In 1957, an amazing spectacle appeared in the North American night sky – Sputnik, the first satellite to enter Earth’s orbit. The USSR had successfully sent a rocket into outer space, thus beginning the space race, an event which would last a decade and challenge the best and brightest of two nations.
In response to Sputnik, President Dwight D. Eisenhower created NASA, the first American administration for space exploration in 1958. With Project Mercury, NASA attempted to make the first manned mission into space, but failed to beat the Russians, who sent Yuri Gagarin into orbit in 1961. A month later Alan Shepard became the first American in space and John Glenn followed soon after, orbiting the Earth three times in 1962.
In the Sixties, NASA entered a new era. With the cold war raging and the threat of nuclear armament on the horizon, President John F Kennedy vowed to redouble NASA’s efforts and put an American on the moon by the end of the decade. In 1965, NASA began the Spacelab project, sending the first space station into Earth’s orbit. Despite sustaining damage during take off, the station was repaired in space and orbited the Earth until 1979.
The success of Spacelab led to NASA’s famous Apollo missions to the moon. After many failed attempts, Apollo 8 became the first shuttle to circle the moon in 1968. The following year, the USSR accomplished its first moon tour, leaving the space race at a stalemate.
With the cold war raging in the east, astronauts Buzz Aldrin and Neil Armstrong of Apollo 11 successfully landed on the moon in 1969. The mission effectively ended the space race and cemented America’s place as the world leader in space exploration. Buzz Aldrin and Neil Armstrong became national heroes and were awarded the Presidential Metal of Freedom later that year.
Since then, NASA has continued its exploration of space sending probes to every planet in our solar system, including the dwarf planet, Pluto. It also landed four rovers on Mars, the last of which, Curiosity, is still collecting data from its craters today.
The recent image of a black hole in the M87 galaxy is more proof of human potential in space exploration. For the Space Age to advance, we must continue NASA’s legacy into the future. For more astronomy images check out the gallery above, and for unique astronomy gifts check out our store front below.