Space Missions

Past and present.

For as long as there have been people on Earth, we have looked up at the sky and wondered about the Sun, Moon, stars, and occasional dramatic events we saw there. But it is only in the past 40 years that we developed the technical ability to leave our planet and actually visit other bodies in the universe. After World War II, both the United States and the Soviet Union created programs to impove the design of rockets which would make space travel possible. What then followed was a race to travel into space with unmanned probes and manned spacecraft.

During the last four decades, hundreds of satellites, probes and space shuttles have been launched, which have explored near-Earth space, travelled to the Moon, the Sun, and to all the planets except Pluto. And, with permanent space stations already in orbit around Earth and telescopes exploring more and more of our universe, space research is still continuing. Talk of future developments includes building a colony on Mars, searching for life in other galaxies, and other exciting programs.

It was not long after the first space satellites were launched that we succeeded in getting a human being into space. These first astronauts and cosmonauts (the Russian word for astronaut) were test pilots who were very familiar with flying in fast and dangerous planes! The first human being to travel into space was Yuri Gagarin (USSR, 1961), followed a month later by the US astronaut Alan Shepard. Once we found out that humans could travel in space, a "space race" quickly developed between the United States and the Soviet Union. The United States main interest was to land on the moon. The Soviet Union was more interested in setting endurance records and doing scientific research.


The National Aeronautics and Space Act of 1958 (Space Act) established NASA as an aerospace research and development agency that sponsors and conducts flight missions to obtain data in furtherance of its objectives. In NASA's Science Mission Directorate (SMD), flight missions range from suborbital projects—including balloons, sounding rockets, and airplanes—to interplanetary probes and flagship observatories. All investigations and missions selected and flown must respond to Agency goals and strategic objectives.

Mission opportunities are open to all proposers, within fixed rules, via public announcement, and selections are based primarily on scientific and technical merit as evaluated by independent peer review. Foreign partners are frequent and valued participants in joint missions. The partnerships are generally conducted on a cooperative, no-exchange-of-funds basis. NASA also works closely with a number of other Federal agencies to implement and support our flight missions.

Missions to Planets

Fifty years ago, before the beginning of the Space Age, the planets and smaller bodies of our solar system were mysterious, with little known in detail. Beginning in the 1960s, space probes began to journey to these other worlds, resulting in a revolution in knowledge that is still continuing. This document outlines the history of our explorations of the solar system and what we have learned.

  • Mariner 10 - NASA Flyby Mission to Venus and Mercury (1973)
  • MESSENGER - NASA Orbiter to Mercury (2004)
  • BepiColombo - ESA/JAXA Orbiter Mission to Mercury (2013)
  • Venus Express - ESA Venus Orbiter (2005)
  • MESSENGER - NASA Mercury Orbiter (2004) (Two Venus Flybys)
  • Magellan - NASA Venus Radar Mapping Mission (1989-1994)
  • Pioneer Venus - NASA Orbiter/Probes to Venus (1978-1992)
  • Galileo - NASA Mission to Jupiter (Venus flyby - 1990)
  • Vega 1 - Soviet mission to Venus and Comet Halley (Venus flyby - 1985)
  • Vega 2 - Soviet mission to Venus and Comet Halley (Venus flyby - 1985)
  • Venera - Soviet Venus Missions (1961-1983
  • Mariner 10 - NASA Mission to Venus and Mercury (1973-1975)
  • Mariner 5 - NASA Venus flyby (1967)
  • Mariner 2 - NASA Venus flyby (1962)
  • Venus Chronology - Timeline of all attempted and future Venus missions

The Moon:
  • Lunar Reconnaissance Orbiter - NASA Lunar Orbiter Mission (2009)
  • LCROSS - NASA Lunar Impactor Mission (2009)
  • Chandrayaan-1 - ISRO (India) Lunar Orbiter Mission (2008)
  • Chang'e 1 - CAST (China) Lunar Orbiter Mission
  • Kaguya (SELENE) - JAXA Lunar Orbiter Mission
  • SMART 1 - ESA Lunar Orbiter Mission
  • Lunar Prospector - NASA Lunar Discovery Mission
  • AsiaSat 3/HGS-1 - Commercial Telecommunications Satellite
  • Clementine - DoD/NASA Lunar Mapping Mission
  • Hiten - ISAS Lunar Flyby and Orbiter
  • Galileo - NASA Mission to Jupiter - Lunar Flyby
  • Apollo - NASA Lunar Manned Missions
  • Lunar Orbiter - NASA Lunar Mapping Missions
  • Surveyor - NASA Lunar Lander Missions
  • Ranger - NASA Lunar Impact Missions
  • Luna and Zond - Soviet Lunar Missions
  • Lunar Timeline - Chronology of all Lunar Missions

