Happy 60th birthday, Explorer 1, America’s first satellite, launched on Jan. 31, 1958.
A direct response to the Communist Soviet Union’s launch of the first artificial satellite, Sputnik 1 on Oct. 12, 1957—and a month later Sputnik 2 with a dog named Laika on Nov. 3—Explorer 1 discovered the “Van Allen” radiation belt circling Earth.
For the past six decades, no government agency has been a source of national pride more than the NASA. To join the celebration of the Explorer 1 and the approximately 3,700 American spacecraft that have been launched in six decades (1,100 still active), I offer my Top 10 of NASA’s greatest moments in the past 60 years:
10: John Glenn’s launch Mercury launch on Feb. 20, 1962 to become the 1st American to orbit Earth. The Moon Race was on with the Soviet Union.
9: Space Shuttle/ Mir Space Station missions. Nine times a US Space Shuttle docked with the Mir Space Station, six times leaving a NASA astronaut behind for a six-month tour of duty. The experience in the exchange of science, engineering and physiological data between the one-time space foes has been the bedrock that the International Space Station is built upon.
8: Voyager 2 and the Planetary Grand Tour. This interplanetary space probe ventured to Jupiter (1979) and Saturn (1981) like it’s twin, Voyager 1, but continued to Uranus (1986) and Neptune (1989). Those images are still the only close-ups of the seventh and eighth planets mankind has seen.
7: Mars Excursion Rovers Spirit and Opportunity. Definitely one of the biggest triumphs of unmanned technology as these two desk-sized rovers were guaranteed for a 3-month mission when they landed in January 2004. Spirit lasted until 2010 and Opportunity is still truckin’ across the Martian surface 14 years later, having travelled 27 miles so far.
6: International Space Station. The $100 billion oasis in Earth orbit has been built with the experience of Russia’s pioneering Salyut space stations, and the brute hauling power of America’s space truck, the Shuttle. Continuously occupied for 18 years, the unique American/Russian partnership is shared with 14 other nations, creating a true international science laboratory for decades to come. Get the Smartphone app and watch it fly overhead!
5: Hubble Space Telescope. In orbit since 1990 after sitting in a warehouse for 4 years following the Challenger explosion, HST has revolutionized astronomy and astrophysics in many ways that are beyond the instrument’s original mission. Five Space Shuttle maintenance missions have extended its live beyond expectation—and it should last another five years before systems begin to wear out.
4: First Space Shuttle launch. On April 12, 1981, Columbia lifted off Cape Kennedy pad 39A with John Young and Bob Crippen taking the first ride in a Space Shuttle in the most daring test flight in aviation history. It was the first time NASA had launched men in an untested spacecraft—Mercury, Gemini and Apollo spacecraft all flew unmanned with medical dummies in the crew seats.
3: Mariner IV flies by Mars. Before July 1964, there were plenty of intelligent scientists who thought the landscape of Mars might include forests, lakes and rivers—or signs of them from the past. Instead, 22 photos beamed back to Earth after Mariner IV flew by the Red Planet buried any notion of Little Green Men on Mars. The images revealed a surface that looked more like the Moon, with craters and mountain ranges on a world that was cold, like Antarctica.
2: Apollo 13 rescue. The safe return of the three moon-bound astronauts to Earth defied all odds. Their reentry spacecraft crippled by an oxygen tank explosion and their lunar lander turned into a lifeboat, the three, nail-biting days traversing the 240,000-mile distance was accomplished with trust between the crew and ground technicians, as well as ingenuity, persistence—and a world-wide prayer vigil.
1: Apollo 11 Moon landing. July 20, 1969 is a date etched in human history, undoubtedly the top technological achievement of the 20th Century. The footsteps of Neil Armstrong and Buzz Aldrin at Tranquility Base fulfilled an ultimate dream of all humanity. And Americans landed on the Moon five more times the next three years.
NASA’s Horizon mission to surprisingly dynamic Pluto in 2015 changed how we think of the outer Solar System. Still climbing a Martian mountain since 2012 is the fantastic rover Curiosity. And many other NASA accomplishments ring through the historical archives that could be on my Top 10 list. Some of those include Ed White’s first American space walk in June 1965; the Viking 1 & 2 landers on Mars in 1976; interplanetary spacecraft like Messenger to Mercury, Magellan to Venus, Galileo to Jupiter and Cassini to Saturn; NASA’s other great astronomical observatories of Chandra X-ray, Spitzer Infrared and Compton Gamma Ray.
There are those geosynchronous satellites that our TV dishes are pointed toward. And the lifesaving weather satellites that monitor Earth and provide forecasting 24-hours a day, seven days a week. How about the host of important communications satellites like Telstar, Echo, Early Bird, as well as Earth resources orbiters called Landsat, Terra and Aqua that monitor our land and oceans. And don’t forget the often-secret spy satellites that keep America safe from adversaries.
NASA’s legacy includes the names of ground-breaking spacecraft like Pioneer, Lunar Orbiter and Surveyor. There are satellites that have been sent to asteroids, comets and even landed on Saturn’s moon Titan.
Sixty years is a blink of the eye in the grand scheme of time, so the accomplishments ring even greater. And NASA will continue into the 21st Century to build bases on the Moon, explore Mars and maybe capture a few asteroids along the way.
No one can deny that everyday life of us earthlings has been affected by NASA’s pioneering efforts in the Space Age. And all started with our first satellite, Explorer 1.