The fantastic accomplishment of the Curiosity probe landing on mars has once again turned the world’s eyes towards the heavens (if we forget about the Olympics for a moment of course). Using this recent feat of human ingenuity and resourcefulness and a recent trip to the Kennedy space centre for inspiration I’ve decided to write a short piece on the history of human exploration in space, with a post soon to follow about the Curiosity probe, I hope!
Exactly 70 years ago, Wernher von Braun watched on as his brainchild, the V-2 sub-orbital ballistic missile, became the first man-made object in human history to leave the atmosphere and enter, by today’s standards, outer space. In the words of Walter Dornberger, the head of the V-2 rocket programme
“This third day of October, 1942, is the first of a new era in transportation that of space travel…”
Three years later, 1945, at the onset of operation Paperclip and operation Backfire, the American and British scramble for Nazi weaponry and technology, hundreds of V-2 rockets were secretly shipped back to the US, along with some of the Third Reich’s most able minds. For nearly a decade after this, nothing happened, there was little advancement on the German designs and schemes as both western and eastern scientists struggled to come to grips with the sheer complexity and intricacy of the Nazi engineering, but that was soon to change
While the Americans and British were messing with rockets little more advanced than large fireworks, with the fantastic German scientists side-lined for matters of national pride, something interesting had been happening on the far side of the iron curtain…
Using some of this stolen Nazi tech, the Russian space programme, after languishing behind the rest of the world for several years, suddenly kicked into high gear. For years the Soviet cosmodromes had been churning out successful rockets in the forms of the R-1, R-2, R-5 and R-7 families, but here the Russians hit a stumbling block, where do they go from here? The Americans provided them the perfect answer. On 29th July 1955 the U.S. President Dwight D. Eisenhower announced that the United States would launch an artificial satellite during the International Geophysical Year of 1957. Terrified that the Americans would use this satellite as a spy satellite, or worse, the Russians rushed into action, planning, designing and building a fully functioning satellite in just over two years, and on the 4th October 1957 they launched the world’s first satellite into low earth orbit, Sputnik 1. The space race had begun.
Skip forward 10 years, to 1967, and Von Braun’s greatest achievement sits atop a launch pad, aimed for the sky, the Saturn V rocket. Even to this day the Saturn V holds several records, for being the tallest, most powerful and the heaviest rocket ever produced. For several years the Americans had trailed behind the Russians in the great space race, relying on reverse engineered technology for their flawed and unreliable Vanguard class rockets, but after the Soviet success of Sputnik the Americans panicked and at the orders of the government, placed Von Braun and his team in direct command of rocket design for the Americans. Almost instantly the American space programme began to pick up speed, and with the declaration in 1961 by John F. Kennedy of the national goal of “landing a man on the Moon and returning him safely to the Earth” there seemed like there could be no stopping the Apollo space programme, the Americans method of placing a man on the moon. Even with its fantastic and, at the time, outlandish goals Apollo succeeded despite the major setback of a 1967 Apollo 1 cabin fire that killed the entire crew during a pre-launch test. Six manned landings on the Moon were achieved. A seventh landing mission, the 1970 Apollo 13 flight, failed in transit to the Moon when an oxygen tank explosion disabled the command spacecraft’s propulsion and life support, forcing the crew to use the Lunar Module as a “lifeboat” for these functions to return to Earth safely. But despite all of this, at Apollo’s discontinuation, NASA declared the programme as “a success”.
This success of landing a man on the moon signalled the end of the space race between the US and Soviet Russia, but it was by no means the end.
The next major breakthrough was Salyut 1, the world’s first space station. Beaten to the moon by the Americans, Russia began to concentrate its resources on sustaining a manned low earth orbit. Although this goal wasn’t achieved truly successfully until Salyut 3 (Salyut 1 was left to fall out of orbit after one crew couldn’t dock successfully and another died on re-entry, Salyut 2’s flight control system failed and an unexplained incident where four solar panels were torn off the craft meant the station was left without power or a way of controlling it, this was again left to re-enter and disintegrate). Salyut 3’s main purpose was as a spy satellite and as a result It tested a wide variety of reconnaissance sensors, returning a canister of film for analysis. On January 24, 1975, after the station had been ordered to deorbit, trials of the on-board 23 mm anti-satellite cannon were conducted with positive results at ranges from 3000 m to 500 m, the departing crew reported that a target satellite had been successfully destroyed.
The latest hurdle crossed in space station building has been with the ISS (international space station), an international collaboration of five space agency’s: the American NASA, the Russian Federal Space Agency, the Japanese JAXA, the European ESA, and the Canadian CSA.
While all of this continues in low earth orbit, countless satellites and probes have been sent deep into the solar system. Some of the most famous ones being the Viking probes of mars, the first man-made objects to successfully land on the red planet and the Voyager probes, currently the furthest man-made objects ever (voyager 1 has recently entered the heliosheath and is predicted to enter interstellar space sometime around 2015). And recently there’s a new one to add to this very exclusive list, the Curiosity Mars probe, the largest and most advanced probe to ever land on another planet. The size of a small car and powered by a nuclear reactor, the Curiosity probe hopes to give us new insights into the history of mars, and whether there has ever been life on the red planet. It plans to do this by incinerating rocks with an on-board laser and analysing the gas given off to detect organic particles and elements and molecules that could support life.
Now we’ve had the most recent, and now we move onto the future. The future of space exploration is a tricky beast to wrestle with, as no one’s quite sure what’s coming. No-one could have predicted the sheer speed at which we progressed from Wernher von Braun’s V-2 rocket, only seventy years ago; after all, we’re now planning manned missions to mars! But there is one group of people who’ve had a go. Project Daedalus was a study conducted between 1973 and 1978 by the British Interplanetary Society, the oldest society of its type, to design a plausible unmanned interstellar spacecraft. Intended mainly as a scientific probe, the design criteria specified that the spacecraft had to use current or near-future technology and had to be able to reach its destination within a human lifetime. The proposed design revolved around a hydrogen-3 pellet driven nuclear-pulse fusion rocket to accelerate to 12 per cent of the speed of light. Aimed at Barnard’s star the probe would carry 18 smaller micro-probes, with an aim to study the atmospheric configuration, the magnetic field strength, and to send back pictures of the star system and its planets, sending this data back to earth via the main probe, which would use its massive 40 metre engine bell as a communications antenna. However, due to its incredible speed, the probe would be unable to stop, hurtling on through space for the rest of its life.
And that’s that, a quick flyby tour of the human exploration of space and where we might be going with it. And to add I would love to have included everything in this article, from Yuri Gagarin and Laika the dog to the British Black Arrow project and America’s plans for a habitable mars base, but, alas, I have a word count to keep to, but if you really want, you could always look them up yourself?