  • Phoenix - NASA Mars Scout Lander (2007)
  • Mars Reconnaissance Orbiter - NASA Orbiter (2005)
  • Mars Exploration Rovers - Two NASA Rovers to Mars (2003)
  • Spirit and Opportunity.
  • Mars Express - ESA Mars Orbiter and Lander (2003)
  • 2001 Mars Odyssey - NASA Orbiter Mission to Mars (2001)
  • Mars Polar Lander - NASA attempted lander to Mars (1999)
  • Deep Space 2 - NASA attempted penetrator mission to Mars (1999)
  • Mars Climate Orbiter - NASA attempted orbiter to Mars (1998)
  • Nozomi (Planet-B) - ISAS (Japan) orbiter to Mars (1998)
  • Mars Global Surveyor - NASA Mars orbiter (1996)
  • Mars Pathfinder - NASA lander and rover to Mars (1996)
  • Mars 96 - Russian attempted mission to Mars (1996)
  • Mars Observer - NASA attempted mission to Mars (1992)
  • Phobos - Soviet missions to Mars (1988)
  • Viking - NASA orbiters/landers to Mars (1975)
  • Mars 6 - Soviet Mars lander (1973)
  • Mars 5 - Soviet Mars orbiter (1973)
  • Mariner 9 - NASA Mars orbiter (1971)
  • Mars 3 - Soviet Mars orbiter and lander (1971)
  • Mars 2 - Soviet Mars orbiter and lander (1971)
  • Mariner 7 - NASA Mars flyby (1969)
  • Mariner 6 - NASA Mars flyby (1969)
  • Mariner 4 - NASA Mars flyby (1964)
  • Mars Chronology - Timeline of all Mars missions

  • Cassini - NASA/ESA Mission to Saturn via Jupiter
  • Galileo Orbiter - NASA Mission to Jupiter
  • Galileo Probe - NASA Mission to Jupiter
  • Voyager 1 - NASA Mission to Jupiter and Saturn
  • Voyager 2 - NASA Mission to Jupiter, Saturn, Uranus, Neptune, and beyond
  • Ulysses - NASA/ESA Mission to study the solar wind via Jupiter
  • Pioneer 10 - NASA Jupiter flyby (1973)
  • Pioneer 11 - NASA Jupiter flyby (1974)
  • Cassini - NASA/ESA Mission to Saturn
  • Huygens - NASA/ESA Mission to Saturn's satellite Titan
  • Voyager 1 - NASA Mission to Jupiter and Saturn
  • Voyager 2 - NASA Mission to Jupiter, Saturn, Uranus, Neptune, and beyond
  • Pioneer 11 - NASA Saturn flyby (1979)
  • Voyager 2 - NASA Mission to Jupiter, Saturn, Uranus, Neptune, and beyond
  • Voyager 2 - NASA Mission to Jupiter, Saturn, Uranus, Neptune, and beyond
  • New Horizons - Pluto Flyby, Kuiper Belt mission (2006)
Asteroids and Comets:
  • Dawn - NASA Orbiter of Asteroids Ceres and Vesta (2007)
  • Rosetta - ESA Comet Mission, will fly by asteroids Steins and Lutetia (2004)
  • Hayabusa (Muses-C) - ISAS (Japan) Sample Return Mission to Asteroid 25143 Itokawa (2003)
  • Genesis - NASA Discovery Solar Wind Sample Return Mission (2001)
  • Stardust - NASA Comet Coma Sample Return Mission, flew by asteroid AnneFrank (1999)
  • Deep Space 1 - NASA Flyby Mission to asteroid Braille (1998)
  • Cassini - NASA/ESA Mission to Saturn through the Asteroid Belt (1997)
  • NEAR - NASA Near-Earth Asteroid Rendezvous with 433 Eros
  • Galileo - NASA Mission to Jupiter via asteroids Gaspra and Ida

Future Missions

There have been a lot of discussions concerning the path NASA should follow related to its current and future space missions, but no solid conclusion has been drawn yet. The collaboration between Barack Obama's new NASA transition team and Michael Griffin, NASA's current administrator, has not been exactly fructuous, approaches in various aspects come from several sources, and it's hard to make a decision that would please everybody. A new review from MIT's Space, Policy and Society Research Group is aimed to shed some light on the situation.

At the core of NASA's future space exploration is a return to the moon, where we will build a sustainable long term human presence. As the space shuttle program has been retired, NASA is building the next fleet of vehicles to bring astronauts back to the moon, and possibly to Mars and beyond.

Mission Disasters:

Challenger - January 28th, 1986

NASA's Shuttle program was begun in the 1970s, to create reusable craft for transporting cargo into space. Previous space craft could only be used once, then were discarded. The first shuttle, Columbia was launched in 1981. One year later, the Challenger rolled off the assembly line as the second shuttle of the US fleet. They were followed by Discovery in 1983 and Atlantis in 1985.

Shuttle mission 51L was much like most other missions. The Challenger was scheduled to carry some cargo, the Tracking Data Relay Satellite-2 (TDRS-2), as well as fly the Shuttle-Pointed Tool for Astronomy (SPARTAN-203)/Halley's Comet Experiment Deployable, a free-flying module designed to observe tail and coma of Halley's comet with two ultraviolet spectrometers and two cameras. One thing made this mission unique. It was scheduled to be the first flight of a new program called TISP, the Teacher In Space Program. The Challenger was scheduled to carry Sharon Christa McAuliffe, the first teacher to fly in space. Selected from among more than 11,000 applicants from the education profession for entrance into the astronaut ranks.

