Another important space anniversary on this date: April 12, 1981, marked the first launch of a reusable spacecraft, the Space Shuttle Columbia. Columbia remained in service for 22 years, completing 28 missions and spending 300 days in space before tragically exploding during reentry on February 1, 2003.
In the 62 years since Gagarin’s historic flight, technologies first engineered for space exploration have changed life here on Earth. Some of those breakthroughs are obvious, including live satellite television broadcasts – impossible before Telstar 1 was launched in July 1962 by a US, UK and French consortium – and automotive GPS navigator systems, also enabled by satellites.
Others, as documented by USA Today, are less well known:
- Technology originally designed for planetary rovers has been applied to the science of artificial limbs.
- Scratch-resistant plastics, first designed for astronaut helmets, make eyeglasses last longer.
- Insulin pumps developed from NASA research into how to monitor astronauts’ vital signs.
- Flame-retardant firefighting gear got its start as technology for space suits.
- Shock absorbers developed to protect equipment during Space Shuttle launches is now applied to bridges and buildings in earthquake-prone areas.
- Radial automotive tires last longer thanks to material developed by Goodyear for Viking Lander parachute shrouds.
- The cameras used on most mobile phones were originally designed to take photographs in space.
- The memory foam in your mattress? It was developed to cushion the effects of G-forces on astronauts’ bodies during takeoff.
When exploration focused primarily on the space between the Earth and the Moon, nations (especially the US and the USSR) dominated the field. Today, however, as many governments turn their attention to sending humans into the Solar System, responsibility for near-space development has largely passed to commercial enterprises.
The most recent example came just last week – on April 8, 2022 – when NASA and SpaceX teamed up to launch the first all-private crewed mission to the International Space Station (ISS). The mission, dubbed Ax-1 because it was organized by Axiom Space, sent a former NASA astronaut and three paying customers to the ISS aboard Space X’s Crew Dragon capsule, launched on a reusable Space X Falcon 9 rocket. The next day, Crew Dragon docked with the ISS, where the crew will conduct a range of science experiments – experiments that may one day add to the list of technological breakthroughs pioneered in space and adapted to improve life here on Earth.
Ax-1 is the first step in Axiom Space’s effort to build the world’s first commercial space station, which eventually would replace the ISS. Axiom describes the mission – its first crewed flight – as “a major leap in NASA’s bid to create an economy in low-Earth orbit supported by private companies.” Axiom is competing with other private companies for the chance to build the station.
“We want to get NASA out of low-Earth orbit and go explore the heavens,” NASA administrator Bill Nelson said in an interview with Axiom Space prior to liftoff. “We want to direct our energy and our resources to do that because we’re going back to the Moon, and we’re going to Mars. We want to have commercial space stations [and the] ability to lease space on a commercial space station, instead of having the responsibility of the space station.”
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