“From this distant vantage point, the Earth might not seem of any particular interest. But for us, it’s different.”
Pale Blue Dot
When someone asks you about space exploration, what do you think of? Do the words “space, the final frontier”, “we’re going to science the shit out of this”, or “to boldly go” roll through your head? Do images of the Babylon 5 space station in Epsilon Eridani star system, the USS Discovery One on its way to Jupiter, or Hermes from The Martian spring to mind? No matter what science fiction has shown us, the reality of space exploration is much richer than those special effects and scripted comments. It’s an amazing journey filled with the accomplishments of thousands of people and years of effort…and the history of this holiday starts with a simple step down from a ladder.
At 10:56 pm EST on July 20, 1969, Neil Armstrong stepped onto the surface of the moon and uttered the famous words, “That’s one small step for man, one giant leap for mankind.” For the first time in history, humans had set foot on another celestial body. It was an event watched in awe by the entire world.
To celebrate the 15th anniversary of this accomplishment, President Ronald Reagan set forth Proclamation 5224 on July 20, 1984, establishing the holiday Space Exploration Day. The proclamation’s first paragraph stated “Space exploration is a quest for knowledge -- knowledge about what lies outside the confines of the Earth's atmosphere and knowledge about the Earth itself. The information obtained adds greatly to the accumulated wisdom of mankind necessary for an understanding of the fundamental processes and origins of life, providing insight into perplexing mysteries of the universe. Because space has no boundaries, the information and benefits from space exploration accrue to mankind's advantage in many different spheres.”
In the ensuing 54 years since the historic landing, our quest for knowledge through the exploration of space has continued. We’ve sent probes to land on Venus and Mars. In fact, in a strange twist of fate, the Viking 1 lander arrived on the Martian surface on July 20, 1976, exactly seven years after Armstrong’s famous first step. In the continuing pursuit of learning what we can about our nearest neighbor, last week the Indian Space Research Organisation launched Chandrayaan-3 to land the lunar Pragyan rover. If successful, they will join the Soviet Union and China as the third country to place an operational remote rover on the moon.
The inner planets and Luna aren’t the only places we’ve been exploring. We’ve explored the outer planets as well. Jupiter was first visited by Pioneer 10, which photographed the Great Red Spot. Next was Voyager 1, which not only explored the Jovian system but continued to Saturn to capture the beauty and majesty of its enormous rings. Voyager 2 followed, photographing Jupiter and Saturn, then taking another path to photograph the mysterious planets Uranus and Neptune. The probe’s explorations didn’t end there though. The pair became the first human vessels to leave the solar system on August 25, 2012 (Voyager 1) and November 5, 2018 (Voyager 2). Both Jupiter and Saturn have been the focus of additional probes in the last twenty years.
Pluto, the only one of the outer planets not visited by the Voyager probes, was finally visited by New Horizons in 2015. After the Pluto flyby, the controllers at NASA changed the probe’s course and performed a flyby of the Kuiper belt object Arrokoth. Now New Horizons is passing deeper into the Kuiper belt, still faithfully sending us new data about that region of space.
In science fiction, the easiest way to study a new star system is to go there. Authors and screenwriters have created a plethora of star drives and hyperspace engines to take people through the vast distances between stars. But right now, those engines are still only science fiction. Instead of traveling there, we’ve created massive space telescopes to gather images from the far-flung corners of the universe. In 1990, the Hubble Space Telescope was launched into low Earth orbit. The pictures it’s taken of deep-space objects give us the chance to see more than simple pinpricks of light in the night sky. The James Webb Space Telescope followed, bringing even more of the universe into focus. Though not in space, radio telescopes on Earth have allowed us to finally see what a black hole looks like. The pictures ended up closer to the imaginings of special effects artists for Interstellar than the galaxy-like swirl created for The Black Hole.
The novella “The Brick Moon” (Edward Everett Hale, 1869) was the first piece of fiction to postulate a space station. Several scientists and engineers attempted to create a working version, but the technology and lift capacities weren’t up to the task. The idea remained fiction until the Soviet Union was finally able to make it a reality in 1971 with the launch of Salyut 1 (“Salute” or “Fireworks”). The United States followed with Skylab in 1973 and China launched its first space station Tiangong-1 (“Heaven's Palace-1” or “Celestial Palace-1”) in 2011. All of these were tiny vessels, with cramped, instrument-filled interiors. There was barely enough room for three people to work, eat, and sleep. And none of them were permanent.
The huge, rotating-wheel design Space Station V from 2001: A Space Odyssey stands out as one of the most impressive visualizations of what a permanent space station should look like in the collective minds of fans. The model itself was a variation of the torus design first proposed by the Russian schoolteacher Konstantin Tsiolokovsky. While we’re still waiting for the centrifugal pseudo-gravity produced by the rotating wheel stations, we don’t need to wait for permanent space stations.
Since October 2000, there have been people aboard space stations continually. In fact, in May 2023 seventeen astronauts and taikonauts were working aboard the International Space Station (ISS) and Tiangong Space Station. This is the most people ever in space simultaneously…a new record. Getting back and forth from those stations has changed over time though. Initially, it was via the Apollo or Soyuz capsules—throwaway spaceships lofted by throwaway rockets.
While the transporter from Star Trek is still fiction, the idea of the shuttlecraft shown in the series isn’t. In 1981, reusable spacecraft became a reality. The Space Transportation System, better known as the Space Shuttle, was the first to be developed. Lessons learned from the shuttle program led to the development of modern reusable space systems, such as the Falcon Heavy rocket and Dragon module from SpaceX, which are now used to ferry people and supplies to and from the ISS and into low Earth orbit.
The exploration of space has moved from the purview of science fiction into fact. While the moon landing was a bit different than Georges Méliès Le Voyage Dans La Lune, we still achieved sending men there. Hopefully, our probes that have sailed past the edges of the solar system won’t return home intent on destroying our planet as in Star Trek: The Motion Picture. We may not yet have space stations the size of the ones Willy Ley described in The Conquest of Space, but we have established permanent space stations and had people live in space for more than a year at a time. We even figured out how to land rockets on their tails like Robert A. Heinlein suggested in Destination Moon. All these things were science fiction fifty years ago. Now they’re part of our history and everyday lives.
Our continuing pursuits in space exploration have proven that today’s dreams can become tomorrow’s reality. So, what does the future of space exploration hold? I can’t wait to find out.