Besides McAuliffe, the Challenger crew consisted of mission commander Francis R. Scobee; pilot Michael J. Smith; mission specialists Ronald E. McNair, Ellison S. Onizuka, and Judith A. Resnik; and payload specialists Gregory B. Jarvis. Christa was also listed as a payload specialist. From the beginning, though, Shuttle Mission STS-51L was plagued by problems. Liftoff was initally scheduled from at 3:43 p.m. EST on January 22, 1986. It slipped to Jan. 23, then Jan. 24, due to delays in mission 61-C and finally reset for Jan. 25 because of bad weather at transoceanic abort landing (TAL) site in Dakar, Senegal. The launch was again postponed for one day when launch processing was unable to meet new morning liftoff time.

Predicted bad weather at Kennedy Space Centre (KSC) caused the launch to be rescheduled for 9:37 a.m. EST, Jan. 27, but it was delayed another 24 hours when ground servicing equipment hatch closing fixture could not be removed from orbiter hatch. The fixture was sawed off and an attaching bolt drilled out before closeout completed. During this delay, the cross winds exceeded limits at KSC's Shuttle Landing Facility. There as a final delay of two hours when a hardware interface module in the launch processing system, which monitors fire detection system, failed during liquid hydrogen tanking procedures. The Challenger finally lifted off at 11:38:00 a.m. EST. Seventy three seconds into the mission, the Challenger exploded, killing the entire crew.

Later, a commision was set up by then president Ronald Reagan to investigate the accident. This commision included former astronaut Neil Armstrong and former test pilot Chuck Yeager. The commission's report cited the cause of the disaster as the failure of an “O-ring” seal in the solid-fuel rocket on the Space Shuttle Challenger's right side. The faulty design of the seal coupled with the unusually cold weather, let hot gases to leak through the joint. Booster rocket flames were able to pass through the failed seal enlarging the small hole. These flames then burned through the Space Shuttle Challenger's external fuel tank and through one of the supports that attached the booster to the side of the tank. That booster broke loose and collided with the tank, piercing the tank's side. Liquid hydrogen and liquid oxygen fuels from the tank and booster mixed and ignited, causing the Space Shuttle Challenger to tear apart. The connision also noted that officials at NASA were also to blame as they ignored previous warnings voiced by NASA engineers. The entire space shuttle program was grounded during the Space Shuttle Challenger Commission's investigation and did not resume flying until shuttle designers made several technical modifications and NASA management implemented stricter regulations regarding quality control and safety. Shuttle missions resumed on September 28, 1988, with the flight of the shuttle Discovery.

Columbia - February 1st, 2003

Space Shuttle Columbia was launched on January 16th, 2003 at 9.39am CST. Columbia (Flight STS-107) was on a 16-day science research mission in Earth orbit which performed experiments in space.

It was the 113th mission. Columbia was the oldest space shuttle in the fleet of four. It was the first space shuttle to be launched in Earth orbit in 1981. The crew of Space Shuttle Columbia consisted of 7 astronauts:

  • Rick D. Husband - Commander
  • William C. McCool - Pilot
  • Michael P. Anderson
  • David M. Brown
  • Kalpana Chawla
  • Laurel Clark
  • Ilan Ramon - first Israeli in space

Thse images above show the Columbia during its take off and re-entry. At first, members of the public were convinced that a meteor was disintegrating on entry into the Earths atmosphere but it was not long before the news was released regarding the loss of contact with the shuttle.

The loss of Columbia was a result of damage sustained during launch when a piece of foam insulation the size of a small briefcase broke off the Space Shuttle external tank (the main propellant tank) under the aerodynamic forces of launch. The debris struck the leading edge of the left wing, damaging the Shuttle's, which protects it from heat generated with the atmosphere during re-entry. While Columbia was still in orbit, some engineers suspected damage, but NASA managers limited the investigation, on the grounds that little could be done even if problems were found.

7-8 minutes before the failure, gauges started to loose readings in Columbia's left wing, left landing gear brake system and tyre.

7.59am (CST) temperature and pressure gauges went off scale.

8am - All vehicle data was lost at 207,135 ft above the Earth at Mach 18.3 (about 12,500 mph) when the Columbia Space Shuttle broke up over north-central Texas. It was about 16 minutes prior to its scheduled landing at Florida's Kennedy Space Center. The last communication from Houston ground control to Columbia commander Rick Husband was: "To Columbia, here is Houston; we see your tyre pressure messages and we did not copy your last message." After a moment, Husband replied: "Roger but ..." After a brief crackling noise, contact was lost. The Space Shuttle Columbia was scheduled to land 8.16am (2.16GMT). In an address to the nation on Saturday 1st at 4.45 EST, President George W. Bush confirmed the space shuttle Columbia and its crew of seven were lost after the Orbiter broke up during reentry on its landing approach to the Kennedy Space Center.