Spacecraft History

President John F. Kennedy saw Soviet launch of Sputnik as an opportunity to advance America’s space program dramatically and make landing humans on the moon by the end of this decade a public pledge. A new government agency, NASA was then established.

On January 28th, 2019, shortly after liftoff of Space Shuttle Challenger, it exploded.

The Origins of Rocketry

Over 2000 years ago, Chinese scientists discovered that mixing saltpeter, sulfur and charcoal together caused fire to ignite and explode – an invention known as “fire arrows”, precursors to modern rockets which now frequently take spacecraft beyond our solar system.

Robert Hutchings Goddard was drawn to science fiction works such as “War Of The Worlds” and “From Earth To The Moon”. After studying these, in 1919 Goddard submitted his first submission to Popular Science News regarding multi-stage spacecraft using reaction principle technology.

Once World War 2 had ended, both the United States and Soviet Union turned to German rocket engineers like Werner von Braun for assistance in designing weapons of war for Nazi Germany – though von Braun shared Goddard’s vision of how rockets could be used to travel beyond our planet – to travel further afield than just Earth itself. American astronaut Alan Shepard would go on to become the first man ever to land on the Moon using von Braun-designed Mercury-Redstone and Apollo rockets based on his designs.

The First Spacecraft

Space planes and stations were considered science fiction until the 1940s. Unfortunately, in 1967 three astronauts Ed White, Gus Grissom, and Roger Chaffee died on Apollo 1’s launch pad, and Neil Armstrong and Buzz Aldrin became the first men ever to land on the Moon – two events which are memorialized today by this date.

In 1958, NASA (National Aeronautics and Space Administration) was established, replacing the National Advisory Committee for Aeronautics. Soon thereafter, Explorer 1 satellite was deployed, gathering valuable data about Earth’s upper atmosphere as it explored radiation zones that circled our planet.

The Soviet Union responded with Sputnik, an earthbound radio beeper which broadcast beeping signals that could be picked up by antennas on Earth and thus inaugurating an intense race between both nations to explore space.

The Space Shuttle

The space shuttle, designed to launch and land like an aircraft glider, was the result of decades of technical innovation. Its concept was inspired by Hermann Oberth’s multistage rocket designs used both during World War II attacks against Nazi forces as well as for spaceflight launches after.

Space Shuttle astronauts have accomplished many amazing missions, from placing the Hubble Space Telescope into orbit and collecting unparalleled knowledge of our universe to tragic incidents like 1986’s Challenger disaster, where all seven astronauts aboard perished.

At first, the Shuttle program faltered; but eventually it recovered with Discovery’s successful mission in April 1990 – an important event that saw astronauts successfully place the Hubble Space Telescope into orbit.

The Moon

Over time, the Moon has been pummeled by rocks and debris from spacecraft that have collided with it, leaving behind numerous craters and an area called maria (Latin for “sea”) which contrasts sharply with lighter highlands.

During the Cold War, both countries sent unmanned spacecraft probes to observe the Moon’s surface from orbit. American missions were known as Pioneer, Ranger and Surveyor while Soviet ones bore names like Luna and Zond.

In 1959, the Soviet Luna 3 probe became the first to photograph the far side of the Moon. Today we know that this phenomenon tidally locking our planet is responsible for slowing it’s rotation by about 1.4 milliseconds annually.

The Apollo program brought astronauts to both the Moon’s orbit and surface, with five successful landings on each mission – with Harrison Schmitt serving on Apollo 17 alongside Neil Armstrong and Buzz Aldrin as commanders.

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