Space exploration

The Second World War and its legacy

The first development of technology to put man-made objects into space took place in Germany during the Second World War. The Nazis developed a rocket called the V2, which they used to transport and drop bombs. In the late 1940s, both the Americans and the Russians used modified V2 rockets for very short flights into the Earth's atmosphere. During much of the Cold War period, a ‘Space Race’ developed between the USA and the Soviet Union. Each was trying to prove that theirs was the most advanced nation technologically.

First flights into space

The first successful orbit of the Earth was in 1957, when the Soviet Union launched an unmanned satellite called Sputnik 1. Later the same year, another Soviet satellite orbited the Earth with a living creature, a dog, on board.
The Americans were alarmed by these achievements. They feared they were falling behind the Soviet Union in technological development. This fear appeared to be confirmed in 1961, when the Soviet Union launched the first human being, Yuri Gagarin, into space. He completed a single orbit of the Earth. One month later, the Americans launched Alan Shepard into space. But it was 1962 before the first American, John Glenn, orbited the Earth.
The Soviet Union continued to beat the USA to a series of milestones in space exploration. For example, in 1965, Aleksei Leonov was the first man to walk in space and, in 1966, a Soviet satellite landed successfully on the moon. However the Americans responded with the first manned flight around the moon in 1968 and, most spectacularly, the first landing of men on the moon in 1969. As astronaut Neil Armstrong put it: ‘That's one small step for [a] man, one giant leap for mankind.’

Exploration of other planets

The first flight by a spacecraft past another planet was in 1962, when an American spacecraft flew past Venus. Later American spacecraft flew past Mars, Jupiter, Mercury, Saturn, Uranus and Neptune. An unmanned Soviet craft landed on Venus in 1970 and an unmanned American craft landed on Mars in 1971.

Developments in space technology

The Space Shuttle

Space Shuttle DiscoveryIn the 1970s, American and Soviet emphasis began to move towards developing reusable spacecraft. The Americans developed the Space Shuttle, and this is the only manned spacecraft, to date, which has made multiple flights into Earth's orbit and successfully landed. A number of shuttle vehicles were built and they flew between 1981 and 2011.

The International Space Station

With the end of the Cold War and the collapse of the Soviet Union in the early 1990s, rivalry between Americans and Russians was replaced by greater co-operation. This co-operation led to the building of the International Space Station in 2000. This is a habitable artificial satellite, which is in a low orbit around the Earth and which is used as a research laboratory. It has been continuously inhabited since 2000 and has been visited by astronauts from fifteen different countries.

The impact of space exploration

Pioneering space exploration was funded by governments. But, increasingly, commercial organisations have become involved in space technology. The most obvious impact of this for most people has been the development of communications technology, notably satellite broadcasting and mobile phones, using commercial satellites. The ability to see live images and to speak to people across the globe has helped to develop a sense that human beings are all part of one global community.
Satellite images of global energy usage, shrinking polar icecaps and the seeming fragility of the ozone layer have also increased awareness of the need to protect the whole earth’s environment. Images from powerful satellite telescopes have also expanded human knowledge about the galaxy and other elements within the universe. This has fuelled exploration of the origins of the universe as well as increasing a sense of awe at the beauty and magnitude of creation.
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