Muizz Shah walks us through the significant dates and people behind the great Space Race.
Through the course of human history, several eras have lasted which amaze us to this day: one of which remains the Space Age. The historic Space Age period refers to the period between 1957-1990, beginning with the launch of the Soviet Union satellite, ‘Sputnik 1’, a landmark moment that marked Earth’s first artificial satellite in space (or rather, Earth’s lower orbit).
It was during this particular period in history that a global Space Race began when an outer-space competition was instigated between the Soviet Union and the United States of America. Soon after the launch of Sputnik 1, the Soviet Union’s ambitious Sputnik 2 successfully carried an animal into orbit, exhibiting the Soviet Union’s vastly superior technology, as the US had yet to achieve such a feat. The two global powers maintained their efforts in space exploration with three Luna missions from January 2nd – October 7th, 1959, capturing images of the far side of the Moon that have become some of the most recognised in space history.
Two years later, history was made with Vostok 1 when cosmonaut, Yuri Gagarin, became the first man in space. Four years later, another astronaut, Alexei Leonov, became the first man to spacewalk. During this time, international interest in space exploration heightened and both the Soviet Union and the United States of America fuelled their space research budgets for continuous missions, however, Soviet Union had taken a lead in the race. Spurred forward by these advancements, the US worked relentlessly to catch up to its rivals, leading to the launch of several Gemini missions until the era defining Apollo missions came to fruition.
The first of many ground-breaking missions, Apollo 8, carried humans into Earth’s orbit and towards the Moon with a crew of US astronauts Frank Borman, Jim Lovell and William Anders. This mission occurred between 21-27 December, 1968 and reversed pressure on the Soviet Union to extend their man missions and reduce artificial probe missions. At this moment in time, it seemed that the United States was ahead of the Soviet Union in the race, with fast improving technology increasing their capability for longer spaceflights. Under John F. Kennedy the US Space Program was thriving and barrelling forward to break revolutionary ground in the era of space exploration.
The most famous of all missions was the Apollo 11 mission which occurred almost 8 months after Apollo 8. The significance of this mission was that it marked the greatest human achievement of space exploration by putting man on the Moon. Neil Armstrong and Buzz Aldrin were the only two astronauts aboard the Lunar Module ‘Eagle’ spacecraft. Upon landing on the lunar surface, Neil Armstrong became the first man to step on another celestial body. Aside from being a historical event, the Apollo 11 mission was significant in that it largely ended the Space Race that had persisted for a great part of the 20th century. The Soviet Union tried several additional Luna missions to achieve what Apollo 11 had, but failed. Therefore, the Soviet Union decided to abandon Moon landing missions and instead focus on prospect of Earth orbiting missions.
The years after Apollo 11 maintained a balance of space exploration missions with some major accomplishments such as Salyut 1 and the International Space Station(ISS). Salyut 1 was the first space station launched on April 19th, 1971, whilst the ISS is the current space station orbiting around the Earth. The colossal vessel was launched November 20th, 1998.
Since the launch of the ISS, the majority of work done and progress made is from the ISS, where astronauts have managed to capture stars and universal anomalies light years away and also study the nature of our own solar system. However, although the importance of the more recent missions has been vast, they haven’t been able outshine the grand achievements of the events during the Space Race. In fact, the missions which have continued since are mainly transport missions to carry astronauts onto the ISS and back to Earth. In this change of direction, the once glorified Space Age era is slowly diminished in the eyes of the world.
Once the chronology of the Space Age is understood, one wonders why people have pulled the plug on ambitious space flights in attempt to reach other celestial bodies. One factor which can give us some insight and reasoning for this halt in planetary discovery is the Soviet Union conceding a Moon mission to the US, this led to the Space Race to end. Both countries had political tensions between each other as both were superpowers in the world. Therefore, Space exploration was used as a platform for great power to compete against each other, instead of waging war involving the state military prowess. Therefore, for almost 15 years the two nations rivalled each other in order to gain power over the claim of who reached the “stars” first and establish the image of a clear victor in the minds of global spectators. The Space Race is considered to have been a major catalyst for the advancements made in Space Exploration.
However, Apollo 11 and other major space exploration missions happened many moons ago and a gap of many years has increased our desire for a return of planetary and space travel. Since the ISS launch, the world finally witnessed a glimmer of revitalisation of space exploration efforts when SpaceX launched its Falcon 9 on 20th December, 2015. The significance of this launch was not only that it was a major event in space exploration after several years without ground-breaking space advancements, but Falcon 9 revolutionised rocket transportation by allowing detached rockets to return to solid ground safely. Before this, all rocket boosters would detach from the primary space shuttle in Earth’s upper orbit and land in a body of water. However, with the Falcon 9 space agencies, especially SpaceX, it is now possible to start and continue working with rockets that can return for future missions. This had made space transportation cheaper than previous methods and has brought this field into the spotlight that it once had.
Elon Musk, founder and CEO of SpaceX, has become a pioneer in the space industry due to his efforts to uplift the general view the world has of the industry and pursuing innovation for better future technologies that can supplement space travel. SpaceX has had 3 major launches including the Falcon 9 launch in 2015, the others are SpaceX CRS-8 and SpaceX SES-10. In addition to these launches, SpaceX has announced its astonishing plan to use rockets as a means of quicker transportation between cities. Alongside Elon Musk, several other successful men such as Sir Richard Branson and Jeff Bezos have maintained investments in the Space Industry which has increased competition and has pushed companies like SpaceX and Virgin Galactic to continue innovating. It has now become conspicuous to the common eye that the future of space exploration lies in the hands of entrepreneurs and the public, rather than solely with the power of government agencies as in the past.