Space Exploration

Space Exploration

Human Activity in Space and its Foundations: An Overview


Human activity in space has its roots in the development of balloon flight from the eighteenth century, followed by power flight in the early twentieth century, and the rocket flights carried out by Robert Goddard. From the mid-twentieth century to the early twenty-first century it occurred in an atmosphere of international competition, with national accomplishment at the forefront and scientific discovery a close second as goals. By the mid-1970s international cooperation had begun, although the national space infrastructures remained separate. By the 2020s, while there has been considerable activity in Earth orbit, only six U.S. expeditions have visited the Moon and missions beyond the Moon have been uncrewed. 


Learning Objectives

  • Evaluate how global social, political, and technological trends have shaped contemporary life.

  • Identify, explain, and assess the historic impact and significance of efforts in space exploration. 


Key Terms / Key Concepts

Robert Goddard: U.S. physicist, engineer, and inventor who built and launched the atmospheric rockets that paved the way for space flight

V-2 rocket: ballistic missile developed by Germany during World War II 


Between 1926 and 1941 Robert Goddard—a U.S. physicist, engineer, and inventor—launched thirty-four rockets with his team; these rockets reached altitudes as high as 2.6 kilometers and speed as great as 885 kilometers per hour. His developments in rocketry, including multi-stage and liquid-fuel rockets, paved the way for the rockets that reached Earth orbit, the Moon, and other bodies in the solar system. The next major advances in atmospheric rocketry occurred during World War II.

From September 1944 through March 1945 Germany launched over a thousand V-2 rockets against Britain, France, and Belgium. Since the late thirties the Nazi rocket program had been designing and building ballistic missiles with which to strike Allied cities such as London and Paris. The Nazis sought to damage the British and French economies and demoralize British, French, and Belgium citizens with their V-1 and the V-2 rockets. At the end of the war and for several years afterward the U.S. and Soviet governments brought over 1600 and 2000 scientists and engineers from the German program, respectively. These engineers and scientists helped to construct the postwar Soviet and U.S. space programs. For instance, Wernher von Braun was an aerospace engineer brought from Germany to the U.S; he participated in the development of the Saturn V rocket used in the Apollo program.


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