“Pale Blue Dot” photo of Earth is taken

On Valentine’s Day, 1990, 3.7 billion miles away from the sun, the Voyager 1 spacecraft takes a photograph of Earth. The picture, known as Pale Blue Dot, depicts our planet as a nearly indiscernible speck roughly the size of a pixel.

Launched on September 5, 1977, Voyagers 1 and 2 were charged with exploring the outer reaches of our solar system. It passed by Jupiter in March of 1979 and Saturn the following year. The gaps between the outer planets are so vast that it was another decade before it passed by Neptune and arrived at the spot where it was to take a series of images of the planets, known as the “Family Portrait” of our solar system.

Of the Family Portrait series, Pale Blue Dot was certainly the most memorable. The furthest image ever taken of Earth, it lent its name to popular astronomer Carl Sagan’s 1994 book. Sagan, who advised the Voyager mission and had suggested the photo, wrote the following: “Look again at that dot. That’s here. That’s home. That’s us. On it everyone you love, everyone you know, everyone you ever heard of, every human being who ever was, lived out their lives. The aggregate of our joy and suffering, thousands of confident religions, ideologies, and economic doctrines, every hunter and forager, every hero and coward, every creator and destroyer of civilization, every king and peasant, every young couple in love, every mother and father, hopeful child, inventor and explorer, every teacher of morals, every corrupt politician, every “superstar,” every “supreme leader,” every saint and sinner in the history of our species lived there—on a mote of dust suspended in a sunbeam.”

Voyager 1’s journey continues. In 1998, it became the most distant human-made object in space, and on August 25, 2012, it left the furthest reaches of the sun’s magnetic field and solar winds, becoming the first man-made object in interstellar space. 

READ MORE: 6 Fascinating Facts About Space Probe Voyager 1

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Astronaut Ellen Ochoa becomes the first Hispanic woman in space

Year
1993
Month Day
April 08

On April 8, 1993, the space shuttle Discovery lifts off from the Kennedy Space Center. On board is astronaut Ellen Ochoa, soon to become the first Hispanic woman in space.

Ochoa started at NASA in 1988 after receiving a doctorate in electrical engineering from Stanford University. Two years later, she was selected as an astronaut. On her first mission, Ochoa served as a Mission Specialist on a 9-day space flight, the primary mission of which was to study Earth’s ozone layer. She went on to fly three more space shuttle missions, one of which conducted further atmospheric research and two of which carried components to the International Space Station. Over the course of her four flights, Ochoa compiled a total time of 40 days, 19 hours, and 35 minutes in space.

In addition to her extra-planetary contributions, Ochoa has served the cause of space exploration in a number of ways from Earth. She holds several patents for technologies related to automated space exploration and served as Director of the Johnson Space Center—the first Hispanic director and the second woman to hold the position—from 2013 to 2018. Among numerous other awards, she has received NASA’s highest honor, the Distinguished Service Medal.

READ MORE: When Sally Ride Took Her First Space Flight, Sexism Was the Norm

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The Mars Exploration Rover “Spirit” safely lands on the Red Planet


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Year
2004
Month Day
January 03

The Mars Exploration Rover Spirit lands on the Red Planet on January 3, 2004. 21 days later, its twin, Opportunity, also arrived safely. In one of the longest and most successful missions in NASA history, Spirit would survey Martian geography for the next seven years, while Opportunity remained active until June of 2018.

The rovers’ primary mission was expected to last 90 sols, the term used for Martian days. In March, scientists announced that they had made a momentous discovery: a survey of Martian rocks strongly suggested that water had once flowed there, and analysis of Opportunity‘s landing site indicated that it had once been the bed of a salty sea. Later in 2004, Opportunity also discovered the first meteorite to be found on Mars.

