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Recent Developments in Space Exploration

Verity is a physics with teaching BSc (Hons) graduate. In her spare time, she likes to cook, read and play video games.


With films such as The Martian in cinemas and the reveal that NASA uploaded high-resolution images from the 1969 moon landing to the internet, once again the topic on everyone’s mind at the moment seems to be space exploration.

The so called “Space Race”, which seemed to spark human interest in investigating space can be traced far back in time and has had a large impact on the scientific community for decades since, so much so that Tsiolkovsky, K writes, “The early years of the Space Age, from the late 1950s to the early 1970s, are seen by many as the 'Golden Age' of space exploration, chiefly because the period saw such incredible advances in space technology and culminated in the landing of men on the Moon.” [1]. However human efforts to explore space can be traced further back than just the 1950’s. An American man named Robert Goddard experimented in as early as 1919 with solid-fuel rockets in an attempt to investigate methods of reaching high altitudes and even considered, in the same paper, the probability of collision with meteors while in space. [2]

Despite the early eagerness in the space field it appeared as though it may remain a science fiction daydream, until the Cold War started. All of a sudden, with the United States and the Soviet Union desperate to outperform the other in a bid of ‘Communist versus Capitalism’, a manned mission to the moon was not only deemed possible but work began in extreme eagerness and earnest to be the first country to put a man on the moon. William Burrows writes “The cold war would become the great engine, the supreme catalyst, that sent rockets and their cargoes far above Earth and worlds away.” [3]

Buzz Aldrin lands on the moon in 1969

Buzz Aldrin lands on the moon in 1969

Public Disinterest

After the Apollo accomplishment of landing Neil Armstrong and Buzz Aldrin on the moon, and once the Cold War had died down, human beings began to lose interest in the space program. The incident of the Challenger Space Shuttle in 1986, in which the shuttle exploded during its launch resulting in the death of the crew, had a devastating effect on the public opinion of shuttle missions. Grey writes “The entire crew was lost, and the shuttle programme put on hold for more than two years.” [4] Eventually the United States space shuttle programme was ended in 2011. It seems as though a shift in interest took place in which people were no longer interested in seeing a man on the moon, but wanted instead to discover further out places and send human technology as far as it will go. As such the International Space Station became a vital component in man’s curiosity. James Hughes writes “In August [2009], the [Augustine] Commission concluded that a manned mission to Mars was too risky, and a return to the Moon by 2020 would not happen without a large boost in NASA's budget, leaving the International Space Station as the only viable goal for the country's manned space program.” [5]

The International Space Station

The completion of the International Space Station, who’s first component was launched in 1998, marked a significant stage of progress in space exploration and allows for the option of many new doors to be opened, both beyond the Earth’s atmosphere and within it, “Now that major assembly of the International Space Station (ISS) is complete, NASA's focus has turned to using this high fidelity in-space research testbed to not only advance fundamental science research, but also demonstrate and mature technologies and develop operational concepts that will enable future human exploration missions beyond low Earth orbit.” [6]

Currently the biggest project aboard the International Space Station is the ’One Year Mission’. Astronauts Scott Kelly and Mikhail Kornienko are just over half way through their mission of living on the ISS for one year uninterruptedly. This is the longest time that anyone has ever been on the ISS; the goal of this mission is to understand what happens to the human body both during and after prolonged exposure to conditions outside of the Earth’s atmosphere, with the hope that it will shine a light on how to make prolonged space travel possible. This mission seeks to be the most comprehensive study on physical as well as psychological health carried out by NASA to date. Mark Carreau writes “Nearly 250 ongoing science experiments and technology demonstrations over the 11 1/2 months are listed on ISS research logs. But the actual number across the station may reach 400 investigations or more, including a special focus on Kelly and Kornienko for signs of new health issues that may emerge after the typical five- to six-month ISS assignments” [7]

The International Space Station in orbit

The International Space Station in orbit

The Mars Rover

Another development which has been in the public eye quite recently is the launch and ongoing exploits of the Mars Curiosity Rover, which was launched in November 2011. The Curiosity rover has the goals of investigating Mars terrain, the assessment of whether water or conditions to support micro-bacterial life are present on Mars, and carry out research which would allow for NASA to plan a manned trip to Mars in the future. It was recently revealed by NASA that after analysis of information obtained by the Curiosity rover that it is extremely possible that life either has existed or could exist on Mars, this has been confirmed in a recent study which states “…our results support the equivalent of 110-300 ppm of nitrate in the Rocknest (RN) Aeolian samples, and 70-260 and 330-1,100 ppm nitrate in John Klein (JK) and Cumberland (CB) mudstone deposits, respectively. Discovery of indigenous Martian nitrogen in Mars surface materials has important implications for habitability and, specifically, for the potential evolution of a nitrogen cycle at some point in Martian history.” [8]

