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Artist's impression of a MER rover on Mars.
Credit: NASA
Artist's impression of MER rover. This digital image was created by students at Cornell University and depicts one of the MER rovers and how it might look on the surface of Mars.

Past images can be seen here.

Space Exploration and Astronauts

The history of our exploration of space goes back to October 4th 1957, when the USSR launched the first ever man-made object into space. The satellite Sputnik, circled the Earth doing little more than send back radio beeps; but it ushered in the space age and started the space race between the USA and USSR and in the process created unbeliveable 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 (20 years before Sally Ride) the first woman (Valentina Tereshkova). The space race would ultimately end with the US landing of Apollo 11 on the Moon in June 1969.

Everyone loves to hear about rockets and space-ships. That's what this page is for. Browse the site and email in with your questions.

Human Space flight

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 sucessfully 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 men into space.
  • Gemini: the second US manned 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 acheieved 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
  • Shenzhou: the series of missions which saw China become the 3rd nation into space.

The explosion of the Columbia orbiter on its return to Earth on February 1st 2003 was a tragedy no one was expecting. It has thrown the Shuttle program into review and led to the postponement of all Shuttle flights indefinitely. The International Space Station is surviving on a limited crew, which are transferred by Soyuz crafts from Russia. What ramifications this accident will have on human spaceflight as a whole remain to be seen. On January 14th 2004, U.S. President George Bush called for the Shuttle program to be eliminated by 2010 and replaced by a yet-to-be-specified "Crew Exploration Vehicle," which would return astronauts to the Moon by 2020 and eventually lead to the construction of a lunar base and a manned mission to Mars. On July 21, 2011 the space shuttle Atlantis landed at Kennedy Space Center, ending the era of the space shuttle program.

Non-human Space Flight

Many people would argue than human spaceflight saps money from the programs that are really doing science in space. Whatever is your opinion on that, a lot of very exciting stuff is happening in non-human spaceflight.

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) you can see in the sky above you.

One of the most famous satellites in orbit today is the Hubble Space Telescope. A famous historical satellite is Sputnik (the first human-made object in space).

Missions to other objects in our Solar System

So far spacecraft have visited every major planet in our solar system (with the possible exception of Pluto depending on how you want to classify it). We have also visited more than one comet and asteroid. Below is an incomplete summary of the main missions sorted by object.

The Ask an Astronomer team's favorite links about Space Exploration and Astronauts:

Previously asked questions about Space Exploration and Astronauts:

General questions:

Human Spaceflight (current or past):


The Future of Human Spaceflight:

The Moon Landings:


Satellites/robotic space craft:

How to ask a question:

If you have a question about Space Exploration and Astronauts which isn't answered above, submit it here. If you have a question about another area of astronomy, find the topic you're interested in from the archive on our site menu, or go here for help.

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