Pale Blue Dot

in Space

America’s Space Journey Told Through Photos

A visual journey through NASA’s history in space.

We choose to go to the moon in this decade… not because they are easy, but because they are hard, because that goal will serve to organize and measure the best of our energies and skills, because that challenge is one that we are willing to accept, one we are unwilling to postpone, and one which we intend to win. -John F. Kennedy

To the winner go the spoils.

Such was the case after WW2 when America claimed many of Germany’s stockpile of V-2 ballistic missiles. Tests began using this arsenal as a means of assuring American leadership in technology.

In the dust of WW2’s end a new sort of warfare emerged. Not the hot, aggressive variety but a war of espionage, counterintelligence and competing ideologies. This was the Cold War. A war to determine which superpower would inherit the world.

During this period, space exploration emerged as a major area of contest and became known as the space race. NASA was born in response to this race out of the simple preamble;

“An Act to provide for research into the problems of flight within and outside the Earth’s atmosphere, and for other purposes.”

We knew nothing of space.

Monkeys, our close genetic companion, went up first. Many perished. They paved the way for humans to follow. Albert II became the first monkey in space as his flight reached 134 km — past the Kármán line of 100 km, taken to designate the beginning of space.

Satellites went up next as part of an international effort to gather scientific data about Earth. Advances here paved the way for our current GPS systems. Then on September 12, 1962, President Kennedy proclaimed America’s intention to send a man to the moon by the end of the 1960s.

This marked the beginning of the space race. Russia took the lead. First satellite with Sputnik 1. Then first man in space when Cosmonaut Yuri Gagarin first passed the Kármán line and later completed the first orbit of Earth.

America quickly caught up

In both cases with Alan B. Shepard Jr. reaching space, followed by John H. Glenn Jr. reaching orbit.

In 1969 America won this race with Neil Armstrong’s first steps on the surface of the Moon. This marked the end of what Kennedy would call;

“the most hazardous and dangerous and greatest adventure on which man has ever embarked.”

Man on the moon

In 1981 America returned to manned spaceflight with the Space Shuttle. STS-1 took off — demonstrating that it could take off vertically and glide to an unpowered airplane-like landing. Sally K. Ride became the first American woman to fly in space when STS-7 lifted off on June 18, 1983.

Then tragedy struck. On January 28, 1986 a leak in the joints of one of two Solid Rocket Boosters attached to the Space Shuttle Challenger caused the main liquid fuel tank to explode 73 seconds after launch, killing all 7 crew members.

In 1988 the shuttle returned to service. Going on to fly a total of 87 missions. Then tragedy struck again in 2003. A breach in the heat dispersion system lead the Space Shuttle Columbia to fill with hot gas causing catastrophic failure and the loss of all 7 crew-members. Evidence hints these brave men and women may have been alive during the fall.

From left to right: Brown, Husband, Clark, Chawla, Anderson, McCool, Ramon.

Birth of the orbiting science station

The Shuttle was primarily used to launch the pieces for the next period of space travel, orbiting laboratories. First Skylab in 1973, then in 1998 construction on the International Space Station officially began.

The ISS Program’s greatest accomplishment is as much a human achievement as it is a technological one. The ISS only exists because of the cooperation of the United States, Russia, the European Union, Japan, and Canada. It has been the most politically complex space exploration program ever.

By 2024 at the latest, the ISS will be decommissioned. Excess fuel will push it into a descending orbit over the Pacific Ocean. Most will burn up, with the remainder plummeting to the watery depths.

In 2004 the rover Spirit landed on the Martian surface. Its mission was to find evidence of life. It collected samples, and showed us life had quite likely existed off our familiar pale blue dot. We weren’t alone.

Mosaic of the Mars surface taken by Spirit.

A soft landing on Mars

Then in 2012 Spirit’s follow-up Curiosity successfully reached the Martian surface. In an area near Yellowknife Bay Curiosity discovered evidence of an old lakebed.

Radiometric dating and chemical analysis led researchers to determine this lakebed had a habitability window of 700 million years, ending 3.1 billion years ago. There almost definitely had been microbial life on Mars.

This revelation stunned the world. 

Yellowknife Bay, on the Martian surface.

Where is everybody?

SETI is an international mission to discover extraterrestrial life. Using space and ground telescopes like Hubble to scour distant solar systems for traces of habitable planets. Recent findings like the TRAPPIST-1 series of exoplanets has revealed habitable planets are very common in our universe.

The forthcoming James Webb Telescope will give us even greater detail. Primed to be launched to Earth’s L2 Lagrange point it will operate 1.5 million km from Earth, locked to an orbit 3x beyond that of the Moons.

The soon to be quite distant James Webb Telescope.

The newest space race seems to be heating up; JAXA, Roscosmos, the CSA, the ESA, NASA, UAESA and the newest player China’s CSA are all to various degrees cooperating and competing to reach the next milestone of space — a manned mission to Mars.

Various agencies including private ones like SpaceX all peg our landing date on Mars in the 2020’s sometime. At first it will be scientific, then perhaps a colony.

Artists interpretation of Mars colony, “Mars Base”

When Europe colonized the modern world, they did so first funded by milestone driven governments. Then economics set in and exploration became profitable. With asteroid mining, microgravity manufacturing and offworld power generation this cycle will conceivably repeat itself.

One thing is certain — humanity has never stopped progressing to its future amongst the stars. Hopefully we never will.

Voyager 1’s historic “Pale Blue Dot” image of Earth from 6 billion km away Credit: NASA

All images credit; NASA, Roland Miller, David Shrock


Written by Andrew Walls

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