Less than a year after the space age began — in October 1957 — with the Union of Soviet Socialist Republics launching the world’s first satellite, Sputnik, the United States created the National Aeronautics and Space Administration (NASA). The prime task of the space agency was to wrest technological leadership in space from the Soviets. A few years later, after Yuri Gagarin became the first human to orbit the earth, President John F. Kennedy committed his country and NASA to landing a man on the moon by the end of the 1960s. NASA achieved that goal in July 1969. Now, 50 years after its birth, it has good reason to look back with satisfaction. “Its astronauts have circled the world, walked on the moon, piloted the first winged spacecraft, and constructed the International Space Station,” observed the agency’s chief historian. “Its robotic spacecraft have studied Earth, visited all the planets...imaged the universe at many wavelengths, and peered back to the beginnings of time.” The Space Shuttle, for all its drawbacks, has offered a glimpse of the future — the first of the world’s reusable space planes. The ethereal images taken by the Hubble and other giant space telescopes launched by NASA have defined human efforts to understand the origins of the universe. Voyager 1 and 2, launched in the summer of 1977, are leaving the solar system behind and heading for interstellar space. NASA spacecraft and robotic explorers are revolutionising our understanding of Mars, and raising the tantalising possibility that microbial life might have existed — and perhaps even have survived — on that planet.
NASA is girding itself to return humans to the moon by 2020. The aim now is to establish permanent bases on Earth’s natural satellite. The longer-term goal is to use the experience to undertake the manned exploration of Mars. The headlong dash of the 1960s to beat the Soviets to the moon is not the path NASA is likely to choose. Rather, the coming together of several space-faring countries to build the International Space Station will be the driving force in the years to come. Last month, nine nations, including India, signed an agreement to work together to send a flotilla of spacecraft for scientific study of the moon. India’s Chandrayaan-1 spacecraft, with two U.S. scientific instruments onboard, is scheduled to leave for the moon next month. NASA has indicated that it welcomes international participation in manned exploration of the moon. The Google Lunar X Prize has become the driving force for several privately funded groups to attempt landing a robot on the moon. Clearly, the best of space exploration is yet to come.
6 months ago