The Sciences

15 of the Most Life-Changing Spacecraft and Missions That Fueled Our Curiosity

Read more about the first satellites to building the first space stations that has expanded our knowledge of the universe.

By Elizabeth GamilloMay 28, 2024 8:00 AM
Carina Nebula
The Carina Nebula taken by the JWST. (Credit: NASA, ESA, CSA, and STScI)


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Starting with the Space Race of the 20th century, humans have embarked on a journey through time and space with some of the most pioneering and life-changing space missions.

As we stand on the cusp of another age of space exploration with the upcoming Artemis missions and other space observatories set to go online this year, here are 15 space missions that not only set the groundwork for the future, but also ignite our curiosity about the universe we inhabit.

1. Sputnik 1

(Credit: NASA/Asif A. Siddiqi

Sputnik 1 was the first successful artificial satellite placed in low-Earth orbit in 1957. While in orbit, Sputnik 1 gathered data on the upper layers of Earth's atmosphere. During its mission, the satellite completed 1400 orbits around Earth.

2. Explorer 1

(Credit: NASA)

In 1958, the United States launched its first successful satellite, Explorer 1. It launched on January 31, 1958 and marked the beginning of the U.S. Space Age. The satellite was launched as a response to the launch of the Soviet Union's Sputnik 1 satellite.

Explorer 1 found evidence of radiation belts around Earth with its cosmic ray detector. Another satellite confirmed the find a few months later.

3. Apollo 11

(Credit: NASA)

Eleven years after the launch of the Explorer 1 satellite, the U.S. launched the Apollo 11 mission on July 16, 1969. It was the first crewed mission to land on the Lunar surface.

On July 24, 1969, the Apollo 11 mission successfully landed on the Moon. On that mission, Neil Armstrong became the first person to step on the Moon and said the famous line, "That's one step for man, one giant leap for mankind."

Edwin "Buzz" Aldrin was the second to step on the Moon. Michael Collins did not get to step on the Moon but was on the command module as the pilot orbiting the Moon. While there, the astronauts placed an American flag on the surface and collected lunar rocks and core samples that were later returned to Earth.

4. Salyut 1

(Credit: RKK Energia)

In 1971, the Soviet Union launched the World's first space station, Salyut, meaning salute in Russian, into space. The space station, which weighed 20 metric tons and had one docking port, was designed to function for only six months.

Salyut 1 and its other six renditions (seven in total) informed engineers for the next-generation module called Mir. Mir served as the space station while the International Space Station was built.

5. Sky Lab

(Credit: NASA)

Between 1973 and 1974, NASA operated the first space station for the U.S., Skylab. In it, hundreds of experiments were carried out, including experiments on how humans adapt to zero gravity.

Skylab also housed an observatory and a workshop. Skylab hosted three crewed missions and was occupied with astronauts for 171 days. The space station's main objective was to show that humans could live in space for long periods.

6. International Space Station

(Credit: NASA)

Between 1984 and 1993, the International Space Station (ISS) was designed with international partners like Canada, Japan, and Europe. Russia later joined the partnership in 1993.

After its construction, parts of the ISS were launched into space in 1998. The space station serves as a site of international collaboration and experiments designed to improve life on Earth for everyone who inhabits it, according to NASA.

The ISS has advanced knowledge in biology, material and physical sciences, human physiology, and more. Currently, the ISS is expected to be an outpost and working laboratory until at least 2030.

7. The Space Shuttles

Discovery in 2010 (Credit: NASA/Bill Ingalls)

NASA's space shuttle missions first launched in 1981, with its last mission bringing a close to the program in 2011. In total, the space shuttles flew 135 missions and aided in constructing the ISS.

In its three-decade stint, the fleet consisted of orbiters, Columbia, Challenger, Discover, Atlantis, Endeavour, and Enterprise, which was never flown in space. The orbiters were the first reusable spacecraft that launched into space like a rocket, moved in low-Earth orbit like a spacecraft, and landed back on Earth like an airplane on a runway, according to NASA.

8. Hubble Space Telescope

(Credit: NASA)

After its launch in 1990, the Hubble Space Telescope gave us a new view and understanding of the universe. The telescope captured images from galaxies far away.

Aside from taking mesmerizing images of galaxies and nebulas, the Hubble Space Telescope aided astrophysicists in understanding atmospheric compositions of planets orbiting other stars and finding dark energy.

Hubble Deep Field from 1995 (Credit: NASA, Robert Williams, and the Hubble Deep Field Team (STScI))

The telescope captured all these discoveries using ultraviolet and near-infrared wavelengths. The Hubble Space Telescope has logged 1.5 million observations, and over 20,000 scientific papers have been published on these discoveries.

