In order to fully appreciate the global space technology scene; it is important to be cognizant with the discipline’s origins, evolution, prevailing status and future trends. This post will hence provide a brief but insightful understanding into the fundamental aspects concerning the origins and advancement of space science as a field.
The cardinal knowledge upon which celestial mechanics and the space science field is built can to a great extent be justly attributed to the revolutionary works in astronomy and celestial mechanics accomplished by:
- Nicolaus Copernicus (1473 – 1543)—first person to conceive a heliocentric universe (i.e. Sun at the center of the universe).
- Galileo Galilei (1564 – 1642)—made revolutionary improvements to the telescope and consequent astronomical observations that corroborated Copernicus heliocentrism.
- Johannes Kepler (1571 – 1630)—formulated the laws of planetary motion.
- Sir Isaac Newton (1643 – 1727)—developed classical mechanics theories that described universal gravitation and the three laws of motion.
This list of names is not exhaustive by any stretch. I merely attempt to mention a few extraordinary contributors among an exceptional collection of great minds that have laid our fundamental understanding of celestial dynamics and motion of bodies in space.
More recently, a Russian—Konstantin Tsiolkovsky (1857 – 1935) was first to derive the rocket equation that governs rocket powered spaceflight in 1903.
Moving forward, rocketry continued to mature in Russia, Europe and USA with significant advancements achieved by German scientists in developing the V-2 rockets for the Nazi war effort. After capturing the German rockets, the Allies sought to recruit German rocket scientist to extended the rocket technology capabilities. They substituted warheads on the rockets with scientific payloads for upper atmosphere research.
Strictly speaking, modern space-age technology is still relatively a nascent field of approximately 55 years old. This era began on 4 October 1957 when the former Soviet Union launched into orbit the first man-made satellite called Sputnik 1. This artificial satellite was roughly the size of a beach ball (58 cm in diameter and 83.6 kg in weight). Sputnik 1 took about 98 minutes to orbit the Earth. This launch ushered the space-race which in turn spawned the cold war between the then two global dominant powers i.e former Soviet Union Vs the United States. In the ensuing space-race, the former Soviet Union scored other additional ‘firsts’ over their American rivals. These included:
- Launching the first animal into orbit—a dog called Laika on 3 November 1957
- Major Yuri Gagarin became the first human in space on 12 April 1961
- Cosmonaut Alexei Leonov conducted the first extra vehicular activity (spacewalk).
The Americans too scored other ‘firsts’ over their USSR space-race rivals. For example, they launched the first active and passive telecommunication satellites in 1960 and 1962 respectively.
However, the American Apollo program stands out as the definite game-changer. The landing on the moon by Neil Armstrong and Buzz Aldrin on 20 July 1969 marked a remarkable triumph in the space race for Americans.
By beating the former USSR to the moon, the Americans scored a phenomenal psychological and technological victory. The Americans conducted five additional moon landings between November 1969 and December 1972. These missions were essentially ‘flag and footprints’ missions. After a while, public enthusiasm in this kind space exploration waned and the American space sector was faced with diminishing funding. The focus inevitably shifted to scientific-worthwhile missions, communication satellites and militarization of space.
This chapter signified the advent of spy satellites, inter-planetary probes, manned space stations and space-borne observatories which made earth observation to flourish. Space became a podium for international cooperation; a military strategic multiplier milieu; and, a commercialization turf.