April was a busy month for milestone anniversaries of space events: so busy in fact that I didn’t have time to write this article and post it until now-on the 49th anniversary of the first US Mercury space mission. At 12.34am (eastern Australian time) on May 6, 1961 American astronaut Alan B. Shepard Jr. was launched on a short, 15 minute sub-orbital flight in the spacecraft Freedom 7, making him the first American and second person in space. Next year, for the 50th anniversary of human spaceflight, expect to hear a lot more about Shepard’s flight, and that of the first person in space, Soviet cosmonaut Yuri Gagarin (whose spaceflight anniversary is also in April!). We’ll also be celebrating the 30th anniversary of the Space Shuttle. In the meantime, let’s look back at some of the significant space anniversaries that occurred in April 2010…..
Fifty years ago, as the Space Race between the United States and the Soviet Union was heating up, two US satellites were launched in April 1960 that were the forerunners of technologies that we take for granted today: TIROS (Television InfraRed Observation Satellite)-1, the world’s first dedicated weather satellite, and Transit 1B (Transit 1A failed to reach orbit), the first navigation satellite. Essentially a television camera in orbit, TIROS -1 was only operational for 78 days, but it proved its worth by detecting and tracking a cyclone in the Pacific Ocean-the first time it had been possible to chart the progress of one of these potentially devastating storms. Although the Transit navigation system was originally developed to provide guidance for submarine-launched ballistic missiles, it was soon opened up to a variety of civilian uses and was the predecessor of the GPS (Global positioning System) satellite network we use for finding our way around today.
Also ‘launched’ in April 1960 was the world’s first SETI (Search for ExtraTerrestrial Intelligence) experiment, Project Ozma, conducted at the National Radio Astronomy Observatory in Green Bank, Virginia, by SETI pioneer Frank Drake. Project Ozma (named for a character from the Oz books by L. Frank Baum) targeted the stars Tau Ceti and Epsilon Eridani in a search for radio signals that might be evidence of intelligent life beyond the Earth. After 150 hours of intermittent listening between April and July, no extraterrestrial signal was detected, but Project Ozma became the prototype for future SETI searches.
Forty five years ago, another important step on shaping today’s world took place, with the April 6, 1965 launch of INTELSAT-1, also known as Early Bird, the first communications satellite operated by the International Telecommunications Satellite Organisation (INTELSAT). INTELSAT was a consortium of countries (including Australia, which would become the sixth largest shareholder) created to develop the first world-wide satellite communications network. INTELSAT’s early success in providing satellite networks paved the way for our modern globally connected culture.
For 5 days in April 1970, the world held its breath in the wake of the Apollo 13 accident, hoping that the crew of three astronauts would make it safely back to Earth following an explosion on board their spacecraft. Although unable to land on the Moon, Apollo 13 was judged a “successful failure”, with the mission rescued from disaster by the courage of the crew and the resourcefulness of NASA’s engineers, scientists and technicians on the ground. The first Earth Day was also held 40 years ago, on April 22, using one of Apollo 11’s pictures of the Earth hanging in the immensity of space as its icon image, to highlight the fragility of our home planet’s environment.
China celebrated the 40th anniversary of the launch of its first satellite, Dong Fang Hong (the East is Red)-1 on April 24, while India launched its first satellite 35 years ago, on April 19, 1975. Built by the Indian Space Research Organisation (ISRO) and launched by the USSR, the Aryabhata satellite was named after a 5th century AD Indian mathematician and astronomer. From modest beginnings, both China and India have grown to become leading spacefaring nations today.
And finally, on April 24, 1990, NASA launched the Hubble Space Telescope, one of the most important scientific instruments of all time. Overcoming initial technical problems with its mirror, Hubble has proved to be vital research tool for astronomers, its discoveries helping to resolve some long-standing questions of astrophysics and revealing new cosmic mysteries to research.