One of Hubble's most famous images is the Hubble Deep Field. With this image alone, astrophysicists could peer back in time and look at multiple galaxies in different stages of evolution since the Big Bang 13.5 billion years ago. The photo was taken in 1995 over 10 days in December.

9. NASA's Chandra X-ray Observatory

Supernova remnant SNR 1181 as imaged by the Chandra X-ray observatory (Credit: X-ray: (Chandra) NASA/CXC/U. Manitoba/C. Treturik, (XMM-Newton) ESA/C. Treturik; Optical: (Pan-STARRS) NOIRLab/MDM/Dartmouth/R. Fesen; Infrared: (WISE) NASA/JPL/Caltech/; Image Processing: Univ. of Manitoba/Gilles Ferrand and Jayanne English)

The Chandra X-ray Observatory launched in 1999 and has been taking X-ray images of our universe since then. It has captured the glowing structures around galaxies and nebulas.

With Chandra, its X-rays images allow astrophysicists to understand the universe's structure. The X-rays are caused by matter heating to millions of degrees and are found in places with high magnetic fields or extreme gravitational forces.

10. Parker Solar Probe

An artistic illustration of the Parker Solar Probe (Credit: NASA/Johns Hopkins APL/Steve Gribben)

The Parker Solar Probe, launched in 2018, was the first spacecraft to fly through the Sun's corona in 2021. Its main mission was to study the solar wind and its evolution.

During its seven-year mission, the probe will orbit 24 times around the Sun and come as close as 4 million miles from the Sun's surface. With this mission, experts may learn more about space weather, the sources of solar particles, and differences between the Sun's corona and its surface.

11. NASA's Mars Rovers

The Perseverance Rover (Credit: NASA/JPL-Caltech/MSSS)

Since the late 1990s, NASA has sent five rovers to Mars. The fleet of rovers has captured images of the Martian surface and mapped out its features.

The rovers are Sojourner, which landed on Mars in 1997; Spirit and Opportunity, which landed in 2004; Curiosity, which landed in 2012; and Perseverance, which landed in 2021. Together, these rovers have gathered evidence of water on Mars and looked for signs of life on the Red Planet.

12. The James Webb Space Telescope

The Carina Nebula taken by the JWST. (Credit: NASA, ESA, CSA, and STScI)

Launched in December 2021, the James Webb Space Telescope (JWST) was designed as the next space observatory like the Hubble Space Telescope to capture more data on the universe's evolution.

It's capable of seeing further than Hubble and will capture data about how the planets, stars, and the first galaxies formed.

To date, it has already provided clearer images of galaxies, and nebulas with its 18 hexagon-shaped mirrors, and four high-tech imaging instruments. JWST has also observed one of the farthest and youngest galaxies we have ever observed, GN-z11, and supermassive black holes that date to the early universe.

13. Euclid Spacecraft

(Credit: ESA)

The European Space Agency set off to find planets, explore the universe's secrets, and study dark matter and energy to see why it looks as it does today with the Euclid Spacecraft.

Euclid's image of the galaxy cluster, Abell 2390. (Credit: ESA/Euclid/Euclid Consortium/NASA, image processing by J.-C. Cuillandre (CEA Paris-Saclay), G. Anselmi)

Launched on July 1, 2023, the Euclid spacecraft will map out the scale of the universe. New images of the universe were recently released on May 23, 2024.

14. The Vera C. Rubin Observatory

(Credit: Noir Lab, Hernan Stockebrand)

When the Vera C. Rubin Observatory goes online later this year, it will use the largest digital camera ever built to understand dark matter and energy. The camera measures 5.5 feet and will take images at 3.2 gigapixels.

The giant telescope, with its 8.4-meter primary mirror and digital camera, will map out the Milky Way galaxy and the planets in our Solar System and track objects called 'transients' that move across the sky.

In about 4 nights, the telescope would have imaged the entire night sky. Each image the Vera C. Rubin Observatory will take will have a resolution of 3200 megapixels. In its 10-year survey, the observatory is expected to take 5.5 million images and detect 38 billion objects.

15. The Artemis Missions

(Credit: NASA)

NASA's Artemis program is set on further exploring the Moon and bringing humans back to it. The missions on the Moon will serve as data to further prepare humans for more extended space missions, such as those to Mars. By 2026, NASA plans to launch the first crew, Artemis III, to land on the lunar surface to explore the Moon's South Pole.

Read More: Here Are 4 Reasons Why We Are Still Going to the Moon

Article Sources

Our writers at use peer-reviewed studies and high-quality sources for our articles, and our editors review for scientific accuracy and editorial standards. Review the sources used below for this article:

Elizabeth Gamillo is a staff writer for Discover and Astronomy. She has written for Science magazine as their 2018 AAAS Diverse Voices in Science Journalism Intern and was a daily contributor for Smithsonian. She is a graduate student in MIT's Graduate Program in Science Writing.

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