Space Exploration & Astronauts

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The history of our exploration of space goes back to October 4th 1957, when the USSR launched the first ever human-made object into space.

Floating just below the International Space Station, astronaut Nicholas Patrick put some finishing touches on the newly installed cupola space windows last week. (Credit: ISS Expedition 22 Crew, Shuttle Endeavour STS-130 Crew, NASA)Credit: ISS Expedition 22 Crew, Shuttle Endeavour STS-130 Crew, NASA

Astronaut Installs Panoramic Space Window Floating just below the International Space Station, astronaut Nicholas Patrick put some finishing touches on the newly installed cupola space windows last week.
The satellite Sputnik circled the Earth doing little more than send back radio beeps, but it ushered in the space age. This event triggered the so-called "space race" between the USA and USSR and in the process created unbelievable paranoia in the USA. The USSR went on to launch the first dog into space (Laika in Sputnik II), the first man into space (Yuri Gargarin), and then in 1963 the first woman (Valentina Tereshkova - 20 years before Sally Ride). The space race would ultimately end with the US landing of Apollo 11 on the Moon in June 1969.

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Human Space flight

John Young, astronaut and Navy veteran, salutes the U.S. flag at the Descartes landing site during the first Apollo 16 extravehicular activity (EVA-1). Young, commander of the Apollo 16 lunar landing mission, jumps up from the lunar surface as astronaut and Air Force veteran, Charles M. Duke Jr., lunar module pilot, took this picture. The Lunar Module (LM) "Orion" is on the left. The Lunar Roving Vehicle is parked beside the LM. The object behind Young in the shade of the LM is the Far Ultraviolet Camera/Spectrograph. Stone Mountain dominates the background in this lunar scene. (Credit: NASA, Charles M. Duke Jr.)Credit: NASA, Charles M. Duke Jr.

NASA and Navy Veteran John Young. John Young, astronaut and Navy veteran, salutes the U.S. flag at the Descartes landing site during the first Apollo 16 extravehicular activity (EVA-1). Young, commander of the Apollo 16 lunar landing mission, jumps up from the lunar surface as astronaut and Air Force veteran, Charles M. Duke Jr., lunar module pilot, took this picture. The Lunar Module (LM) "Orion" is on the left. The Lunar Roving Vehicle is parked beside the LM. The object behind Young in the shade of the LM is the Far Ultraviolet Camera/Spectrograph. Stone Mountain dominates the background in this lunar scene.
The history of human space flight has been dominated by the US and Russian efforts in space and was unquestionably accelerated by the cold-war rivalry between these two countries. Even now, they dominate in the area of human space flight. NASA has an active core of Astronauts that number many tens, and at The Yuri Gagarin Cosmonauts Training Centre in Russia cosmonauts are in active training (when they are not in space). Other countries are involved in human exploration of space to lesser extents. ESA has a human space flight division with a 16 person Astronaut Corps. Japan and Canada are also involved; each have had at least one Astronaut fly with NASA. China joined the list of nations who have independently launched people into space on Oct 15 2003 when they successfully launched their first Taikonaut (from the Chinese word taikong, meaning space).

Here is a list of some of the more famous human space programs (in rough chronological order):

  • Vostok: the Russian space craft that put the first person into space.
  • Soyuz: the longest serving spacecraft in the world.
  • Mercury: this was the first American program to put humans into space.
  • Gemini: the second US human spaceflight program.
  • Apollo: this of course, was the program which put Americans onto the Moon.
  • Mir: the Russian space station that orbited the Earth for 11 years! "Mir" is the word for "peace" in Russian.
  • Skylab: basically what it sounds like, this was a lab in space. Not quite a space station, this was NASA's first step in that direction.
  • The Shuttle: designed to shuttle people to a space station, it was in operation for almost 20 years before it visited Mir and achieved that goal. With the end of Mir it can now also visit the ISS. The shuttle has proved its use countless times, delivering satellites into space and helping people to fix the Hubble Space Telescope (among other things).
  • The International Space Station: a cooperative international effort to launch and sustain a scientific laboratory in space. The ISS is currently "the" home for humans in space, and has hosted astronauts from 15 countries.
  • Shenzhou: the series of missions which saw China become the 3rd nation into space.

In July 21, 2011, the space shuttle Atlantis landed at Kennedy Space Center, ending the era of the space shuttle program. In the United States, the development of the Orion Multi-Purpose Crew Vehicle will usher in our next era of human spaceflight. In the meantime, agreements between NASA and the Russian space agency ensure that NASA’s astronauts will be able to hitch rides to the International Space Station — and back home again — on Soyuz spacecraft.

Soon, spaceflight will no longer be undertaken only by governments. Private space flight companies have begun to design, develop, test, and fly the spacecraft of the future. These private endeavors include Blue Origin, Virgin Galactic, and SpaceX.

Non-human Space Flight

On Sol 84 (Oct. 31, 2012), NASA’s Curiosity rover used the Mars Hand Lens Imager (MAHLI) to capture this set of 55 high-resolution images, which were stitched together to create this full-color self-portrait.Credit: NASA/JPL-Caltech/Malin Space Science Systems, edited by Julian Herzog

Curiosity rover's self portrait. On Sol 84 (Oct. 31, 2012), NASA's Curiosity rover used the Mars Hand Lens Imager (MAHLI) to capture this set of 55 high-resolution images, which were stitched together to create this full-color self-portrait.
In addition to human exploration of space, non-human or robotic spaceflight enables a great deal of scientific research in astronomy.

