More than four hundred years ago, Galileo Galilei did something no human ever had.
He looked up into the vast nothingness of outer space and instead of finding only questions, he found an answer.
After directing his telescope toward Jupiter over the course of a few nights, he identified the planet’s moons for the first time. His discovery and ensuing publication, Sidereus Nucius, are considered the dawn of space exploration.
Galileo's Drawings of Jupiter and its moons
In the 2001 play, Galileo Galilei, Turkish playwright Mehmet Murat Ildan writes,
“History of science is a relay race...Copernicus took over his flag from Aristarchus, from Cicero, from Plutarch; and Galileo took that flag over from Copernicus.”
Since his breakthrough, humanity has taken Galileo's flag and carried it in ways even the Italian philosopher couldn’t have imagined, widening the scope through which we view the universe.
That scope will broaden even further in four years when NASA sends its Mars 2020 rover to the red planet, collecting more sophisticated data and imagery from a foreign planet than ever before.
But how did we get from Galileo’s discovery to prepping Mars for a human landing?
Here are the important steps that brought us there.
Mankind spent the three hundred years following Sidereus Nucius not with their eyes pointed to the sky, but with their noses buried in books.
Scientists in Germany, Russia and the United States spent much of the early stages of the 20th century studying rocket technology, developing liquid and sounding rockets.
Spurred on in 1942 during the height of the World War II conflict, Germany’s V-2, a military ballistic rocket, became the first vehicle to cross the Kármán line - 62 miles above the surface of the Earth and officially outer space.
While they were aimed at allied cities like London and Paris, it would later be seen as a critical moment in rocket and space technology - the U.S. would use a captured V-2 rocket in 1946 to begin the first space research flight designed to test the effects of cosmic radiation.
Layout of a V-2 Rocket
The following two decades would be the largest portion of the relay yet, carrying Galileo’s flag further than anyone before.
The space-race between the United States and Russia, urged on by the Cold War, brought about the peak of humanity’s interest and curiosity in space travel.
In 1957 specifically, Russia would make massive advances. During that year, Sputnik became the first artificial satellite in space while Laika, a terrier-mix, earned the title of the first animal in space, paving the way for humans to begin making interstellar voyages.
That would happen four years later, when Russian Cosmonaut Yuri Gagarin flew into orbit - the first human in space.
From there, the U.S. moved the needle further forward when NASA made the first soft landing on the Moon in 1966 and eventually put a human on the surface of another celestial body for the first time.
“That’s one small step for man, one giant leap for mankind.” - Lance Armstrong
Buzz Aldrin - Apollo 11 mission
While Armstong’s famous phrase effectively put an end to the space race, the two global superpowers continued to take Galileo's flag deeper into space - past our lunar neighbor.
The 1970s is a period defined by outward expansion, as NASA sent the probe Pioneer 10 to Jupiter - the first time a human-made object was sent on a trajectory away from the Sun.
The decade would also see NASA complete the first flybys of Venus and Mercury as well as the first soft landing on Mars.
Pioneer 10 Construction
As time ticked on, the image of our surroundings in space kept expanding, yet our eyes remained fixated on the red planet.
NASA’s Viking Lander mission in 1976 collected the first soil samples from Mars and in the process discovering the possibility of water on its surface in the past and sparking interest in the possibility of one day colonizing the planet.
Since the landing of the Viking, there have been 19 attempted missions to Mars, each collecting high resolution images data and samples.
The most publicized and successful of the bunch being the Curiosity Rover, which landed in 2012 with the purposes of exploring the planet’s habitability.
In that period, the combined efforts of the U.S., Russia, Europe, Japan and Canada also led to the International Space Station, the largest man-made object built in space, and NASA’s probe, the Voyager 1, became the first human-made object to leave our solar system.
The relay’s most crucial stretch seems to be on Mars for the time being. President Obama set a goal for a manned mission by 2030, and private space companies around the world are working toward a solution for colonization.
The aforementioned Mars 2020 rover will be a huge factor in this process, caching samples for the first humans to set foot on Martian soil to study and answering questions about the feasibility of terraforming the terrain.
While the methods and targets of space travel keep shifting - all of these accomplishments prove one thing that remains constant.
Throughout global conflict, political strife and other issues constantly plaguing our planet, great thinkers, scientists and engineers will continue to move our species into more remote depths of the cosmos.
They will keep carrying the flag, just as Galileo said:
“And yet it moves.”
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