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Spacecraft technology has come far since the 1960's.

Science & Technology

10 Amazing Spaceships

Russia launched the first artificial satellite into space in 1957. It was only the size of a beach ball, but Sputnik started a space race that continues today. Ever since Sputnik scientists have struggled with the harsh reality of Earth’s gravity to launch bigger and better spaceships into space. Most spaceships were unmanned satellites and probes such as the Voyager 1 and Voyager 2 probes launched by The United States in 1977. However, it’s the manned spaceships that have captured the public’s imagination starting with Russia’s Vostock 1 that put the first man in space. Today, amazing spaceships like Virgin Galactic’s SpaceShipTwo are being tested that promise to put tourists into space.

10. Tin Can

The appropriately named Gemini was a two seat spacecraft, but it was cramped to say the least. However, it was quite a bit larger than the single seat Mercury capsule that came before it. Although it was designed to take a pair of astronauts into low earth orbit it must have felt something like being strapped into a phone booth. Once they were in their seats that was it because there was no room at all for the astronauts move around. They were able to leave the spacecraft through a pair of hatches and go on brief space walks outside the craft where there was plenty of room. The cone shaped capsule was only 18 and a half feet long and 10 feet wide at the base. The amazing Gemini spacecraft rode into orbit sitting on top of a massive Titan II rocket. The capsule was designed to land on the ground using a kind of wing called an airfoil, but this risky method was scrapped in favor of a water landing using parachutes. There was a plan to use Gemini capsules as tiny orbiting laboratories, but the program was canceled in 1966 as the ambitious Apollo program was ramped up.

9. Orient Express

The Vostok 1 was built by the Soviet Union and this ungainly looking spacecraft launched the first man in Earth orbit on April 12, 1961. Rostock translates to Orient or the East. This distinguished the Russian program from the rival space program their American enemies were pursuing in the West. Yuri Gagarin was only 27 years old when he became the first human to go into space. He was one of three cosmonauts trained to fly the mission and was chosen only 4 days before the launch. A Vostok-K rocket launched Gagarin more than 90 nautical miles up before separating from the capsule that carried him around the planet for a single orbit. The Vostok 1 began to fall back to Earth, but instead of riding the spacecraft to the surface Gagarin ejected from the capsule at 23,000 feet and parachuted safely to the ground. The entire mission lasted less than 2 hours, but it was more than enough to put the United States on notice that the Soviet space program was a serious contender. The Russians used the successful mission as a powerful piece of propaganda to champion Soviet technological prowess. 

8. Interstellar Traveler 

Voyager 1 and Voyager 2 were both launched in 1977 and 41 years later they continue to transmit information back to Earth. These are unmanned spacecraft that were originally sent to study Jupiter and Saturn. Their mission was extended to include Uranus and Neptune. With their planetary observations completed in 1989 the probes continued to travel further out into uncharted space. These weigh a little more than 1,700 pounds and carry 230 pounds of various scientific instruments. A special guidance system keeps the spacecrafts’ antennas pointed towards the Earth. Some of the instruments, such as the cameras, can be manipulated independently to keep them pointed at a particular object of interest. Voyager 1 and Voyager 2 each carry a 12 inch golden phonograph record. Carl Sagan was the chairman of the committee that designed the records and decided what information would be included on them. They are meant to be a greeting to intelligent life forms who may encounter the probes. The records have pictures and sounds of Earth on them as well as Earth’s location. In August of 2012 the amazing Voyager 1 spacecraft became the first man made object to leave the solar system and enter interstellar space.

7. Space Laboratory

The above image makes the Skylab look more like a windmill than a spacecraft, but in the 1970’s it was cutting edge technology. Skylab was launched unmanned into Earth’s orbit in 1973 by a huge Saturn V rocket. Crews of 3 astronauts were periodically delivered to the spacecraft using the same kind of command/service module used for the Apollo program that carried men to the moon. The spacecraft contained a workshop, solar observatory and living quarters for the crew. Many important experiments were conducted on Skylab and a lot of valuable information was collected. Several plans to reuse the spacecraft were considered, but its service life was cut short by NASA in favor of the groundbreaking, but delayed Space Shuttle program. With no way to correct Skylab’s decaying orbit it was doomed to fall back to Earth. NASA tried to steer it over the Indian Ocean, but a few pieces of wreckage landed in Western Australia. Skylab’s reentry was a media event in 1979 that commanded international attention. T-shirts and hats with bullseyes on them as well as something billed as “Skylab Repellant” were sold to mark the occasion. 

6. Space Dragon

There is nothing sexy about hauling supplies, but the Dragon spacecraft is still an amazing spacecraft outfitted with the latest technology. The Dragon was developed by SpaceX, a commercial space company in California. SpaceX uses its own Falcon IX rockets to launch it into orbit. The spacecraft first flew in 201o and became the first commercial space vehicle to be recovered from orbit to be reused. The Dragon reached another milestone in 2012 as the first commercial spacecraft to dock with the International Space Station. SpaceX contracted with NASA to deliver supplies to the ISS and bring research materials back to Earth. The company is considering other missions with NASA and seeks to develop a long term relationship with the space agency. The Dragon is an unmanned spacecraft, but the Dragon 2 will be able to have a crew. Working from a program originally devised by NASA, SpaceX proposed a version of the spacecraft called Red Dragon that could have potentially traveled to Mars, but the program was canceled in 2017.

