Since the Soviet Union launched Sputnik, the first artificial satellite to orbit Earth, humans have been venturing into space. NASA is leading the way, but private companies, such as SpaceX, Blue Origin and Virgin Galactic, are also developing capabilities that were once solely the domain of government agencies.
Americans are largely supportive of NASA and its space exploration missions. Across gender, educational and political groups, there are no more than modest differences in support for continued U.S. space leadership.
The Origins of Space Exploration
From the first artificial satellite in 1957 to astronauts orbiting Earth and probes exploring our solar system, space exploration has captured the imagination of people everywhere. In the process, it shaped many of the technologies we use everyday—such as memory foam mattresses, Bluetooth headphones, programmable ovens, vacuums, and ski apparel—and made our planet a more beautiful place to live.
A year after the Soviet Union’s Sputnik satellite launched, President Dwight Eisenhower and Congress created a government agency dedicated to space exploration: NASA (the National Aeronautics and Space Administration). This new agency set lofty goals: expanding human knowledge of space; advancing space-related technological innovation; developing vehicles that could carry both equipment and living organisms into space; and coordinating with international space agencies to achieve the greatest possible scientific advancements.
As the years have passed, NASA has accomplished all of its ambitious goals and more—discovering thousands of planets around other stars. It has also partnered with other countries on missions to the moon, the International Space Station (ISS), and robotic missions to Mars.
The U.S. Space Race
The United States and Soviet Union fought a long Cold War over land, air, and even space. The battles were often costly and stoked national fears.
The success of Sputnik in 1957 set off a race to dominate the space realm. This competition was particularly important because it was the first time a country could launch a satellite into orbit.
After Sputnik, the United States pushed forward to send a manned spacecraft into orbit by 1961. This program, Project Mercury, sent John Glenn and Virgil “Gus” Grissom into orbit.
As the space race progressed, NASA launched a series of satellites and robotic probes that studied the solar system and sent astronauts to Mars. The International Space Station was also built to test a variety of space technology.
Despite the end of the space race, exploration remains a priority for many Americans. About one-third say that searching for raw materials and natural resources should be a top priority for NASA, while nearly two-thirds believe that searching for life on other planets should be a high priority.
The International Space Station
The International Space Station (ISS) is the largest space research laboratory ever built. Its existence is the result of unprecedented scientific and engineering collaboration among five space agencies representing 15 countries.
The ISS includes modules and connecting nodes that contain living quarters, laboratories and power generation systems. It also features exterior trusses that support the structure, and solar panels that provide power.
Its modular design allows it to be assembled in orbit piece by piece using spacewalking astronauts and robotics. It was primarily built using NASA’s shuttle to lift the heavier parts, but some individual modules were launched on single-use rockets.
The ISS is financed by funding from 15 nations, including the United States, Russia and the European Space Agency. But its future is uncertain as some partners have withdrawn and others are contemplating privatizing the station to pay for maintenance costs.
The Future of Space Exploration
Space exploration has captured the imagination of people for centuries. With the development of rockets in the 20th century, humans can now send machines and animals and eventually people above Earth’s atmosphere into outer space.
Today, space exploration is a joint effort between government and private companies. Commercial companies such as SpaceX and Blue Origin are developing technologies that will allow us to travel into space.
The next phase of human space exploration may begin with missions to Mars. This could be a way for scientists to learn how to live in space before moving on to more distant planets such as Venus and Jupiter.
A future colony or space station will need to be able to provide all the resources and facilities that are needed for long-term living in space. This includes mining for materials, storing fuel and water, creating science laboratories and telescopes, and building private living spaces for explorers.