Since the dawn of time, man has dreamed of travelling to space and gazing back on the beauty of Earth. Almost each one of us, at one or the other point of our lives, has gazed up to the sky marveling at its sheer beauty, wondering where does it begin? Where does it end? What lies beyond our sight and what facts are waiting to be unveiled? Are we not alone? Are we sharing this existence? Are we the most primitive or the most advanced? Won’t it be too arrogant to believe that we are the only one in this universe? Do aliens and ETs (Extra Terrestrials) exist? This unknown and unexplained aspect is the biggest ‘lure of space’. A blend of earth, fire, water, air and ether is said to be the basis of life. Man, the most developed life form on Earth, has been gifted with two unique qualities: one is curiosity and the other is perseverance to scrutinize what leads to curiosity.

As it is, the idea of the conquest of space is as old as the human brain. Long before Kepler discovered celestial mechanics making interplanetary travel conceivable, space traffic existed in legends. Man rose to the heavens and gods visited Earth. The Puranas mention Devarishi Narad travelling to and fro in time and space. The first space novel was written in 160 AD. The first technical drawing of a three-stage rocket dates back to 1526. So we, the mankind, were bewitched by it and set off to pursue this highly tempting adventure.

Gradually, the space research and development and technology started progressing and led us to that platform where the space race triggered in July 1956 with the USA announcing a satellite launch. The erstwhile USSR, which had also made a similar Announcement after the USA, had the honour of launching the first-ever satellite Sputnik-1 on October 4, 1957 and amazed the world. This flagged down the space race led by the then USSR, from 1957-1967 setting up many records like –

  • Laika, a dog, became the first living being in the Earth’s orbit aboard Sputnik-2 in 1957.
  • Yuri Gagarin on board Vostok-1 became the first person in space in Earth’s orbit in 1961.
  • Valentine Tereshkova became the first woman in space on board Vostok-6 in 1966.
  • First probe to impact the Moon was Luna-2 in 1959.
  • First space station Salyut-1 in 1971.
  • First permanently manned station Mir orbited the Earth from 1981 to 2001 and the list is unending.

From 1967 onwards, the US started gaining on the then USSR. The US space agency, National Aeronautics and Space Administration (NASA) designed the Apollo programme, which intended to land humans on moon. Apollo-11 achieved the goal and the mission became a milestone in the field of space exploration. Astronaut Neil Armstrong became the first man to leave footprints on the moon. His words “One small step for man, one giant leap for mankind are emblazoned in gold in the history of space exploration. America’s first space station ‘Skylab’ kept the NASA busy from the end of Apollo project to late 1970s.

Building of reusable space vehicles, i.e., space shuttles by the NASA added another feather to its hat. Amongt them, Columbia was the first to be launched on April 12, 1981. Also, the probe plans like Viking to Mars, Pioneer and Voyager missions to Jupiter, Saturn, Uranus and Neptune; the placing of Hubble space telescope; International Space Station (ISS) are the other remarkable feats achieved by NASA.

In 2006, China became the ninth nation capable of sending ‘taikonauts’ (Chinese for astronauts) to space in their own spaceships. The other space-faring states are France (1965), Japan (1970), UK (1971), European Space Agency (1979), Israel (1988) and Iraq (1989).

India joined the club in 1961 when the Atomic Energy Department started a programme on space research. It was realized that the exploitation of the vast potential of space for socio­economic development can be done only if India develops ‘satellite launching’ indigenously and becomes self-reliant. Accordingly, in 1972, a Space Commission was set up in India. The Department of Space was established which carried out its plans through Indian Space Research Organization.

India made its debut in the field of space research on April 19, 1975 when the first satellite, designed and fabricated by India, was launched from the erstwhile USSR. It was a purely experimental satellite christened ‘Aryabhatta’, named after the famous Indian mathematician. It set the pace for all space-related ventures in India.

On April 2, 1984, Squadron Leader Rakesh Sharma, an air force pilot, became the first Indian to go in space. Aboard the Soviet Union spacecraft Soyuz T-II, he did multispectral photography, anticipating the construction of hydroelectric power stations in the Himalayas. Since then India has successfully launched a series of satellites – Bhaskara-1, Apple, the INSAT series, SROSS 3, IRS series, EDUSAT, etc. Simultaneously, India has developed a range of launch vehicles, namely, SLVs, ASLVs, PSLVs, GSLVs and also has a launch site at Sriharikota. India has progressed inch by inch learning from its failures, modifying and refining techniques, honing skills and never looking back.

In this world where criticism is all pervasive, space programmes have no exception. Huge amounts of money are being spent on them, with each country having its own respective urgencies and responsibilities to cater to. We do not know where this hard work and expense will lead us? It might take ages to conclude. Nonetheless, we had to start and we have to keep on going because without beginning there is no journey and without journey there will be no end.