5. International House of Space

The International Space Station has been a successful cooperative effort for twenty years. Construction in space began in 1998 and was completed in 2011. The station’s development has continued throughout its service life and it has been continuously occupied for more than 17 years. It is the largest man made structure in low Earth orbit and consists of a number of pressurized modules, solar arrays, trusses. These components were put into orbit by Russian rockets and the Space Shuttle. The ISS is divided into an American section and Russian section, but there are many participating countries including Japan, Canada and the 13 members of the European Space Agency. Many types of experiments have been conducted on the station over the years including in the fields of biology, meteorology, astronomy and physics. Visiting scientists have also done a lot of work into materials and equipment that could be used for missions to the Moon and Mars. The station is expected to be manned at least through 2028 and NASA and the other space agencies are considering a number of plans. The Russians have considered using their modules to build their own station. Its future is in doubt, but it continues to be an amazing spacecraft.

4. Mystery Spacecraft

NASA started the X-37B program in 1999, but transferred it to the military in 2004. The Defense Advanced Research Projects Agency (DARPA) was in charge of the program for a while then passed it to the Air Force where it is today. The military has not been very forthcoming about the program. The publicly stated mission is to test and develop reusable spacecraft technologies. The X-37B has been described as a much smaller version of the Space Shuttle, but is believed to be packed with the latest technology. Like the shuttle it is boosted into space with rockets and lands like a spaceplane. The spacecraft has flown several classified long duration missions that have lasted as long as 674 days. There has been a lot of speculation about the X-37B’s true purpose. Most of the theories involve the testing of advanced space based weapons and sensor technology. The Pentagon has publicly denied that the spacecraft is being used to test new weapons, but people will continue to speculate about this mysterious and amazing spacecraft.

3. The Eagle Has Landed

The Lunar Module or Lunar Lander was the spacecraft that was designed to land on the surface of the Moon as part of the Apollo missions. It was attached to the Command/Service Module for the trip then detached and descended to the surface. It was designed to operate only in space and could not withstand the stresses of entering Earth’s atmosphere. Over the course of the Apollo program from 1969 to 1972 6 different Lunar Landers successfully delivered American astronauts to the surface of the Moon and then returned the men to the orbiting Command Module. The reliability of the Lunar lander was proven when the crew of Apollo 13 was forced to use it as a makeshift lifeboat. They used it to return to Earth orbit after their Command Module was damaged by an explosion. This incident was depicted in the 1995 movie Apollo 13, directed by Ron Howard. This amazing spacecraft still holds the distinction of being the only crewed vehicle to land on an alien world. Lunar Landers have been an exceptional part of history since Neil Armstrong climbed out of one on July 21, 1969 and became the first human to stand on the surface of the Moon.

 2. Virgin In Space

Virgin Galactic promises that SpaceShipTwo will soon take tourists into space for a ride they won’t forget. The spacecraft will be carried by its mother ship the White Knight Two during the initial stage of the flight before detaching and using its own rockets to reach the upper atmosphere. Paying customers will be treated to spectacular views of the planet that very few people have been fortunate enough to witness. Virgin Galactic eventually wants to field 5 of these groundbreaking spacecraft to meet what it hopes will be a strong appetite for space tourism. It would have to be a fairly select group of people because Virgin Galactic plans to charge as much as $250,000 for a ride into space. Although its primary mission is to be tourism the company is also considering transporting small amounts of cargo for NASA. There have been some serious problems in the SpaceShipTwo program including the death of a pilot in 2014 when one of the spacecraft crashed in the Mojave Desert. Virgin Galactic has been working hard to reassure potential customers that their flights will be safe, but it is still a work in progress. People have always dreamed of going into space so its likely that SpaceShipTwo’s seats will be full when its ready to launch.

1. Space Truckers

NASA envisioned a reusable spacecraft that would significantly cut operational costs and the result was the workhorse known as the space shuttle. The shuttle program’s first mission was flown by the Columbia which launched on April 12, 1981. The shuttle launched like a rocket with the help of 3 external fuel tanks that would fall away after boosting the spacecraft into orbit. The shuttle’s 60 foot cargo bay was used to ferry satellites and other equipment into orbit and retrieve ailing satellites before they fell back to Earth. Perhaps the shuttle program’s most high profile mission was the delivery of the massive Hubble Space Telescope into orbit. The space shuttles were also used to deliver many of the components that were used to construct the International Space Station. When they weren’t delivering cargo the shuttle astronauts were conducting a wide range of experiments that made important contributions to science. The shuttle Atlantis flew the fleet’s final mission in 2011. With no NASA spacecraft that could service the ISS the Russian Soyuz spacecraft took over the duties of delivering personal and cargo to the station. The shuttles were amazing spacecraft that made 135 launches into orbit and became the face of NASA.

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