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NASA Space Programme

NASA National Aeronautics and Space Administration

NASA is the USA government space agency. It was founded in 1958 for the purposes of civilian space research and science. It has a brilliant record of success in the space exploration and scientific work in fields as diverse as astrobiology and environment, to satellite development and deployment, to manned and robotic probe missions, now to every significant body in the solar system.

NASA's original focus was on 'landing a man on the moon by the end of this decade' (1960s), as announced by John F. Kennedy in 1961.

What followed this gauntlet throw was one of the most remarkable stories of human achievement, ingenuity, and courage, culminating in humans setting foot ("small step for a man, one giant leap for mankind") on the Moon on July 20, 1969. It cost billions, and engaged hundreds of thousands of the most gifted engineers and scientists, but they did it. And followed up with 6 more missions, which were all stunning successes, except for the unlucky Apollo 13. But their safe return was also 'their finest hour', as the mission controller put it.

The 1970s saw a space station, Skylab, and an enormously symbolic docking with a Russian Soyuz capsule. The Viking missions were sent to Mars, and four probes were sent on a grand tour of the solar system. Two of them are still sending us information from the very limits of the solar system. Not bad for 40 year-old used vehicles with 19 billion km on the clock!

The Apollo and other mission were put in orbit with rockets, such as the gigantic Saturn 5. A fleet of 5 space shuttles were developed and used for 30 years as a reusable orbiting and re-entry vehicle. Unfortunately, 2 of these were destroyed - one on take-off, and one on re-entry - killing all the crews.

NASA has sent probes to every planet and many of their Moons, to observe the Sun, and to comets. It has an ongoing Earth Observing System, carrying out scientific surveys of Earth's changing climate and atmospheric conditions. It is heavily engaged in the ISS, International Space Station, and is developing the Orion Milti-Purpose Crew Vehicle, and other orbit-range vehicles.

NASA operates the Hubble Space Telescope and astrophysics satellites and projects, studying the origins of the universe.


The Mariner Series

Mariner 1 and 2 probe
Mariner 1 and 2 probe

Between 1962 and 1973, NASA and JPL launched ten interplanetary robotic probes to explore Mars, Venus, and Mercury, as well as to conduct a number of groundbreaking experiments. This was an age of 'firsts' for space exploration, and Mariner has quite a few on its trophy shelf: first planetary flyby, first photographs of another planet, first orbit of another planet, and the first maneuver utilising gravity assist (one of which is the slingshot).

Three of the ten missions failed, and the Jupiter-Saturn missions, originally Mariner 11 and 12, were renominated Voyager 1 and 2, and the Mars orbiter/lander missions Viking 1 and 2 were adaptations of the Mariner 9 design. The Mariner spacecraft also provided the basic design for the Magellan probe to Venus, and the Cassini-Huygens probe to Jupiter and Saturn (orbiter).

Mariners I - V were launched on the Atlas-Agena rocket, and Mariners VI - X on the Atlas-Centaur rocket.

Mariners 1 and 2

Mariner 1 was blown up during launch on 22.07.1962, when it veered off course.

Mariner 2: launched 27.08.1962. Venus fly-by. Mission: (to be the first spacecraft to another planet, to prove it could be done ...) to gather radiometric temperature measurements during the 3.5 month journey to Venus, and transmit the data back to Earth. It carried microwave and infrared radiometers, to measure cosmic dust levels, solar plasma, high-energy radiation, and magnetic fields. After a successful mission, the spacecraft was left to enter a heliocentric (around the Sun) orbit, where it still is.

Mariner 2 was the first spacecraft to fly (sail?, cruise?, drift?) to another planet.

Mariners 3 and 4

The wisdom of sending pairs of spacecraft on similar missions, launched close together, was proved again when Mariner 3 failed shortly after launch, and Mariner 4 reached its target, this time Mars.

Launch: 28.11.1964. Mars flyby. It carried the same equipment as Mariner 2, to measure EMR, and detect the cosmic dust and radiation levels in the interplanetary region, magnetic field of Mars., It also carried a digital tape recorder camera, which took about 20 pictures.

Contact was lost after the probe was bombarded by micrometeoroids, to join its sister Mariner 3 in eternal heliocentric orbit.


Launched September 2007, NASA's Dawn probe is currently in permanent orbit around Ceres, the dwarf planet in the asteroid belt. It previously was in orbit around Vesta, a protoplanet, making Dawn the first spacecraft to:

- visit Vesta. It entered orbit on July 16 2011, for a 14-month survey mission.

- visit a dwarf planet: Ceres. It entered orbit on March 6 2015.

- orbit two extra-terrestrial bodies.


MissionLaunchFly-by/OrbitLander / Rover
Mariner 31964Failed
Mariner 41964First successful fly-by
Mariner 61969Fly-by
Mariner 71969Fly-by
Mariner 81971Launch failure
Mariner 91971First successful orbiter
Viking 11975Orbiter successfulFirst successful lander
Viking 21975Orbiter successfulSuccessful lander
Mars Observer1992Orbiter planned, lost before arrival
Mars Global Surveyor1996Orbiter successful
Mars Pathfinder1996Successful orbiterSuccessful lander and Sojourner rover
Mars Climate Orbiter1998Orbiter lost on arrival
Mars Polar Lander1999Lost on arrivalLand and soil probes planned
Mars Odyssey2001Orbiter still operational
Spirit2003Orbiter successfulLander Jan 25, 2004, rover successful, ceased communications 2010
Opportunity2003Orbiter successfulLanded Jan 25, 2004, rover still operational
Mars Reconnaissance Orbiter (MRO)2005Aerobraked to final science orbit, Mar-Nov 2006, still operational
Phoenix2005Rocket descent 25.05.08, first in Polar region
Dawn2007Fly-by (en-route to asteriods)
Curiosity2011Orbiter successfulSky Crane descent, rover still operational
MAVEN2013Orbiter, still in operation

Future Missions

MissionLaunchFly-by/OrbitLander / Rover
Insight2016 (suspended)

Content © Andrew Bone. All rights reserved. Created : January 2, 2015 Last updated :December 27, 2015

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