6 February 2007
Categories: Space exploration

Last month in my server logs I noticed that someone came to my site by searching Google for 10 most important events in space exploration and, lo and behold, my Book recommendations: Space Exploration page is ranked on Page One of Google’s results. (By the way, Google loves me… but that’s a different story.)

Of course, a list of “most important” events is highly subjective, and that searcher was unlikely to find a direct answer to their query on my page. (Sadly, they also didn’t bother to click on any of the book links, which would have given them the opportunity to learn much more about space exploration. No matter.) Nevertheless, it got me thinking: what are, in my opinion, the ten most important events in space exploration?

The following list is not exactly in declining order of significance, but comes close.

#1. Sputnik, 1957. It seems trivial now, a basketball-sized metal sphere beep-beep-beeping its way around an elliptical orbit. But given the rudimentary state of rocket technology (this was only a dozen or so years after the Soviets got their hands on a few German rockets and rocket scientists), it was a major feat of engineering. It was also Earth-shaking: around the world, untold thousands of students turned to a career in engineering, math, or science because of Sputnik. (My father, a high school senior at the time, was surely one of them.)

#2. Yuri Gagarin, 1961. Strapping yourself into a minuscule capsule perched atop a rough, converted ballistic missile, riding it solo into orbit—then bailing out of the damn thing after reentry to parachute back to the ground—that takes serious balls. Especially when no one’s done it before.

Apollo 11. Image credit: NASA.#3. Man walks on the moon, 1969. No explanation necessary: the Apollo program was simply the pinnacle of human ingenuity and engineering. Okay, maybe it’s disingenuous to place this one all the way down at third. Maybe it even plays into the conspiracy notions that we never really went to the moon. Anyone who perpetuates that bullshit idea owes it to themselves—nay, to the world at large—to read some of the books about the development of the technology that got us there, such as Stages to Saturn. Frankly, once we figured out how to build the tools to get to the moon, actually getting there was inevitable. (The real reason people keep telling lies about secret soundstages and mass hypnosis is because nowadays, it’s hard to believe there was ever a time when there was enough of a consensus to back up the national will to accomplish anything.)

#4. Mir, 1986–2001. The culmination of Soviet/Russian long-duration spaceflight research, following a long line of successful Salyut projects (which in turn make the one-off Skylab look like a folly). The Russians still kick the USA’s butt when it comes to long-duration physiology and remote-control guidance and docking.

STS-61 crew installs WFPC-2. Image credit: NASA.#5. STS-61, the first Hubble servicing mission, 1993. In a marathon session of five EVAs, a team of four astronauts (led by one of my personal heroes, Story Musgrave) added the corrective optics that cleared up one of NASA’s more embarassing mistakes (a mirror ground just a shade too flat) and instantly changed Hubble’s output from nice-but-fuzzy to jaw-droppingly beautiful. This mission demonstrated with dramatic effect the viability of on-orbit repair and maintenance, and because it had people actually working in space, more than most other Shuttle missions it really had a feeling of “the future is now.”

#6. Challenger, January 28, 1986. The loss of STS-51L was one of the most memorable and momentous events of the 1980s—the day we found out that spaceflight is not routine, it’s still difficult, dangerous work. Two years and one soft-pedalling commission report later, NASA was flying again. Unfortunately, the crew of STS-107 aboard Columbia found out the hard way in 2003 that NASA’s tendency for “normalization of deviance” continues unabated.

#7. Apollo 1, January 27, 1967. We lost three great men—Grissom, White, and Chaffee—but the silver lining is that it happened on the ground, where NASA could analyze the failure in detail. The lessons learned from the fire helped to make the Apollo Block 2 spacecraft into the fine piece of hardware that ultimately did get men to the moon.

#8. Voyager, 1977–?. Voyager 1 zoomed past Jupiter and Saturn and returned the first close-up pictures of both. It discovered active vulcanism on Io and unexpected complexity in Saturn’s rings. Voyager 2 built on Voyager 1’s discoveries and then went on to pass Uranus and Neptune as well.  More than thirty years later, both spacecraft continue to return valuable data about the far reaches of the solar system.

Sojourner "sniffs" a rock. Image credit: NASA.#9. Mars Pathfinder, 1997. An innovative approach pays off: wrap the hardware in air bags, throw it at a planet, and let it bounce. It helped too that the Sojourner rover was hardy, nimble, and the cutest thing on six wheels. This was the first mission to show the power of the Internet to fuel enthusiasm for space exploration—JPL’s web servers handled a major load in the days following the landing, peaking at 48 million hits per day.

#10. Apollo–Soyuz Test Project, 1975. An epilogue to the Space Race, this was little more than Americans and Soviets shaking hands in orbit and saying, in essence, “good game.” It was a pointless spectacle, but a fine effort in détente. Notable too for its inclusion of Aleksei Leonov, the world’s first spacewalker, as well as being the only flight of original Mercury astronaut Deke Slayton.

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