for the capital outlay in many people’s eyes. Accordingly, it may be that the world’s leading technological nations will wish to cooperate on future ventures, rather than spending on duplication. The success of the international space station may point the way in this respect. Hopefully there will be no return to a space race as part of ambitions to threaten or control the planet.