The rovers continued to explore Mars for several years, with Spirit becoming a “stationary research platform” after getting stuck in sand. Spirit eventually fell out of contact with NASA, which declared its mission over in 2011. Opportunity, however, continued exploring. In 2014, it broke the record for longest distance driven by an off-Earth wheeled vehicle, and the next year NASA celebrated as Opportunity finished a “marathon,” having traversed over 26.2 miles. In February 2019, NASA announced the end of the MER mission after Opportunity ceased responding to their communications. The rover had broken several other records, including the highest elevation reached on Mars, and sent back 224,642 images. Having far surpassed its original goals and contributed greatly to human understanding of Mars and its potential to host life, the MER mission had a major impact on mankind’s knowledge of our solar system.

READ MORE: The Amazing Handmade Tech That Powered Apollo 11’s Moon Voyage

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First residential crew arrives aboard the International Space Station

Year
2000
Month Day
November 02

On November 2, 2000, the first residential crew arrives aboard the International Space Station. The arrival of Expedition 1 marked the beginning of a new era of international cooperation in space and of the longest continuous human habitation in low Earth orbit, which continues to this day.

The space agencies of the United States, Russia, Canada, Japan and Europe agreed to cooperate on the ISS in 1998, and its first components were launched into orbit later that year. Five space shuttle flights and two unmanned Russian flights delivered many of its core components and partially assembled the space station. Two Russians, Yuri Gidzenko and Sergei Krikalev, accompanied by NASA’s Bill Shepherd, were selected as the crew of Expedition 1.

The trio arrived at the ISS on a Russian Soyuz rocket launched from Kazakhstan. Unlike all subsequent missions, Expedition 1’s tasks consisted mostly of constructing and installing various components and activating others. This was sometimes easier said than done: the crew reported taking over a day to activate one of the station’s food warmers. Throughout their time in space, they were visited and resupplied by two unmanned Russian rockets and three space shuttle missions, one of which brought the photovoltaic arrays, giant solar panels, which provide the station with most of its power. Shepherd, Gidzenko and Krikalev became the first humans to adjust to long-term life in low orbit, circling the Earth roughly 15.5 times a day and exercising at least two hours a day in order to offset the muscle atrophy that occurs in low gravity.

On March 10, the space shuttle Discovery brought three new residents to relieve Expedition 1, who landed back on Earth at the Kennedy Space Center on March 21. Since then, humans have continuously resided on the ISS, with plans to continue until at least 2030. 236 people from 18 nations have visited the station and a number of new modules have been added, many for the purpose of research into biology, material sciences, the feasibility of further human space travel and more.

READ MORE: The 5 Deadliest Disasters of the Space Race 

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NASA’s final space shuttle mission comes to an end

Year
2011
Month Day
July 21

On July 21, 2011, NASA’s space shuttle program completes its final, and 135th, mission, when the shuttle Atlantis lands at Kennedy Space Center in Florida. During the program’s 30-year history, its five orbiters—Columbia, Challenger, Discovery, Atlantis and Endeavour—carried more than 350 people into space and flew more than 500 million miles, and shuttle crews conducted important research, serviced the Hubble Space Telescope and helped in the construction of the International Space Station, among other activities. NASA retired the shuttles to focus on a deep-space exploration program that could one day send astronauts to asteroids and Mars.

READ MORE: Space Exploration: Timeline and Technologies

In January 1972, two-and-a-half years after America put the first man on the moon in July 1969, President Richard Nixon publicly announced that NASA would develop a space transportation system featuring a space vehicle capable of shuttling “repeatedly from Earth to orbit and back.” Nine years later, on April 12, 1981, at Kennedy Space Center, the first shuttle, Columbia, lifted off on its inaugural mission. Over the course of the next 54 hours, the two astronauts aboard NASA’s first reusable spacecraft successfully tested all its systems and orbited the Earth 37 times before landing at Edwards Air Force Base in California.

