Human Space Flight – A brief history of what’s happening up there

Human space flight

Human Space Flight – A brief history of what’s happening up there

Image Credit: NASA/JPL-Caltech -Artist’s concept of an astronaut on Mars

We are in November 2024, Artemis II is taking off with a crew of 4 people. The goal of this mission is to test NASA capacities to put humans in orbit around the Moon. This journey is a part of a more ambitious project: return to the Moon, establish a base there to serve as a springboard to finally send humanity to Mars.

The International Day of Human Space Flight

Labelled by the United Nations in 2011 as the International Day of Human Space Flight, April 12 is the anniversary of the first manned flight into outer space. The General Assembly of the U.N. did it to emphasize about the common interest of mankind in space exploration for peaceful purpose.

Secretary-General Boutros Boutros-Ghali
Secretary-General Boutros Boutros-Ghali Celebrates 50th Anniversary of the United Nations with Shuttle-Mir Docking Mission. Image Credit: UN Photo/Milton Grant

Space is the new boxing ring

To better understand the present, let’s look at the past of the manned space flight journey. During the Cold War, the American and Soviet blocs were in fierce competition. Of course, space is no exception to the rule. Sending men into space has a scientific and strategic interest but above all a symbolic one. On April 12, 1961, the USSR is the first nation to send a man into space: Yuri Gagarin. The Americans will send Alan Shepard less than a month later. The American public opinion is shocked and sees this as a humiliation. On May 25, 1961, President John F. Kennedy challenges NASA:

First, I believe that this nation should commit itself to achieving the goal, before this decade is out, of landing a man on the moon and returning him safely to the earth. No single space project in this period will be more impressive to mankind, or more important for the long-range exploration of space; and none will be so difficult or expensive to accomplish. President John F. Kennedy

The Apollo program was born. And on July 20, 1969, “The Eagle has landed…”. In front of hundreds of millions of viewers Neil Armstrong is the 1st human to walk on the Moon. This mission will be considered as the culmination of human space travel. The next space missions will suffer budget cuts due to the general public’s lack of interest and and major economic investments needed . However the adventure does not stop there. In 1975, the world will attend the first meeting in space between the USSR and the United States with the Apollo-Soyuz mission.

The rise of the Space stations

The USSR will put into orbit the 1st manned space station Salyut-1 in 1971, followed by Skylab in 1973 (USA), MIR in 1986 (USSR), one of the first prolonged collaboration between nations in space (USSR) and finally the ISS launched in 1998 and which is still in low orbit. Space stations allow us to carry out scientific experiments but also as an incubator to find out how humans can live in an environment far from their daily life on Earth.

The space being an expensive field the Nasa launches the STS (Space Transportation System) program. The idea is to reduce the economic costs of space missions but also to democratize space and make it profitable (a theme that will be taken up by private companies like SpaceX or BlueOrigin). The space shuttle was born and will first flew in 1981. And after 30 years of services, high costs, slow turnaround, few customers and fatal accidents (Challenger in 1986 and Columbia in 2003) will nail this bird to the ground in 2011. After this the world will depend on the Soyuz rocket to send ISS’s astronauts before a billionaire troublemaker dreams of going to Mars, Elon Musk.

A new Space race?

After all these achievements, why are we witnessing what we can consider a new space race between private companies and governments?

As evidenced by the overall increase in spending in the space field, there is always this symbolism around space (see the Chinese space station or the communication campaigns of SpaceX). The Artemis program (a nod to the Apollo mission, Artemis being his sister in Greek mythology) will send us back to the moon and make it a gateway. Elon Musk and SpaceX promise us to make the human race an extra-planetary specie by colonizing Mars. But we are also going to space in a commercial interest: create a new form of space tourism and find new resources to exploit.

Manned space flight continues and will continues to make us dream and inspire the younger generation to push the limits of what is possible.

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