Space exploration has always been considered the ultimate milestone for humanity. Most people might think that this is merely a recent phenomenon.
But if we go back to our history, we would find that celestial objects have been on top of human mind since thousands of years.
Prehistoric cultures have left astronomical artefacts such as the Egyptian monuments and Nubian monuments, and early civilizations such as the Babylonians, Greeks, Chinese, Indians, Iranians and Maya performed methodical observations of the night sky.
Starting with Babylonians discovering lunar eclipse cycles, significant advances in astronomy were made in ancient Greece and the Hellenistic world.
Indian astronomy also contributed a great deal. Historical Indian astronomy developed as a discipline of Vedanga or one of the “auxiliary disciplines” associated with the study of the Vedas dating 1500 BCE or older. The oldest known text is the VedangaJyotisha, dated to 1400–1200 BCE (with the extant form possibly from 700–600 BCE).
Indian astronomy flowered in the 5th-6th century, with Aryabhata, whose Aryabhatiya represented the pinnacle of astronomical knowledge at the time. Later the Indian astronomy significantly influenced astronomy across Arabia, China, Europe etc. Other astronomers of the classical era who further elaborated on Aryabhata’s work include Brahmagupta,Bhaskara Varahamihira and Lalla.
Middle ages saw a mostly stagnant advance in the field of astronomy from medieval Europe but saw many contributions in Arab, Persia, China and other parts of world.
Scientific revolution, however, started only with the invention of modern scientific instruments such as the telescope by Galileo. It was followed by confirmation of the heliocentric model by Galileo and Kepler, laws of gravitation to explain celestial dynamics by Newton, discovery of new planets, stars, galaxies and other objects. Modern space telescopes have enabled measurements in parts of the electromagnetic spectrum normally blocked or blurred by the atmosphere.
The biggest breakthrough, however, should be attributed to the first successful launch of a man-made object, Sputnik I in 1957. Ironically, the space race between cold war rivals, Soviet Union and United States drove much of space exploration till the latter half of 20th century. Prominent milestones include first human spaceflight (Yuri Gagarin aboard Vostok 1) in 1961, the first spacewalk (by AlekseiLeonov) on 18 March 1965, the first automatic landing on another celestial body in 1966, the first Moon landing by the American Apollo 11 craft on 20 July 1969 and the launch of the first space station (Salyut 1) in 1971.
After the first 20 years of exploration, focus shifted from one-off flights to renewable hardware, such as the Space Shuttle program, and from competition to cooperation as with the International Space Station (ISS)
In the 2000s, the People’s Republic of China initiated a successful manned spaceflight program, while the European Union, Japan, and Indiahave also planned future manned space missions. China, Russia, Japan, and India have advocated manned missions to the Moon during the 21st century, while the European Union has advocated manned missions to both the Moon and Mars during the 21st century.
From the 1990s onwards, private interests began promoting space tourism such as Richard Branson’s Virgin Galactic, XCOR Aerospace, and then private space exploration of the Moon such as Google Lunar X Prize.
With the shelving of the space shuttle program by the Obama administration, private space sector led by companies such as Elon Musk’s SpaceX, Boeing has been given a new lease of life with a recent multi-billion dollar contract given by NASA to stop its dependence on Soyuz rockets for ferrying astronauts to the ISS.
SpaceX has a goal to ensure survival of human race given the threats posed by an unexpected Nuclear War, Climate Change, Asteroids, Artificial Intelligence or an unexpected Alien Invasion by establishing a colony on Mars in the next 10-20 years and to improve the cost and reliability of access to space, ultimately by a factor of ten. SpaceX became the first private company to both successfully launch and return a spacecraft from orbit on 8 December 2010, after its Dragon capsule returned from a two-orbit flight.
Whereas a non-profit organization called Mars One based in the Netherlands has put forward conceptual plans to establish a permanent human colony on Mars by 2025. Mars One’s current concept includes launching four carefully selected applicants in a Mars-bound spaceflight in 2024, to become the first residents of Mars, and that every step of the crew’s journey will be documented for a reality television program.
At the end of 2006 NASA also announced that they were planning to build a permanent Moon base with continual presence by 2024 especially since ISS is not widely expected to last beyond 2020 given Russia’s more focus on Moon program. China has also announced plans to have a 60-ton multi-module space station in orbit by 2020.
Till human space travel to Moon or Mars becomes a reality, the role of Artificial Intelligence is paramount. Recent missions such as NASA’ Maven Mission and India’s Mars Orbiter Mission (Mangalyaan) promise to open up a new era in space exploration.
However, funding challenges especially given the stagnant global economy do remain a concern. Hopefully, space exploration would be able to overcome such barriers so that humans continue to improve their understanding of the universe. The role of private sector in developed countries and new economic powerhouses such as China and India have a key role to play in this endeavour.