“As explorers, pioneers, and innovators, we boldly expand frontiers in air and space to inspire and serve America and to benefit the quality of life on Earth.” That is the vision of NASA. Since the foundation of NASA on October 1, 1958, there have been many historic and memorable NASA space missions that have brought them one step closer to achieving their vision.
The Explorer 1 was the first U.S. satellite launched into space. It occurred on January 31, 1958, and was in response to the Soviet Union launching their satellite, Sputnik, on October 4, 1957. Included with the satellite was a cosmic ray detector, which showed a lower cosmic ray count than what was predicted. Once in space, the Explorer 1 took 114.8 minutes to do one earth orbit, and during its lifetime, did a total of 58,000 orbits. It’s last transmission was one May 23, 1958, and burned up in the planet’s atmosphere on May 31, 1970.
The Freedom 7 mission marked the milestone when the first American made it to space, Alan Shepard. The Mercury-Redstone 3 (MR-3) launched from Cape Canaveral on May 5, 1961, and lasted just about 15 minutes. The main objective of this mission was to send a person into space and have them return safely. This mission was a stepping stone of President John F. Kennedy’s goal to have an American man on the moon.
This mission resulted in John Glenn becoming the first American to orbit the Earth. The success of this mission kept the United States in close competition with the Soviet Union in the space race, who at this time had the first man go into space and orbit the Earth. The Friendship 7 (aka Mercury-Atlas 6) launched on February 20, 1962, and lasted 4 hours, 55 minutes, and 23 seconds. A few problems did arise, but the ship landed safely in the ocean. In recent years, this mission and the people who made it possible were portrayed in the film, Hidden Figures. The success of his mission helped NASA move forward with their Mercury program and make further developments.
The Voyager 1 space probe first launched on September 5, 1977 from Cape Canaveral. The main purpose of this mission was to discover and learn more about Saturn and Jupiter. The probe found that there were active volcanoes on Io, Jupiter’s Moon, which gave us a closer look at Saturn’s rings. The Voyager 1 also gave the United States a number of milestones including being the first spacecraft to cross the heliosphere, and the first human-made object to enter interstellar space. The success of Voyager 1 led to the creation of Voyager 2, which seeked to explore Uranus and Neptune. To this day, Voyage 1 and 2 continue to collect and send data through the Deep Space Network.
Apollo 8 was definitely a historic mission for NASA. It was the first manned spacecraft to successfully orbit the moon and return back to Earth. The mission started on December 21, 1968 and was manned by Frank Borman, William Anders, and James Lovell Jr. The mission took the United States one step closer to landing on the moon.
John F. Kennedy’s dream finally came true: a U.S. spaceship making a moon landing and having the first person on the moon. Apollo 11 launched from Cape Kennedy on July 16, 1969, manned by Neil Armstrong, Michael Collins, and Edwin “Buzz” Aldrin. People on Earth were shaking with anticipation waiting for history to be made. At about 109 hours after launch, Armstrong became the first person to step on the moon. This moment was watched by millions on Earth, who saw Armstrong put the American flag on the moon and say, “One small step for man, one giant leap for mankind.”
Apollo 13 is one of the most well-known NASA missions to-date, but for the dangerous events that unfolded. On April 11, 1970, Apollo 13 launched from the Kennedy Space Center. The ship was manned by Fred Haise Jr., John Swigert Jr., and James Lovell Jr., and their mission was to land on the Fra Mauro area on the moon.
However, after 5 ½ minutes after liftoff, they started experiencing problems. The center engine during the S-II stage shut down two minutes early, which resulted in the S-IVB third stage engine to burn nine seconds longer than anticipated, sending the ship into orbit. After a little over two days, things were looking better until the second oxygen tank blew up, causing the first tank to fail as well. One thing led to another causing the normal supply of water, electricity, and lights to fail, losing two out of three fuel cells. The crew worked with mission control to figure out how to return safely back to Earth. Eventually, all three astronauts made it safely home, even after the problems and struggle they endured.
In 1995, a movie, Apollo 13, was released about the events of this space mission, starring Tom Hanks, Bill Paxton, and Kevin Bacon.
Sojourner, Spirit, and Opportunity Mars Rovers
The three most significant Mars rovers sent by Nasa are Sojourner, Spirit, and Opportunity. In 1997, Sojourner landed on Mars and sent more than 550 pictures of the Red Planet to NASA. Spirit and Opportunity, twin rovers, were sent to learn more about Mars in 2003. Scientists wanted to find out if Mars could support life. The Spirit rover discovered that Mars once had water on the planet.
The Challenger Mission was doomed from the start. There were numerous delays to the launch date due to bad weather, closing fixture problems, and hardware interface module failure. On January 18, 1986, the crew lifted off, but after only .678 seconds later, a small puff of gray smoke came from the aft field joint on the right solid rocket booster. One thing led to another and a flame plume started appearing from the right solid rocket booster which caused the spacecraft to be engulfed in flame. This mission claimed the lives of the crew and ship.
Columbia was the first to fly into space, with its first launch in April 1981. During its time, it completed 27 missions total. On January 16, 2003, the Columbia launched for the last time with a seven person crew. During launch, there was one issue where a piece of foam, that was part of the external structure, fell from the “bipod ramp”. On February 1, 2003, as Columbia was in the process of returning to Earth, atmospheric gases went into the shuttle due to a hole in the left wing, the ship had a fiery reentry, and lost it’s sensors. The ship crash landed resulting in the death of all the crew.
International Space Station
The International Space Station multi-nation construction project that was created from 1998 to 2011. The station is continuously used for missions and experiments, and since 2018, has been visited by 145 people from 18 countries. The ISS has brought about many milestones such as having the longest single spaceflight by a woman (Peggy Whitson), and having the largest space gathering.
The Kepler is a space telescope (currently retired) that launched on March 7, 2009. The mission of this telescope was to explore part of the Milky Way and discover planets outside of our galaxy. Kepler was assigned a new mission in 2013, known as K2, which was to continue discovering planets but to conduct a larger scan of the sky. From the telescope, 26,000+ planets were found, some of which could possibly support life.
It’s amazing what NASA has accomplished over the years. Space is vast, and there are always planets, starts, and more just waiting to be discovered.