Voyages of discovery

The human desire for exploration has been inherent for centuries. Over the last 60 years space exploration has allowed us to discover aspects of the universe millions of light years away.

From Sputnik’s launch into orbit in 1957 right up until the most recent discoveries about Pluto from the New Horizons probe, the path to enlightenment has seen triumphs of discovery and some giant leaps forward for mankind.

4 October 1957

The dawn of the space age

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The first satellite launched into orbit, Sputnik, heralded the start of the space age on 4 October 1957.

On 4 October 1957 the Soviet Union launched the world’s first artificial satellite, Sputnik, beyond the Earth’s orbit.

The Soviet Union took an early lead in the space race with the United States. This prompted America into action and the National Aeronautics and Space Administration (Nasa) was formed in July 1958.

Yuri Gagarin: The journey that shook the worldThe real war in space: A Sputnik-like event

1960s

The space race

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The US reached the goal President John F Kennedy set of landing a man on the moon and returning him safely to earth before the end of the 1960s.

The Soviet Union raced further ahead by sending the first manned spacecraft into orbit.

Yuri Gagarin became the first human in space, orbiting the Earth once during a 108-minute flight. The public subsequently became captivated by the race to the moon. The US triumphed on 20 July 1969 when Neil Armstrong and Buzz Aldrin landed on the moon as part of the Apollo 11 mission. It effectively brought the space race to an end. The moon landings proved to be a truly global event with an estimated television audience of over 600 million people.

BBC iPlayer: The Space RaceWhat if the Soviet Union had beaten the US to the moon?

1975 onwards

Cosmic collaboration

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The Apollo-Soyuz test project in 1975 marked the easing of strained relations between the US and the Soviet Union in terms of space exploration.

A more collaborative approach to space exploration was adopted after the US and Soviet Union's battle for supremacy in space ended.

In July 1975 the first joint US-Soviet space collaboration took place in the Apollo-Soyuz test flight. A Soviet Soyuz capsule carrying two cosmonauts docked successfully with a US module carrying three astronauts. International relations in space have gone from strength to strength with the construction of the International Space Station which was completed in 2011 after 13 years of work. The project now involves 16 countries.

Witness: The First Woman in SpaceBBC: International Space Station

1970s to 1980s

To boldly go...

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Jim Lovell explains what happened when nature called during the Apollo missions while Sultan Salman Al Saud sought Mecca from space.

Progress continued apace but astronauts began to discover some difficulties associated with living in space over an extended period.

There were some pressing practical problems for crew members like Jim Lovell, who was on the Apollo 13 mission, to resolve. As well as looking after their physical well-being, some astronauts also had issues when tending to their spiritual needs in space.

Astronaut Samantha Cristoforetti on life in spaceThe Sky at Night: Living in space

1986 to 2003

The Challenger disaster

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The loss of Challenger and, almost two decades later, Columbia, underlined the vulnerabilities in the shuttle transportation system's design.

Space exploration has seen many advancements but there have also been setbacks, none more apparent than the Challenger disaster on 28 January 1986.

Just 73 seconds after lift-off, the shuttle exploded, killing all seven crew members on board. It marked a significant setback in manned space exploration. It was further compounded by the Columbia shuttle disaster in 2003 which killed all seven crew members on board. Eventually, the space shuttle programme ended on 21 July 2011.

Space shuttle timelineChallenger: The shuttle disaster that shook the world

1990s to present

Galaxies far far away

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Magellan, Messenger, Exploration Rover and Cassini are probes that have led to discoveries about Venus, Mercury, Mars and Saturn's moon, Titan.

Technology has become the driving force in exploring the vast reaches of space, millions of light years away.

While probes have been in use since the start of the space age, their use became more common during the 1990s with fewer manned space missions. Probes have been sent to places as far flung as Mercury, the closest planet to the sun, and to Titan, the remote moon of Saturn.

Mariner 10Voyager probe 'leaves Solar System'

14 July 2015

New Horizons

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The ashes of the man who discovered Pluto, Clyde Tombaugh, are on board the New Horizons probe.

After a nine-year journey the New Horizons probe captured the most detailed images of Pluto ever taken.

Images of Pluto’s strange landscape are leading scientists to suggest that it may even be geologically active. Clyde Tombaugh discovered Pluto in 1930. Some 85 years later he became its first visitor as his ashes are on board the New Horizons probe.

New Horizons probe zooms into Pluto's plains'Earth 2.0' found in Nasa Kepler telescope haul