In 1983, a second shuttle, Challenger, was put into service. It flew nine missions before breaking apart shortly after the launch of its 10th mission, on January 28, 1986. All seven crew members were killed, including high school teacher Christa McAuliffe, who had won a national contest to be the first U.S. civilian to fly aboard the space shuttle. In the aftermath of the disaster, the shuttle program was grounded until 1988.

The program’s third shuttle, Discovery, made its first flight in 1984. Atlantis entered the fleet in 1985, and was followed by Endeavour in 1992. The shuttle program experienced its second major disaster on February 1, 2003, when just minutes before Columbia was scheduled to land at Kennedy Space Center and conclude its 28th mission, it broke apart while re-entering the atmosphere over Texas. All seven astronauts on board perished.

Afterward, the shuttle fleet was grounded until July 2005, when Discovery was launched on the program’s 114th mission. By the time Discovery completed its 39th and final mission (the most of any shuttle) in March 2011, it had flown 148 million miles, made 5,830 orbits of Earth and spent 365 days in space. Endeavour completed its 25th and final mission in June 2011. That mission was commanded by Capt. Mark Kelly, husband of former U.S. congresswoman Gabrielle Giffords.

On July 8, 2011, Atlantis was launched on its 33rd mission. With four crew members aboard, Atlantis flew thousands of pounds of supplies and extra parts to the International Space Station; it was the 37th shuttle flight to make the trip. Thirteen days later, on July 21, Atlantis touched down at Kennedy Space Center at 5:57 a.m., after a journey of more than 5 million miles, during which it orbited the Earth 200 times. Upon landing, the flight’s commander, Capt. Christopher J. Ferguson, said, “Mission complete, Houston. After serving the world for over 30 years, the space shuttle has earned its place in history, and it’s come to a final stop.” During its 26 years in service, Atlantis flew almost 126 million miles, circled Earth 4,848 times and spent 307 days in space. The estimated price tag for the entire space shuttle program, from development to retirement, was $209 billion.

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Guion S. Bluford becomes the first African American to travel to space

Year
1983
Month Day
August 30

U.S. Air Force Lieutenant Colonel Guion S. Bluford becomes the first African American to travel into space when the space shuttle Challenger lifts off on its third mission. It was the first night launch of a space shuttle, and many people stayed up late to watch the spacecraft roar up from Cape Canaveral, Florida, at 2:32 a.m.

The Challenger spent six days in space, during which time Bluford and his four fellow crew members launched a communications satellite for the government of India, made contact with an errant communications satellite, conducted scientific experiments, and tested the shuttle’s robotic arm. Just before dawn on September 5, the shuttle landed at Edwards Air Force Base in California, bringing an end to the most flawless shuttle mission to that date.

Guion Stewart Bluford II was born in Philadelphia in 1942. From an early age, “Guy” was fascinated with flight and decided he wanted to design and build airplanes. In 1964, he graduated from Penn State with a degree in aerospace engineering. Deciding he’d need to know how to fly planes if he wanted to build them, he entered the U.S. Air Force and graduated with his pilot wings in 1965. He was assigned to a fighter squadron in Vietnam, where he flew 144 combat missions. After combat service, he became a flight instructor and in the 1970s went on to receive a master’s degree and doctorate in aerospace engineering from the Air Force Institute of Technology.

In 1979, he was accepted into the U.S. astronaut program. He made his first flight in 1983 as a mission specialist on the eighth shuttle mission. He later flew three more shuttle missions, logging a total of 700 hours in orbit. After returning from NASA, he became vice president and general manager of an engineering company in Ohio.

READ MORE: Space Exploration: Timeline and Technologies 

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Lunik 9 soft-lands on lunar surface


Year
1966
Month Day
February 03

On February 3, 1966, the Soviet Union accomplishes the first controlled landing on the moon, when the unmanned spacecraft Lunik 9 touches down on the Ocean of Storms. After its soft landing, the circular capsule opened like a flower, deploying its antennas, and began transmitting photographs and television images back to Earth. The 220-pound landing capsule was launched from Earth on January 31.

