Space amazes us all, and mankind has been ever-interested to know more about the endlessness. Thanks to technological achievements during the first half of the 20th century, humans have been able to carry out some of the most iconic missions in space history through the second half of the century.
But to think of it, even after over 60 years since the launch of the first satellite, we are only at, what can be called, a starting point of space exploration. A lot more will be achieved in the decades to come. The hope is to know more about the planets in our solar system and beyond and see new supernovas and black holes. Above all, our efforts might help us establish the first human colony on our neighbouring planet, Mars.
While we continue to uncover space secrets and explore the unknown, let’s look at some of the most significant achievements so far, which includes the first person to make the lunar landing, the first woman sent to space and the international space station built in space.
Launch of Sputnik 1
The Union of Soviet Socialist Republic (USSR), simply known as the Soviet Union, launched the world’s first artificial satellite on 4 October, 1957. The launch of Sputnik 1, the first momentous occasion in space history, served as the start of the space age and the space race.
Measuring just 23 inches in diameter, Sputnik 1 was spherical and made of aluminium alloy — its size is close to nothing when compared to today’s satellites.
Sputnik 1 was launched from the Baikonur Cosmodrome, which is today in Kazakhstan. It transmitted signals to Earth for 22 days and burned up while re-entering the atmosphere on 4 January, 1958.
Since the Soviet Union had taken a lead, a worried Washington hastened the US space programme and founded the National Aeronautics and Space Administration (NASA) on 29 July, 1958.
However, six months before the launch of the premier space agency, the US had entered the race by launching its first satellite — Explorer 1. The satellite was designed by Jet Propulsion Laboratory (JSL) and launched by the US Army Ballistic Missile Agency on board a Jupiter C rocket, developed by Dr. Wernher von Braun.
In 2009, the European Space Agency (ESA) launched the TerreStar 1, the heaviest satellite that ever took off with a payload mass of 7,055 kg. It has an 18-metre-wide S-band antenna and 32.4 meters wingspan.
Yuri Gagarin becomes first man in space
The Soviet Union sent cosmonaut Yuri Gagarin into space on 12 April, 1961, leaving the US behind once again. On this historic day, he took off on a Vostok 1 and remained in orbit for an hour and 48 minutes, scripting space history as the first person to do so.
Son of a carpenter, Gagarin had a tough childhood through World War II. He went on to become a fighter pilot in the Soviet Air Force. The excellent aviator was noticed by the then head of the Vostok training programme, Stephen Walker.
Gagarin landed back on Earth safely, parachuting on open ground near the village of Smelovka in the Soviet Union. He reportedly told shocked onlookers, “Don’t be afraid, I am a Soviet like you, who has descended from space, and I must find a telephone to call Moscow!”
A terribly hurt US managed to follow by launching Alan Shepard into space on 5 May, 1961.
Meanwhile, celebrated as a hero in the Soviet Union and presented to the world as their greatest success story of the time, Gagarin was sent on a world tour. He visited the UK, India, Afghanistan, Finland, then-Czechoslovakia, Sri Lanka and even the UN headquarters in New York.
He died at age 34 on what has been officially called an accident in a routine training flight when his MiG-15 trainer crashed outside Moscow on 27 March, 1968.
Valentina Tereshkova becomes first woman in space
Just two years after Gagarin’s historic moment, a Soviet mission achieved another feat by having Valentina Tereshkova take off aboard the Vostok 6 from the Baikonur Cosmodrome to space on 16 June, 1963. She became the first woman to go to space.
Like Gagarin, Tereshkova had humble origins; she was a former textile worker and had no pilot training. However, she was a parachutist who was chosen to undergo training in a woman-in-space programme.
After spending 71 hours in space and completing 48 orbits of the Earth, she landed on her home planet on 19 June, along with Valery F. Bykovsky — a Soviet cosmonaut who had reached space just two days before her in Vostok 5.
For writing her own space history, Tereshkova became another mega success story for the Soviets. She was honoured with the Hero of the Soviet Union and, over the years, twice awarded the Order of Lenin.
Though she never went back to space, Tereshkova continued to serve the Soviet Union and later Russia in various official positions, including as a member of the USSR Supreme Soviet, director of the Soviet Women’s Committee, member of the Supreme Soviet Presidium, deputy chair of the parliament of Yaroslavl province, and eventually as an elected representative to the Duma.
Mariner 4 takes first pictures of Mars
On 14 July, 1965, the Mariner 4 spacecraft flew past Mars and took the first pictures of the Red Planet.
Flying within the proximity of 9,844 kms of Mars, the spacecraft took close-up pictures, showing a side of the planet. Although blurry, the images covered an area of around 330 km by 1,200 km and presented in detail the craters and what then seemed like clouds.
The pictures took four days to be transmitted to Earth, where it triggered an interest in the planet that has only expanded over the decades to a point that there are now plans to establish human colonies on the Red Planet.
First man on the Moon
In all of space history, 20 July, 1969, will remain the date when mankind entered its true space age.
On this day, three American astronauts — Neil Armstrong, Edwin E. Aldrin Jr. (aka Buzz), and Michael Collins — took off in Apollo 11 from Cape Kennedy in Florida, US. Four days later, the Eagle lunar landing module of Apollo 11 alighted on a dusty surface on the Moon’s southwestern edge, a place called Sea of Tranquillity.
Armstrong emerged out of the Eagle and stepped onto the surface of the Moon. “That’s one small step for [a] man, one giant leap for mankind,” he remarked in excitement. With that, Armstrong became the first person in history to step on a celestial body other than Earth.