Satellites around the Earth

Many satellites are in orbit around the Earth. Some of them are used to study the Earth, others to study other objects of interest in Astronomy. Most of the satellites are there for commercial or military uses. You may very well have a dish on your house to pick up TV signals broadcast from a satellite, or be looking at this website via a satellite relay!

If you stare into the night sky for long enough you might notice some funny star-like objects which move quite regularly across the sky. Most likely what you are looking at is an artificial satellite shining by reflected sunlight. If you want to be more active in searching for satellites you can use Heavens Above, a website which will tell you what satellites (and other objects, like the International Space Station itself!) you can see in the sky above you.

Missions to other objects in our Solar System

Philae touchdown. Few things could be more fascinating or demanding in the history of European space travel than the Rosetta comet mission. The lander, Philae, separated from its parent craft, touched down on the comet and immediately fired harpoons to anchor itself on the surface. Philae successfully carried out this mission on November 12, 2014, but soon went into hibernation mode due to insufficient solar power. Very recently, on June 13, 2015, Philae exited hibernation mode and is back in contact with the Rosetta spacecraft!Credit: DLR German Aerospace Center, CC-BY 3.0

Philae touchdown. Few things could be more fascinating or demanding in the history of European space travel than the Rosetta comet mission. The lander, Philae, separated from its parent craft, touched down on the comet and immediately fired harpoons to anchor itself on the surface. Philae successfully carried out this mission on November 12, 2014, but soon went into hibernation mode due to insufficient solar power. Very recently, on June 13, 2015, Philae exited hibernation mode and is back in contact with the Rosetta spacecraft!
So far spacecraft have visited every major planet in our solar system -- and Pluto, too (the New Horizons mission will flyby on July 14, 2015). We have also visited more than one comet and asteroid. Below is an incomplete summary of the main missions sorted by object.

  • Mercury: The spacecraft Mariner 10 flew by Mercury three times in 1974/75. In March of 2011 the NASA mission Messenger became the first space probe to enter the orbit of Mercury after making three flybys of the planet.
  • Venus: Venus's thick atmosphere make observations of the surface difficult. It also heats up the planet to the temperature of molten lead. Unsurprisingly then the only lander (Venera 13 in 1982) didn't last very long. Venus has had a lot of visitors though, perhaps the most famous being Magellan (in the early 1990s).
  • Mars: Mars is perhaps the most visited planet, having had three landers (Viking 1 and 2 and Pathfinder) as well as a fleet of orbiting spacecraft (see here for a list). Mars's close opposition in 2003 has led to a fleet of spacecraft being sent, including Mars Express (with the Beagle 2 lander) from ESA, and two rovers (Spirit and Opportunity) from NASA. The latest mission to Mars, Mars Science Laboratory, with its rover Curiosity arrived on the red planet in August 2012.
  • Jupiter: The NASA missions Pioneers 10 and 11 passed by Jupiter, as did both Voyagers. The famous Galileo mission arrived at Jupiter in 1995 after a six year journey, returning images until its scheduled crash into the planet in September 2003.
  • Saturn: The spacecraft Pioneer 11 and both Voyager missions flew by Saturn. The Cassini/Huygens spacecraft has been returning spectacular images of the ringed planet, its moons, and its rings, driving major new understandings of this complex system.
  • Uranus: Voyager 2 flew by Uranus in 1986.
  • Neptune: Voyager 2 flew by Neptune in 1989.
  • Pluto: Pluto was the last major body in the solar system to have a mission sent to explore it. New Horizons has studied not only Pluto but also some Kuiper belt objects.
  • Asteroids: The NEAR (Near-Earth Asteroid Rendezvous) mission to Eros is perhaps the most famous mission to an asteroid; the spacecraft actually "landed" on the asteroid on February 14th 2001. Galileo also passed by some asteroids (Gaspra, Ida and Mathilde) on its way to Jupiter.
  • Comets: When Halley's Comet passed near the Earth in 1986, a fleet of spacecraft was sent to intecept it. The Deep Impact mission, launched in 2005, studied the comet Tempel 1 before moving on to an extended mission to explore comet 103P/Hartley. The Rosetta mission, highlighted in the image above, will go down in history as the first successful landing on a comet.

The above information was last updated on June 22, 2015.

Questions About Space Exploration & Astronauts

  • General Questions
  • Human Spaceflight (Current or Past)
  • The Future of Human Spaceflight
  • Rockets
  • Aeronautics
  • Satellites/Robotic Space Craft
  • The Moon Landings
  • The Ask an Astronomer team's favorite links about Space Exploration and Astronauts:

    • NASA: National Aeronautics and Space Administration
    • NASA Watch. Not a NASA site, but a way to keep up with what NASA is up to.
    • ESA: European Space Agency
    • Spaceflight Now: claims to be "the leading source for online space news."
    • Solar System Exploration Home Page: a site run by the NASA Jet Propulsion Lab (JPL). Very complete listings of all missions (past, present and future, and not just NASA missions) to solar system objects.
    • NASA TV: Want to watch the astronauts in orbit? This is the place to find out how you can do that.

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