Space Exploration begins with the Romans, who before telescopes, knew of seven bright objects in the sky, which they named after their most important gods (Mercury, Venus, Mars, Jupiter and Saturn). They also called the sun and the moon, Apollo and Diana respectively.
The other planets in our solar system were not discovered until much later after the invention of telescopes. In 1608, Galileo looked at improving the magnification of the ‘spyglass’. Within a few years, he began making his own lenses and changing his arrays. Galileo pointed his telescope at the one thing people thought to be perfectly smooth and polished, the moon. What he actually found was a lunar surface that was “uneven, rough, full of cavities and prominences”. Galileo was first to discover the Milky Way and Galilean Moons. Uranus was discovered over a century later in 1781, then Neptune in 1846 and finally Pluto in 1930. However in 2006, astronomers had discovered other celestial objects such as Ceres and Eris (which are larger than Pluto) leading the International Astronomical Union (IAU), to reclassify Pluto as a dwarf planet and extensively define the term.
In 1942, the German V2 rocket was the first to reach the boundary of space (100 km). It then took 15 years untilSputnik 1 was launched by the soviets on 4 October 1957 and became the first Earth-orbiting artificial satellite (today there are over 500 working satellites in space). The launch of this satellite ignited the ‘space race’ with both the Americans and the Russians in direct competition to get a spacecraft to the moon; the Russians made it first in 1959 with space probe Luna 2.
It took 2 more years until, on the 12th April 1961, Russian Yuri Gagarin became the first man in space. Gagarin’s spacecraft the Vostok 1 completed an orbit of earth and crash-landed 2 hours after launch. Gagarin had to bail out and land by parachute as the Vostok 1 was designed to crash land. Two years later in 1963, the first woman in space was Russian cosmonaut Valentina Tereshkova (there have now been well over 50 women in space).
The Americans (NASA) took 3 weeks longer to get their first man into space, when on the 5 May 1961 Alan Shepard became the first American in space, on a suborbital flight lasting just 15 minutes and 28 seconds. 20 days after the successful landing of Shepard, President John F Kennedy publicly pledged to have a man on the moon before the turn of the decade.
In the following years NASA and the USSR sent many manned and unmanned crafts into space, until on the 20th July 1969, Apollo 11 landed on the moon with astronauts Neil Armstrong and Buzz Aldrin on board, who became the first men on the moon. Armstrong famously took “one small step for a man, one giant leap for mankind” in front of over half a billion people watching live on TV, while also fulfilling JFK’s goal of having a man on the moon by the end of the 60s.
Over the next decade, orbiting communications and navigation satellites were in everyday use, and several unmanned space crafts sent detailed images of many of the planets and their moons back to earth. By the 1980s satellite communications expanded to carry television programs, giving people TV in their own homes. They also pinpointed forest fires, gave us photos of Chernobyl and gave us a new view of the center of our galaxy. In 1990, the Hubble space telescope was launched and has since given us some of the most important discoveries in all of space exploration; including the age of the universe, the formation of stars and the prevalence of black holes. The Hubble also helped us map the far corners of the universe and study galaxies billions of light years away.
Space technology is continuously evolving and growing, and with every new discovery it seems we have hardly cracked the surface. From the advances in rockets and satellites to new information about distant celestial bodies, much new advancementis set to come from the study of the cosmos. This includes the launch of VirginGroup; taking fare-paying passengers into space, to the Hubble’s scientific replacement the James Webb space telescope and George Bush’s 2004 announcement of work for a permanent moon base and a manned mission to Mars. It seems there is still so much more to explore and new discoveries might be coming sooner than you think.