Aerospace & Defence

Monumental milestones in space exploration

6th May 2022
Kiera Sowery

This National Space Day lets lift off and explore some of the biggest events in space history. These events have been made possible due to incredible contributions to all disciplines of engineering. From avionics, to electronics, and software and design to rockets, engineering has turned space exploration dreams into reality.

Despite well-known disasters, including the catastrophic Challenger launch booster failure, and the disintegration on re-entry of Columbia, space has been successful in the following areas.

1957: First artificial Earth satellite

The Sputnik 1 spacecraft was the first artificial satellite placed successfully in orbit around Earth. It was launched from Kazakhstan, then part of the Soviet Union. It was the first in a serious of four satellites as part of the Sputnik programme. Three of the four satellites reached Earth orbit. The Sputnik 1 satellite was 58cm in diameter, made from aluminium, carrying four antennas that were 2.4-2.9m long. The satellite obtained data pertaining to the density of the upper layers of the atmosphere and the propagation of radio signals in the ionosphere.

The satellite completed 1,400 orbits of the Earth, travelling a cumulative distance of 70,000,000km before becoming inactive, and decaying optically 92 days after launch.

1965: First spacewalk

The 18th March, 1965 marks a momentous occasion, as cosmonaut Aleksey Leonov flew to Earth orbit, and exited his spacecraft. This made him the first man to walk in space. Leonov floated for 10 minutes, whilst tethered to the airlock with a 5m-long umbilical cord preventing him from drifting into space.

This spacewalk wasn’t without its difficulties. Leonov’s suit ballooned when he was no longer inside his spacecraft meaning he could not re-enter the airlock. To combat this, he bled his suit beyond its safety limits to make it more flexible.

1969: First humans to walk on the Moon

One of the biggest achievements in history is when man took the first steps on the Moon, of course taking a “giant leap for mankind”.

On 20st July, 1969 Neil Armstrong and Edwin ‘Buzz’ Aldrin became the first men to walk on the Moon as part of Apollo 11. The goal of Apollo 11 was to perform a crewed lunar landing and return to Earth, which is exactly what happened. Armstrong and Aldwin spent a total of 21 hours, 36 minutes on the moon’s surface.

An estimated 650 million people tuned in to watch Armstrong’s televised image.

1990: Launching the Hubble Telescope

24 April 1990 marked a huge day in history as the space shuttle Discovery launched from Earth with the Hubble Telescope in its payload bay. The next day, Hubble was released into space.

The Hubble Telescope took decades of planning and research before its launch in 1990.

Since its launch, Hubble has reimagined and reshaped our perception of the cosmos and unearthed a universe of unexpected phenomena.

The Hubble Space Telescope to this day provides never seen before wonders and remains at the forefront of space discovery.

1998: First segment of International Space Station launched

Several nations worked collaboratively to build and use the International Space Station (ISS). It is made of parts that were assembled in space by astronauts.

It orbits Earth at an altitude of 250 miles, travels at 17,500mph and orbits Earth every 90 minutes.

In November 1998, the first piece of the ISS was launched to space by the Russian Zarya control module. Two weeks later, Endeavor, the space shuttle, met Zarya in orbit. The space shuttle was carrying the US Unity node which the crew attached to Zarya.

Over the next two years, extra pieces were added to the ISS before it was ready to be lived in. Pieces have been added over time, and in 2011, construction of the space station was completed.

2000: Fist resident crew to occupy the International Space Station

On 2nd November 2000, the first crew arrived to live on the ISS, and it has been lived on ever since. NASA Astronaut Bill Shepherd and cosmonauts Yuri Gidzenko and Sergei Krikalev were the first crew to reside aboard the space station. It is capable of supporting a six man crew, plus visitors.

As of 2021, 244 individuals have made 403 spaceflights to the ISS.

2016: Hidden Figures release

Perhaps not an event that would instantly spring to mind, Hidden Figures is a non-fiction book written by Margot Lee Shetterly, focusing on the African American female mathematicians who worked during the 1960s at NASA during the Space Race.

Also released in 2016 was a biographical drama loosely based on the book which received critical acclaim for its historical accuracy and emotional tone. It follows the true story of the three women involved in the Space Race to propel humankind to space.

Both the book, and the film highlighted the situation, and the achievements of the women who weren’t celebrated at the time of their success.

2020: First commercial rocket to fly humans to Earth orbit

A huge milestone for spaceflight was achieved by SpaceX on 30May 2020, who launched its Crew Dragon spacecraft from the Kennedy Space Centre taking Doug Hurley and Bob Behnken to the ISS.

This was also the first mission to send humans into orbit from the US since NASA stopped in 2011.

The event marked a vital transition in crewed space travel for NASA, shifting complete control from the government space agency when it comes to launches.

NASA provided funding and technical oversight to SpaceX in the development of the spacecraft.

Leaping into the future

NASA is aiming for human missions to Mars to take place in the 2030s, which will be another huge milestone in space history. Until then, The ISS will continue to serve as a laboratory for cutting-edge research and technological development to take place.

New technologies will be developed to improve spaceflight and exploration. The first humans walked on the moon almost half a century ago, and now NASA is preparing for a new era of sustainable spaceflight and discovery.

With NASA’s plans to revisit the moon by 2024, I hope we will also see the first female step foot on the moon, representing an even bigger leap for mankind, and a great first step for womankind.

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