- 1 The First Human-Made Object in Space
- 2 Other Human-Made Objects That Went Into Space
- 3 Human-Made Objects That Are Still in Space
The First Human-Made Object in Space
The question of where Earth’s atmosphere ends and where “space” begins is a bit of a tricky one. In a limited, technical way, NASA and some international organizations define “space” as beginning 100 km above Earth’s surface. This “limit” is referred to as the Kármán line. Earth’s hydrogen cloud extends hundreds of kilometers beyond the Kármán line, with traces of hydrogen detectable even at 1,000 km above the surface.
Still, if we define 100 km above the Earth as “space,” the first human-made object to achieve this was a V-2 rocket test-launched by Wernher von Braun and his assistants in 1944. We don’t know the exact date on which von Braun first broke the 100-km record, but we have documentation indicating that a V-2 rocket reached a height of 176 km above the Earth’s surface on June 20, 1944.
Other Human-Made Objects That Went Into Space
After the Second World War, when Wernher von Braun had defected to the United States, von Braun worked with NASA to launch the U.S.’s first human-made object in space. Using a V-2 rocket as a booster, the Bumper-WAC missile reached an altitude of 393 km (about 244 miles) on July 24th, 1950.
The first human-made object to orbit the Earth was the Soviet Union satellite Sputnik 1. “Sputnik” is simply the Russian word that means “satellite.” It entered the Earth’s orbit on October 4, 1957 at an altitude of approximately 250 km. Weighing only 183 pounds, the small satellite collected and transmitted information about the temperature, pressure, and electron density of the ionosphere.
Sputnik was launched using a R-7 Semyorka missile as a booster. The USSR-developed rocket was notorious during the Cold War as the world’s first intercontinental ballistic missile (IBM). “Semyorka” is Russian for “seven.”
The pioneering satellite’s journey came to an end on January 3, 1958. On that date, Sputnik 1 re-entered Earth’s atmosphere and burned in the process.
The USSR achieved another record, the first human-made object to reach a non-Earth astronomical body, with its Lunik 2 spacecraft. Also known as Luna 2, the craft launched on September 12th, 1959. It landed on the moon the next day, sending telemetry data along the way.
Soviet scientists also used the craft to collect data about the surface of the moon. In this way, they learned that the moon’s surface doesn’t give off radiation and that the moon has no magnetic belt. Data about the Van Allen radiation belt was also collected by the spacecraft.
Lunik 2 was the USSR’s sixth attempt to land a craft on the moon. Three unnamed craft either exploded upon launch or failed before the partially-successful Luna 1 launch, which missed landing on the moon by nearly 6,000 km. In between Luna 1 and Luna 2, the USSR’s fifth attempt to reach the moon failed to launch. None of the Luna missions had any crew members aboard.
Salyut 1 Space Station
Humanity’s first space station entered low Earth orbit (fewer than 500 miles above Earth’s surface) on the 19th of April, 1971. Launched by the USSR, Salyut 1 was a scientific experimentation and research station. The crew of the Soviet spacecraft Soyuz 10 attempted to dock with the station but encountered docking problems and was forced to return to Earth, where they landed safely. A second crewed mission, Soyuz 11, returned to the space station, docked successfully, and carried out a 23-day mission as the first crew to work aboard a station in Earth orbit.
Sadly, the 3-man crew consisting of Georgy Dobrovolsky, Viktor Patsayev, and Vladislav Volkov would also have the dubious distinction of becoming the first three people to die off-Earth when their crew cabin depressurized prematurely during re-entry, causing their asphyxiation. To date, they are the only three human beings ever to die beyond the Kármán line.
The Soviet Union’s seventh space station, DOS-8, remains in orbit as of December 2020. It makes up the majority of the Russian Orbital Segment (ROS), the Russian crew’s piece of the International Space Station.
The furthest distance human beings have ever traveled from Earth is approximately 400,000 km (248,000 miles), or about 254 km (158 miles) above the surface of the so-called “dark side” of the moon. A 3-man crew consisting of Jim Lovell, Jack Swigert, and Fred Haise was launched from Kennedy Space Station on April 11th, 1970. They were meant to land on the moon, but the accidental explosion of an oxygen tank on the mission’s second day forced the crew to return to Earth without landing on the moon. All three survived.
Human-Made Objects That Are Still in Space
According to National Geographic, more than 8,000 human-made objects exist in space, including space junk. Bits of plastic, chips of paint, nuts, and bolts, and discarded stages of booster rockets are among the litter that orbits the Earth, along with such functional objects as space exploration probes, the Hubble Telescope, and the International Space Station. Space junk also includes the single glove lost by astronaut Ed White during a spacewalk.
Voyager 1, a NASA-developed space exploration probe, was the first human-made object to leave the solar system and enter interstellar space. Launched on September 5, 1977, Voyager 1 took a little over 41 years to exit the Earth’s solar system. In the meantime, it had visited and explored several planets.
On November 5, 2018, it officially made its way into interstellar space, approximately 18 billion kilometers from Sol, the Earth’s sun. As of January 1st, 2019, Voyager 1 was located about 13.5 billion miles away from Earth, the furthest a human-made object has ever been in space. It will end its mission in interstellar space and will never return to Earth.
The Hubble Telescope
Earth’s atmosphere causes certain visual distortions to astronomers attempting to view objects far from Earth. Hence, the mission of the Hubble Space Telescope is to allow the human species to observe these objects more accurately. Images from the Hubble Telescope are captured both as photographic images and as spectrographic images that allow astronomers to analyze color data.
First launched in 1990, the Hubble Telescope has since been visited by four crews of astronauts who performed adjustments and repairs between 1993 and 2009. Images from the Telescope have allowed scientists to narrow down the age of the universe from the vague range of 10 to 20 billion years to a much more precise estimate of 13.8 billion years.
The International Space Station
Canada, the U.S., Europe, Japan, and Russia collaborate in scientific research in low Earth orbit aboard the International Space Station (ISS). Components of the ISS were first launched in 1998. The ISS has been continually inhabited by at least one human being since November 2, 2000. November 1st, 2000 was the last time the entire human species was on Earth together at the same time.
SpaceX Tesla Roadster Launch
On Tuesday, February 6, 2018, the private company SpaceX tested a rocket that successfully launched a Tesla roadster into space. Tesla and SpaceX are, of course, jointly owned by South African-Canadian-American enterpreneur Elon Musk.
The test launch of the SpaceX Falcon Heavy rocket demonstrated its usefulness for what the company hopes will become its mission of launching larger-than-average satellites. Its payload of a red 2008 model Tesla Roadster sports car bears a dummy “driver” nicknamed Starman in homage to a David Bowie song. The car, which belonged to Musk personally, is officially the first car in space if one doesn’t count the lunar vehicles driven on the moon by American astronauts.
Launched from Kennedy Space Station, the Roadster passed by Mars in October 2020. The vehicle orbits the sun every 557 days. At its closest point to the Earth, the Roadster is 32 million miles from its home planet.