New Horizons and Pluto

In 2006 the New Horizons satellite was launched with the aim of first doing a flyby assessment on Jupiter, then to be under hibernation until it was within a close enough distance of Pluto to begin taking high resolution photographs of the dwarf planet. In July of 2015 New Horizons became the first spacecraft to explore Pluto. Since it completed its flyby assessment of the dwarf it has been redirected to carry out a flyby of objects within the Kuiper belt, New Horizons is not set to reach its new mission until 2019. The release of these pictures seems to have reinvigorated the public support for space exploration as all of a sudden people across the world were tweeting about Pluto and New Horizons. Lamar Smith was quoted as saying “Earlier this month, the New Horizons spacecraft achieved another American first by being the first spacecraft to reach Pluto. Today, young students across the country are reading about New Horizons, looking at pictures of Pluto, and are excited about one day exploring the cosmos themselves and making new discoveries.” [9]

A day on Pluto

A day on Pluto

In Conclusion

It is apparent that following the new discoveries and studies that are taking place every day, and the renewed interest in the space programme, space exploration has a big and bright future ahead. On the current success of the Mars Curiosity rover, a second rover mission to Mars is scheduled for 2020. This rover mission and the current Year in Space mission are also planning for the bigger picture, a manned mission to Mars. Paul Hertz on the future of space missions writes “The Phoenix Lander that went to the polar region of Mars recently did touch the ice at that northern latitude, but even near the Equator, it is possible that ice is not too far below the surface over much of the planet. This ice could be a great resource for sending humans to Mars some day in the future.” [10] I would be confident in saying that if the space industry continues the way it is currently, NASA may one day set their sights on a Mars base or even a Mars colony.

What Do You Think?


[1] Tsiolkovsky, K., "An epilogue to the space race." Spacecraft Technology: The Early Years, IET, (2006), pp343

[2] Goddard, R. A Method of Reaching Extreme Altitudes, The Smithsonian Institution, Smithsonian Miscellaneous Collections, Volume 71, (1919)

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[3] Burrows, W. This New Ocean: The Story of the First Space Age. New York: Random House, (1998), pp 147

[4] Gray, I.A, There are no Garages in Space, Chartered Quality Institute, Volume 38, (Dec. 2012), pp22

[5] Hughes, J. Confusion Over Space, The Journal of Social, Political, and Economic Studies, (2011), pp50

[6] Beisert, S., Rodriggs, M., Moreno, F., Korth, D., Gibson, S., Lee, Y.H., et al., Development and Execution of Autonomous Procedures Onboard the International Space Station to Support the Next Phase of Human Space Exploration, American Institute of Aeronautics and Astronautics, Inc., (2013), pp1

[7] Carreau, M. Scott Kelly’s Long ISS Mission Poses Psychological Challenge, Aerospace Daily & Defence Report, (2015), pp6

[8] Stern JC, Sutter B, Freissinet C, Navarro-González R, McKay CP, Archer PD, et al. Evidence for indigenous nitrogen in sedimentary and aeolian deposits from the Curiosity rover investigations at Gale crater, Mars. Proc Natl Acad Sci USA (Apr. 07 2015), 112(14):4245-4250.

[9] Scientists Advocate for Planetary Funding in Wake of #PlutoFlyby. Congressional Documents and Publications (Jul. 28 2015) pp1

[10] Hertz P. The Present and Future of Space Science at NASA 1. Proc Am Philos Soc, (2014), pp335


VerityPrice (author) from UK on December 31, 2015:

Yes Markeli, I very much hope that I can see it happen in my life time! I'm very glad to see a renewed interest in space exploration, for a while it felt like it might be shelved for a long while. But yes I agree with you.

Marco Pompili from Italy on December 31, 2015:

Interesting and well researched hub! In my opinion it will still take decades to set foot on Mars. But with the renewed interest in space exploration mankind will at least gradually be working towards it. The private sector will likely have an increasing share in this journey

VerityPrice (author) from UK on December 19, 2015:

Thank you very much. I've always had an interest in space so I really hope that we continue aiming for further and more impossible sounding achievements. I am so excited to hear about The One Year mission data when they finish next year.

Howard Schneider from Parsippany, New Jersey on December 19, 2015:

Excellent Hub, VerityPrime. Hopefully this renewed interest in space exploration continues. The advancements in science and technology as well as the rapid addition of our knowledge of the universe makes this absolutely vital.

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