Buzz Aldrin followed Armstrong and the two collected rock samples from the surface of the Moon for over two hours. They also took photographs and deployed equipment to study the Moon.
The moment was watched by millions around the world on television. Since the historic landing, 10 others — all Americans — have stepped foot on the Moon. The Apollo mission lasted just over eight days.
Both Armstrong, who died on 25 August, 2012, and Aldrin are celebrated to this date.
Mars 3 becomes first spacecraft to land on Mars
The Americans may have got the first pictures of Mars, but it was the Soviets who became the first to land a spacecraft on the Red Planet. Known as Mars 3, the spacecraft touched down on the planet on 28 May, 1972.
The landing came around five months after Mars 3 arrived at the Red Planet. It transmitted video footage of the planet for 20 seconds before the landing craft malfunctioned. However, data on Mars’ temperature and atmosphere continued to be relayed for the next two months.
Interestingly, just a month before Mars 3 reached the planet, NASA’s Mariner 9 probe had orbited around Mars and had taken photographs.
The Voyager Mission
In 1977, two spacecraft — Voyager 1 and Voyager 2 — were launched weeks apart from Cape Canaveral, Florida. They were originally meant to last five years and study Jupiter and Saturn. Both spacecraft have sent photographs of the two planets.
Over the decades, the Voyager programme proved itself as one of the most successful and both spacecraft have far exceeded the brief.
The programme also obtained stunning pictures of Uranus and Neptune as the probes continued on their mission, increasingly moving away from Earth.
On 14 February, 1990, Voyager 1 took a picture of the entire solar system — famously titled “Pale Blue Dot”. Whereas on 25 August, 2012, it created space history by becoming the first man-made object to cross the boundary of interstellar space. Voyager 2 reached interstellar space on 5 November, 2018.
Because of its success, the Voyager programme was renamed Voyager Interstellar Mission.
The space shuttle age
Space shuttles became objects of fascination for astronomy lovers around the world when NASA launched Columbia on 12 April, 1981.
Not only rewriting space history as a vehicle, the space shuttles ushered in a new era in space programmes and were a major inspiration for young students around the world eager to study the planet and everything around it.
The programme ended in 2011 after 135 flights. Besides Columbia, space shuttle orbiters, which were part of the programme, were Challenger, Discovery, Atlantis, and Endeavour.
But the space shuttle programme also had its moments of tragedy. On 28 January 1986, the Challenger space shuttle disintegrated just over a minute after take off due to a malfunction. All seven members of the crew were killed in the disaster.
On 1 February, 2003, the Columbia burned up during re-entry over Texas, US, killing its seven-member crew.
Hubble space telescope
One of the gigantic achievements in astronomy came with the launch of the Hubble space telescope on 24 April, 1990. Named after Edwin Powell Hubble, the telescope was developed by NASA in partnership with ESA. It was taken to space on board the space shuttle Discovery and placed in the low Earth orbit (LEO) at 547 km above Earth.
From its location ever since, the large reflecting telescope has been capturing some of the most breathtakingly beautiful photographs of space, including constellations and supernovas. Its high-definition pictures have helped generations of astronomers and researchers in understanding the universe.
Hubble will soon be joined by the James Webb Space Telescope and the Nancy Grace Roman Space Telescope in the near future.
Mars Pathfinder launched
Considered one the most important missions, the Mars Pathfinder was launched from Earth on 4 December, 1996 and reached the Red Planet on 4 July the following year, coinciding with the US Independence Day.
Its probe, named Sojourner, was the first of its kind to reach another planet in the solar system. After landing, it studied the Martian surface and explored the Ares Vallis area. It was this mission that established that a river once flowed on the surface of Mars. In September 1996, the Sojourner stopped relaying information.
The construction of the International Space Station
The International Space Station (ISS) is one of the most significant feats in engineering, and it was achieved with the collective efforts of the space agencies of the US, Russia, Japan, Canada and Europe. This is why the ISS is not owned by a specific country.
It is not only the largest satellite in LEO but also the largest artificial object in space.
On 20 November, 1998, its first two parts were sent to space by the US and Russia at the same time and were joined in space as well. Parts continued to be sent to the space station till the completion of the project on 2 November, 2000. Since then, many countries from around the world have sent their astronauts to the ISS.
Interestingly, at the height of the Cold War, the Americans and the Soviets had first linked up in space from 17-19 July, 1975, as part of the Apollo-Soyuz Test Project. Four years before that, Soviet Union had launched the world’s first space station — Salyut 1 — which fell back to Earth after spending 175 days in space.
Falcon 9’s first stage back on Earth
After years of space exploration by government-funded agencies, a private aerospace company scored a revolutionary technological success and opened a new chapter in space history that has transformed space travel. It has also increased the possibility of safely reaching other planets manifold. Additionally, it has lowered costs, ensuring that space exploration can be done sustainably.
SpaceX, a company founded by billionaire genius Elon Musk, successfully tested its Falcon 9 rocket’s first stage landing back on Earth on 21 December 2015. Since then, SpaceX has launched the Falcon 9 multiple times — the latest in 2021.
(Main and Featured images: NASA/Neil A. Armstrong/Wikimedia Commons)
Manas Sen Gupta enjoys reading detective fiction and writing about anything that interests him. When not doing either of the two, he checks Instagram for the latest posts by travellers. Winter is his favourite season and he can happily eat a bowl of noodles any time of the day.