Lunik 9 was the third major lunar first for the Soviet space program: On September 14, 1959, Lunik 2 became the first manmade object to reach the moon when it impacted with the lunar surface, and on October 7 of the same year Lunik 3 flew around the moon and transmitted back to Earth the first images of the dark side of the moon. In the late 1950s and early 1960s, the U.S. space program consistently trailed the Soviet program in space firsts–a pattern that shifted dramatically with the triumph of America’s Apollo lunar program in the late 1960s.

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Mariner 4 studies Martian surface

Year
1965
Month Day
July 15

The unmanned spacecraft Mariner 4 passes over Mars at an altitude of 6,000 feet and sends back to Earth the first close-up images of the red planet.

Launched in November 1964, Mariner 4 carried a television camera and six other science instruments to study Mars and interplanetary space within the solar system. Reaching Mars on July 14, 1965, the spacecraft began sending back television images of the planet just after midnight on July 15. The pictures–nearly 22 in all–revealed a vast, barren wasteland of craters and rust-colored sand, dismissing 19th-century suspicions that an advanced civilization might exist on the planet. The canals that American astronomer Percival Lowell spied with his telescope in 1890 proved to be an optical illusion, but ancient natural waterways of some kind did seem to be evident in some regions of the planet.

Once past Mars, Mariner 4 journeyed on to the far side of the sun before returning to the vicinity of Earth in 1967. Nearly out of power by then, communication with the spacecraft was terminated in December 1967.

READ MORE: Space Exploration: Timeline and Technologies

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Pioneer 10 departs solar system

Year
1983
Month Day
June 13

After more than a decade in space, Pioneer 10, the world’s first outer-planetary probe, leaves the solar system. The next day, it radioed back its first scientific data on interstellar space.

On March 2, 1972, the NASA spacecraft was launched from Cape Canaveral, Florida, on a mission to Jupiter, the solar system’s largest planet. In December 1973, after successfully negotiating the asteroid belt and a distance of 620 million miles, Pioneer 10 reached Jupiter and sent back to Earth the first close-up images of the spectacular gas giant. On June 13, 1983, the NASA spacecraft left the solar system. NASA officially ended the Pioneer 10 project on March 31, 1997, with the spacecraft having traveled a distance of some six billion miles.

Headed in the direction of the Taurus constellation, Pioneer 10 will pass within three light years of another star–Ross 246–in the year 34,600 A.D. Bolted to the probe’s exterior wall is a gold-anodized plaque, 6 by 9 inches in area, that displays a drawing of a human man and woman, a star map marked with the location of the sun, and another map showing the flight path of Pioneer 10. The plaque, intended for intelligent life forms elsewhere in the galaxy, was designed by astronomer Carl Sagan.

READ MORE: Space Exploration: Timeline and Technologies 

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Pathfinder lands on Mars

Year
1997
Month Day
July 04

After traveling 120 million miles in seven months, NASA’s Mars Pathfinder becomes the first U.S. spacecraft to land on Mars in more than two decades. In an ingenious, cost-saving landing procedure, Pathfinder used parachutes to slow its approach to the Martian surface and then deployed airbags to cushion its impact. Colliding with the Ares Vallis floodplain at 40 miles an hour, the spacecraft bounced high into the Martian atmosphere 16 times before safely coming to rest.

On July 5, the Pathfinder lander was renamed Sagan Memorial Station in honor of the late American astronomer Carl Sagan, and the next day Sojourner, the first remote-control interplanetary rover, rolled off the station. Soujourner, which traveled a total of 171 feet during its 30-day mission, sent back a wealth of information about the chemical components of rock and soil in the area. In addition, nearly 10,000 images of the Martian landscape were taken.

The Mars Pathfinder mission, which cost just $150 million, was hailed as a triumph for NASA.

READ MORE: Space Exploration: Timeline and Technologies 

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