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Friday, June 21, 2024

Expanding Horizons: The Next Era of Space Exploration

Looking Beyond Planet Earth
The successful mission of the space shuttle Discovery in October 1988 reaffirmed the American commitment to space exploration that had faltered some two years before with the loss of the Challenger and its crew of seven. President Ronald Reagan underscored this rekindled commitment when he declared that the United States fully intended to expand human activity beyond Earth into the solar system. In the 1990s, progress toward cooperation with Russia in reaching these goals has been impressive.

The National Aeronautics and Space Administration (NASA) has already begun planning journeys to the farther reaches of the solar system. The first step involved the construction of a space station, a permanently manned outpost in orbit. The space station is designed to serve as a base for scientific observation and experimentation, a refueling station, and a base for launching other satellites or spacecraft.

The first successful experimental space station was launched by the United States in May 1973. Called Skylab, it remained in orbit for nearly a year. During that time, the astronauts made observations of the Sun and conducted experiments on how the body responds to zero-gravity conditions on extended missions. From 1974 to 1982, the Soviet Union also orbited a series of smaller space stations. In 1986 the Soviets launched a new space station called Mir, designed to be the core of a permanent manned orbiting facility. Between 1995 and 1998, in a sign of Russian-American cooperation, Mir hosted a series of NASA astronauts as crew members.

Both American and Russian scientists also want to explore other parts of the solar system, however. Throughout the 1960s and 1970s, both nations sent out deep-space probes. It was during this period that the Viking landings on Mars; the Voyager fly-bys of Jupiter, Saturn, and Uranus; and the Venera explorations of the surface of Venus were accomplished.

In July 1997 the Mars Pathfinder descended to the surface of Mars. Fascinating photographs of the Martian surface were transmitted back to Earth, and a rover vehicle called Sojourner moved over the Martian surface.

In the past, historical events and the personalities engaged in them were confined to the surface of Earth. However, the plans of the space programs of both the United States and Russia ensure that a new history will soon unfold in a new geography that of the planets that lie in the vastness of space far beyond our own world.


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