The Start of Space Exploration

30.06.2021 |

Episode #8 of the course The evolution of life in the universe by Silvano P. Colombano Ph.D.


I was 12 when the first “artificial satellite”, Sputnik 1, was launched into space in 1957, marking the start of human exploration beyond the surface of the Earth. I remember listening to the “beeps” that were broadcast on radio worldwide, and being totally amazed that we had created a “mini moon”.

A “space race” ensued after that, which was more motivated by international politics than science, but nevertheless advanced the reach of the human race into space. The second major milestone, the first orbital flight by a human, was again Russian, with cosmonaut Yuri Gagarin in 1961. The US began to “catch up”, with Alan Shepard’s suborbital flight in the same year, and John Glenn’s orbital flight in 1962.


The Leap Into Space

It only took 54 years from the first flight of the Wright brothers to the first orbital flight. From the point of view of evolutionary times it’s like the human species “lept” into space about as soon as it was able to move around the surface without “animal power”. We have seen all the way back from the evolution of life that we have a pattern of separate “technologies” developing until they can be combined into completely new ones that open up new possibilities. From single cells we obtained multicellular organisms; from the combination of electrical power, communications, and AI we produced robots, and, again, from chemical power, communications, and computation technologies, space flight became possible. The leap to the new technology became possible only after the underlying ones were sufficiently developed.

Note that AI was not fundamental to early space flight. Orbital and launch calculations were done by hand or early computers, and the first astronauts were pilots and expected to guide their spacecraft in landing and docking maneuvers. Now, most astronauts are scientists and engineers, conducting science experiments and spacecraft maintenance tasks, while maneuvers are largely handled by computers.


The Race to the Moon

It was clear from the first space achievements, that the Soviet Union was ahead of the US in space technology. That fact caused an immediate reaction from the US and the start of what has been termed a “space race”. NASA was formed in 1958 (a year after Sputnik), and the US looked for a next very visible achievement that would put it clearly ahead. Getting to the moon seemed like the obvious next major challenge. For this purpose NASA began the Apollo program in 1961, with more financial backing from the US than any other space program before or since, and, in spite of what were arguably more political than technical or scientific goals, its achievements were truly staggering.

A few years of tests included a major setback in 1967, when the entire crew was killed in a tragic fiery accident during a ground test of the flight capsule. After a hiatus, a number of flights were sent around the moon to simulate ever more closely the landing mission and, finally, with Apollo 11, the landing module reached the lunar surface. “Homo sapiens” stepped for the first time on an extraterrestrial planetary object.

Apollo 12 to 17 followed from 1969 to 1972 with increasing technical challenges and extended scientific exploration of the lunar environment. One (Apollo 13) had to contend with an explosion on board and returned to Earth without landing on the moon, and with the lunar module serving essentially as a “life boat”. While “unsuccessful”, this mission proved how essential the presence of humans is when a need arises to adapt to unexpected situations. A total of 12 astronauts walked on the Moon as part of the Apollo program. No people have set foot on the moon since then.


Living in Space

While the race to the Moon was on, another, seemingly less glamorous race was started, again, by the Soviet Union, and that was for “living in space”, in Earth orbit, for extended periods of time. It might have made more sense to expand that capability before racing off to the Moon, given that being in Earth orbit would be much less expensive and certainly immediately useful to gain experience in space. The USSR implemented the Salyut program with a series of 6 small space stations from 1971 to 1982. These allowed for a range of stays from 24 to 861 days. The US launched its first space station, Skylab in 1973 (two years after Salyut 1). It was essentially an “empty” modified third stage of the Saturn rocket that had taken astronauts to the moon. It was occupied for 24 weeks but remained in orbit until 1979. NASA had planned to boost its orbit with the Space Shuttle, but delays in the Shuttle program made it impossible, and Skylab fell back to Earth. Soviet follow-on to the Salyut 7, with its 861 days occupancy, was the Mir that was occupied for 12 and half of its fifteen-year lifespan from 1986 to 2001. It was the first modular space station assembled in orbit, and it was about the same size as Skylab.

Having “settled” the races to the Moon and to Earth orbit, a new era of space cooperation started between the US and the USSR, and in 1975 the Apollo and Soyuz capsules for the first time utilized a specially built docking module to join in space and exchange visiting crews! This paved the way for what became ongoing collaboration that culminated in the building of the International Space Station.


The International Space Station (ISS)

The ISS was assembled in space from 1998 to 2011 with 15 modules provided by space agencies of USA, Russia, Canada, EU, and Japan. More modules are still being planned. The first resident crew arrived in 2000 and the station has been permanently inhabited since then, with changing crews members from 19 different countries.

What the ISS and all previous space stations have contributed is a) the ability to conduct experiments in all areas of science, that could only be performed in 0 G, b) the construction of space infrastructure that is needed to keep people alive in space, such as maintenance of breathable air, water and food, and c) an understanding of the effect of the space environment and 0 G on the human body.

In barely more than 60 years since the first soccer ball size satellite orbited the Earth we are already poised to become an interplanetary civilization. What shape will that take? Will we be the first civilization in the universe to achieve that status?


Recommended book

Spaceflight: The Complete Story from Sputnik to Curiosity by Giles Sparrow


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