Life Science NASA marks its 60th birthday with a major return to manned space exploration

NASA marks its 60th birthday with a major return to manned space exploration

Flight tests will prove commercial systems fit for human spaceflight Photo: NASA
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NASA has launched a new era in spaceflight, announcing it will send astronauts to test the first flights and missions with Boeing and SpaceX .

The space agency has announced it will assign astronauts to crew the Boeing CST-100 Starliner and SpaceX Crew Dragon, built by Elon Musk’s aerospace company.

The Starliner and Crew Dragon will  take American astronauts to the International Space Station for the first time since NASA retired its Space Shuttle Program in 2011, obliging US astronauts to hitch rides on Russia’s Soyuz capsules.

Each test flight will provide data on the performance of the rockets, spacecraft, ground systems and operations to ensure the systems are safe to fly astronauts.

NASA’s key moments 

NASA recently celebrated its 60th anniversary. In its relatively short history it has helped put people on the moon and discovered near-Earth exoplanets that could support life.

The space agency was officially created with a stroke of President Dwight D. Eisenhower’s pen when he signed legislation on July 29, 1958, which paved the way for the official opening of its doors just a few months later, on October 1.

The birth of NASA began in response to the Soviet Union’s October 4, 1957 launch of its first satellite, Sputnik I, which orbited the earth in 98 minutes.

NASA’s Pioneer I, successfully orbited the earth on January 31, 1958.

Later that year in July, US Congress passed legislation which officially established NASA from the National Advisory Committee for Aeronautics and other government agencies, confirming the US’s commitment to win the space race.

In May 1961, former US president John F. Kennedy declared the US should put a man on the moon by the end of the decade.

President Kennedy’s goal was achieved in 1969, six years after he was assassinated, and NASA’s Apollo 11 mission made history with astronaut Neil Armstrong becoming the first person to set foot on the moon.

The follow year near-tragedy struck when the Apollo 13 mission, planned as a lunar landing, was aborted en route to the moon after an oxygen tank exploded.

The aborted mission, which lasted almost 56 hours, had lost its capability to generate electrical power, to provide oxygen and to produce water. The crew returned safely six days after launch.

The space shuttle Challenger was one of NASA’s greatest achievements. It was the second shuttle to reach space in April,1983, and successfully completed nine milestone missions.

But, on its 10th launch, the shuttle became NASA’s darkest tragedy on January 28, 1986, when it exploded 73 seconds after liftoff due to an  O-ring failure in the side-strapped booster rockets, allowing a jet of flame to pierce the main fuel tank. All seven crew members perished.

Then, in 1990, the Hubble Space Telescope launched, which is one NASA’s most successful science missions to date.

Mars Viking landers 1 and 2 were the first to land on Mars in 1976 and the Mars Pathfinder landed there in 1997, and in 2011 NASA began its 135th and final mission of the American Space Shuttle program. 

NASA’s influence on society 

Monash University associate professor and astronomer Michael Brown told The New Daily people were drawn to NASA due to its human element, showing personal bravery and sacrifice.

“People are fascinated with NASA’s intrinsic history and science. It’s accomplished so much over the years and taken people to places that were deemed unimaginable,” Professor Brown said.

Boeing’s Spaceliner as an artist pictures it traversing the emptiness of space. Photo: Boeing

He said technology had been able to connect enthusiasts with space.

“In the ’70s and ’80s, people would eagerly wait for a photo of space to be released, but now, you can go online and see the martian landscape, including the breathtaking rocks and mountains in an instant.”

Professor Brown said one of NASA’s greatest achievements, apart from sending people to the moon, was its Hubble Space Telescope.

“The telescope has been able to connect people around the world with astronomy including planets, new stars and super holes.”

Super-Earth exoplanet orbiting within the habitable zone of the star Kepler-62, the outermost of five such planets discovered by NASA’s Kepler spacecraft. Photo: Getty

Scienceworks acting general manager Jonathan Shearer told The New Daily people were fascinated by its planetarium’s facsimile window into space.  

“There are still mysteries to explore. The universe is big, beautiful and strange, and we’ve only scratched the surface,” Mr Shearer said.

Super-Earth could have alien life

A super-Earth 1400 light years away has emerged as the exoplanet most likely of any known to support alien life.

Kepler 452b, discovered in 2015, lies in the middle of a newly identified “abiogenesis zone” where the right conditions exist for life to be spawned by starlight and chemistry.

The planet, which has a radius 1.5 times that of Earth, also orbits inside the “habitable” or “Goldilocks” zone, with temperatures not too hot and not too cold to permit liquid surface water.

Professor Brown said finding Earth-sized planets in the Goldilocks zone would be a huge part of NASA’s science in the next decade or two.

Cambridge University’s Cavendish Laboratory lead scientist Dr Paul Rimmer said this work allowed researchers to narrow down the best places to search for life.

“It brings us just a little bit closer to addressing the question of whether we are alone in the universe,” Dr Rimmer said.

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