The United States remains the only country to have put people on the moon, and, as of 2018, the large majority of Americans consider it essential that the U.S. continue to be a leader in space exploration. However, many Americans do not think future manned trips to the moon – or to Mars – should be a high priority for NASA. Instead, they put a higher priority on other roles such as monitoring Earth’s climate or asteroids that could hit Earth. NASA has not put a human on the surface of the moon since the Apollo 17 mission in 1972. But just last month, NASA announced plans to put the first woman on the moon in 2024 as part of the Artemis program. The program also aims to put human beings on the surface of Mars by the 2030s. About 63% say one of the organization’s top priorities should be using space to monitor key parts of Earth’s climate system. About 47% said other top priorities should include conducting basic scientific research to increase knowledge of space and developing technologies that could be adapted for other uses.
Private companies like Virgin Galactic and SpaceX have plans to take tourists on suborbital space flights in the future. NASA also recently announced that it would open the International Space Station up for tourists. For now, these trips will be prohibitively expensive for the average person, for example, Virgin Galactic’s tickets cost about $250,000 and NASA estimates one trip to the space station would cost about $58 million. Still, half of Americans expect space travel to become routine by 2068. Even if space travel does become commonplace, more than half of Americans
say they would not be interested in going. People who aren’t interested in orbiting the Earth in a spacecraft cite a number of concerns, including thinking it would be too expensive or scary or that their health or age would not allow for safe travel. Among the 42% who would be interested, the most common reason is that they want to experience something unique.
The National Advisory Committee for Aeronautics (NACA) was a U.S. federal agency founded on March 3, 1915, to undertake, promote, and institutionalize aeronautical research. On October 1, 1958, the agency was dissolved, and its assets and personnel transferred to the newly created National Aeronautics and Space Administration (NASA). NASA was established in 1958, succeeding the National Advisory Committee for Aeronautics (NACA). The new agency was to have a distinctly civilian orientation, encouraging peaceful applications in space science. Since its establishment, most US space exploration efforts have been led by NASA, including the Apollo Moon landing missions, the Skylab space station, and later the Space Shuttle. NASA is supporting the International Space Station and is overseeing the development of the Orion Multi-Purpose Crew Vehicle, the Space Launch System and Commercial Crew vehicles. The agency is also responsible for the Launch Services Program which provides oversight of launch operations and countdown management for unscrewed NASA launches.
Even before the first satellite was launched, U.S. leaders recognized that the ability to observe military activities around the world from space would be an asset to national security. Following on the success of its photoreconnaissance satellites, which began operation in 1960, the United States built increasingly complex observation and electronic-intercept intelligence satellites. The Soviet Union also quickly developed an array of intelligence satellites, and later a few other countries instituted their own satellite observation programs. Intelligence-gathering satellites have been used to verify arms-control agreements, provide warnings of military threats, and identify targets during military operations, among other uses.
Some of NASA’s greatest science missions include:
Pioneer- NASA Ames Research Center Pioneer 10 and Pioneer 11, launched in 1972 and 1973, respectively, were the first spacecraft to visit the solar system’s most photogenic gas giants, Jupiter and Saturn. Pioneer 10 was the first probe to travel through the solar system’s asteroid belt, a field of orbiting rocks between Mars and Jupiter. Then about a year-and-a-half after its launch, the spacecraft made the first flyby of the planet Jupiter. It took stunning up-close photos of the Great Red Spot and the wide swaths of red that band the planet. About a year later, Pioneer 11 flew by Jupiter and then moved on to Saturn, where it discovered a couple of previously unknown small moons around the planet and a new ring. Both probes have stopped sending data, and are continuing out on their one-way voyages beyond the solar system.
Voyager- Shortly after the Pioneers made their flybys, the Voyager 1 and Voyager 2 probes followed. They made many important discoveries about Jupiter and Saturn, including rings around Jupiter and the presence of volcanism on Jupiter’s moon, Io. Voyager went on to make the first flybys of Uranus, where it discovered 10 new moons, and Neptune, where it found that Neptune actually weighs less than astronomers thought. Both Voyager crafts have enough power to keep transmitting radio signals until at least 2025 and are now exploring the very edge of the solar system and beginning of interstellar space. Voyager 2 is currently the farthest man-made object from Earth, at more than a hundred times the distance from the Earth to the sun, and more than twice as far as Pluto.
WMAP- The Wilkinson Microwave Anisotropy Probe (WMAP), launched in 2001, may not be as well-known, but it measures with unprecedented accuracy the temperature of the radiation left over from the Big Bang. By mapping out the fluctuations in the so-called cosmic microwave background radiation, the spacecraft has heralded a leap forward in cosmological theories about the nature and origin of the universe. Among other revelations, the data from WMAP revealed a much more precise estimate for the age of the universe to be 13.7 billion years and confirmed that about 95 percent of it is composed of poorly understood things called dark matter and dark energy.
Apollo- The Apollo program was designed to land humans on the Moon and bring them safely back to Earth. Six of the missions (Apollos 11, 12, 14, 15, 16, and 17) achieved this goal. Apollos 7 and 9 were Earth orbiting missions to test the Command and Lunar Modules and did not return lunar data. Apollos 8 and 10 tested various components while orbiting the Moon, and returned photography of the lunar surface. Apollo 13 did not land on the Moon due to a malfunction, but also returned photographs. The six missions that landed on the Moon returned a wealth of scientific data and almost 400 kilograms of lunar samples. Experiments included soil mechanics, meteoroids, seismic, heat flow, lunar ranging, magnetic fields, and solar wind experiments.
The Mars 2020 rover mission is part of NASA’s Mars Exploration Program, a long-term effort of robotic exploration of the Red Planet. The Mars 2020 mission addresses high-priority science goals for Mars exploration, including key questions about the potential for life on Mars. The mission takes the next step by not only seeking signs of habitable conditions on Mars in the ancient past but also searching for signs of past microbial life itself. The Mars 2020 rover introduces a drill that can collect core samples of the most promising rocks and soils and set them aside in a “cache” on the surface of Mars. The mission also provides opportunities to gather knowledge and demonstrate technologies that address the challenges of future human expeditions to Mars. These include testing a method for producing oxygen from the Martian atmosphere, identifying other resources (such as subsurface water), improving landing techniques, and characterizing weather, dust, and other potential environmental conditions that could affect future astronauts living and working on Mars. The mission is timed for a launch opportunity in July/August 2020 when Earth and Mars are in good positions relative to each other for landing on Mars. That is, it takes less power to travel to Mars at this time, compared to other times when Earth and Mars are in different positions in their orbits. To keep mission costs and risks as low as possible, the Mars 2020 design is based on NASA’s successful Mars Science Laboratory mission architecture, including its Curiosity rover and proven landing system.
In 2020, NASA will be taking long strides toward returning astronauts to the Moon, continuing the exploration of Mars and developing new technology to make supersonic aircraft fly more quietly. It is continuing its research to make supersonic aircraft that generate loud booms as they go slow down below the speed of sound quieter and more amenable to flying in populated areas. The X-59, or QUESST, aircraft passed a major review milestone in 2019, progressing toward more inflight tests. NASA promises developments IN 2020 on many fronts as they continue to lead the world in exploration and inspire the next generation.