Galileo Galilei is credited with taking the first historical landmark in space exploration; his first telescopic observation of the night sky discovered the moons of Jupiter and the phases of Venus. These discoveries and Galilei’s involvement in the scientific revolution of the seventeenth century saw the progress of space exploration catalyse rapidly.
Galilei’s discoveries would influence Isaac Newton’s Philosophiæ Naturalis Principia Mathematica; a groundbreaking analysis of physical theories that has formulated our principal understandings of gravity, not only here on earth but on the moon also. However, it wasn’t until the early twentieth century that rocketry and the notion that space exploration truly progressed.
The newly established strongest nations of the twentieth century led the space exploration drive. Germany, seemingly impervious to the fallout emerging from their defeat in World War I, made great strides in rocket mechanism during the years of the Weimar Republic. Top European scientists formed the Verein für Raumschiffahrt (‘Society for Space Travel’) in 1929. This society expanded on the work of German physicist Hermann Oberth, whose 1923 publication Die Rakete zu den Planetenräumen (“The Rocket into Planetary Space”) had revived an interest in space exploration throughout Europe.
A lack of funding in astronautics within Germany from 1933 onwards meant that Europe’s leading space researcher fell behind other nations, such as the USSR and the US, as Nazi Germany geared itself for war. Following the events of World War II, two new super-powers emerged; Russia and the US. They dominated the rest of the century in many areas, including space science.
As a sub-story to the Cold War, the US and USSR battled out the infamous ‘Space Race’ to gain supremacy in the battle for spaceflight capability. Originating from the nuclear arms race that followed World War II, the two countries were aided by the capturing of German missile technology. The superiority in such a field was seen as vital for national security and symbolic of ideological superiority, i.e. the capitalist ideology channelled by the U.S. against the principles of communism that had embraced the Soviet Union throughout the twentieth century.
The ‘Space Race’ commenced in August 1955 as the Soviet Union declared their intentions to launch a satellite into space, just as the Americans were doing. The Soviets took many of the initial victories; Sputnik 1 orbited the earth successfully as the first artificial satellite and in 1961 the Soviets put the first human, Yuri Gagarin, into space on April 12, 1961.
Nevertheless, in truly combative fashion, President Kennedy almost dismissed the Russian’s achievements, redirecting the race towards the moon. He said ‘I believe that this nation should commit itself to achieving the goal, before this decade is out, of landing a man on the Moon and returning him safely to Earth.’ Sure enough, while Kennedy would not see out the decade himself, his 1961 speech showed the US and their space program at NASA were driving all their efforts towards putting man on the Moon. In 1969, this dream became a reality as Apollo 11 reached the Moon’s surface.
Neil Armstrong, followed closely by pilot Buzz Aldrin, uttered his famous words on 21 July 1969, before taking his first steps on the Moon that symbolized an American victory. Of course, this proved to be the historic space exploration moment. Yet, while the Apollo spaceflights continued to explore and orbit the moon, the impact of Apollo 11 led leading space programmes to explore greater horizons in our solar system. There were and still are huge questions left to ask.
In recent times, it has been the discovery of Trappist-1, the fashionably named ultra-cool star first discovered in 1999, which has sparked interest amongst physicists in recent times. Astronomers first discovered three planets, all around the size of earth, orbiting the star that lies 39 light years away from earth.
As recently as February 2017, Astronomers have detected a record seven planets orbiting Trappist-1 with indications that these planets could support liquid water. Only three of these planets are believed to be in the ‘habitable’ zone where life is possible. Through the use of advanced telescopes, astronomers may be able to identify biological life on these planets. Whether revolving around our sun or not, it may seem the likelihood of life out in space is a real possibility.