Fifty years after the former Soviet Union launched Sputnik on Oct. 4, 1957, a spirit of cooperation has led to the International Space Station and a renewed effort to explore the moon. Shown here in its current state as of Summer 2007, the half-built station is the product of more than 16 nations, including the U.S., Russia, Canada, Japan, Brazil and the member states of the European Space Agency.
The Genesis Spacecraft was launched on August 8, 2001.The purpose of the mission was to have the Genesis Spacecraft return small, but precious amount of samples leading to data that is crucial to our knowledge of the Sun and the formation of our solar system The science collection began November 30, 2001, with the opening of the spacecraft’s science canister and the extension of special collector arrays to catch atoms from the solar wind, and concluded on April 1, 2004. Genesis is the agency’s first sample return mission since the last Apollo mission in 1972, and the first ever to return material collected beyond the Moon.
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NASA has had many successful space missions and programs, including over 150 manned missions. Many of the notable manned missions were from the Apollo program, a sequence of missions to the Moon which included the achievement of the first man to walk on the Moon, during Apollo 11. The Space Shuttle program has also been a success, despite the loss of two of the Space Shuttles, Challenger and Columbia which resulted in the deaths of their entire crews. The Space Shuttles were able to dock with the space station Mir while it was operational, and are now able to dock with the International Space Station – a joint project of many space agencies. NASA’s future plans for space exploration are with the Project Constellation.
There have been many unmanned NASA space missions as well, including at least one that visited each of the other seven planets in our Solar System, and four missions (Pioneer 10, Pioneer 11, Voyager 1, and Voyager 2) that have left our solar system. There has been much recent success with the missions to Mars, including the Mars Exploration Rovers, the Mars Reconnaissance Orbiter, and the Phoenix Mars Lander. NASA remains the only space agency to have launched space missions to the outer solar system beyond the asteroid belt.
The Cassini probe, launched in 1997 and in orbit around Saturn since mid-2004, is investigating Saturn and its inner satellites. With over twenty years in the making, Cassini-Huygens is an example of international cooperation between JPL-NASA and the European Space Agency (ESA).
Built entirely by the Jet Propulsion Laboratory (JPL) in Pasadena, California, NASA probes have been continually performing science at Mars since 1997, with at least two orbiters since 2001 and several Mars rovers. The orbiting Mars Odyssey and Mars Reconnaissance Orbiter will continue monitoring the geology and climate of the Red Planet, as well as searching for evidence of past or present water and life, as they have since 2001 and 2006, respectively. If the Mars Global Surveyor spacecraft’s nine-year lifetime is typical, these probes will continue to advance our knowledge for years to come. The Mars Exploration Rovers Spirit and Opportunity have been traversing the surface of Mars at Gusev crater and Meridiani Planum since early 2004, and will continue to image and investigate those environments. They have both already operated over seventeen times longer than expected, and remain a promising part of NASA’s future. Adding to this flotilla is the Phoenix Mars Lander, which executed a perfect powered touchdown in the northern latitudes of Mars on May 25, 2008 after a 10-month journey of more than 420 million miles.
The Space Shuttle became the major focus of NASA in the late 1970s and the 1980s. Planned to be a frequently launchable and mostly reusable vehicle, four space shuttles were built by 1985. The first to launch, Columbia, did so on April 12, 1981.
The shuttle was not all good news for NASA – flights were much more expensive than initially projected, and the public again lost interest as missions appeared to become mundane until the 1986 Challenger disaster again highlighted the risks of space flight. Work began on Space Station Freedom as a focus for the manned space program, but within NASA there was argument that these projects came at the expense of more inspiring unmanned missions such as the Voyager probes.
Nonetheless, the shuttle launched milestone projects like the Hubble Space Telescope (HST). The HST is a joint project between NASA and the European Space Agency (ESA), and its success has paved the way for greater collaboration between the agencies. The HST was created with a relatively small budget of $2 billion but has continued operation since 1990, delighting both scientists and the public. Some of its images, such as the groundbreaking Hubble Deep Field, have become famous.
In 1995 Russian-American interaction resumed with the Shuttle-Mir missions. Once more an American vehicle docked with a Russian craft, this time a full-fledged space station. This cooperation continues to today, with Russia and America the two biggest partners in the largest space station ever built – the International Space Station (ISS). The strength of their cooperation on this project was even more evident when NASA began relying on Russian launch vehicles to service the ISS during the two year grounding of the shuttle fleet following the 2003 Space Shuttle Columbia disaster, which killed the crew of six Americans and one Israeli, caused a 29-month hiatus in space shuttle flights and triggered a serious re-examination of NASA’s priorities. The U.S. government, various scientists, and the public all reconsidered the future of the space program.
Costing over $100 billion, it has been difficult at times for NASA to justify the ISS. The population at large has historically been hard to impress with details of scientific experiments in space, preferring news of grand projects to exotic locations. Even now, the ISS cannot accommodate as many scientists as planned.
During much of the 1990s, NASA was faced with shrinking annual budgets due to Congressional belt-tightening in Washington, D.C. In response, NASA’s ninth administrator, Daniel Goldin, pioneered the “faster, better, cheaper” approach that enabled NASA to cut costs while still delivering a wide variety of aerospace programs (Discovery Program). That method was criticized and re-evaluated following the twin losses of Mars Climate Orbiter and Mars Polar Lander in 1999. Yet, NASA’s shuttle program had made 116 successful launches as of December 2006.