For a species that was handed what might be the best of all possible planets, humans have been oddly anxious to leave it. Our itch to venture into space has been with us ever since we first realized that the points of light in the sky are actually places in the sky. Recognizing a place, for us, is enough to want to visit that place.
For millennia, that wish remained just a wish. Then, in 1957, everything changed, when the Soviet Union jolted the world with the announcement that it had placed Sputnik, the first artificial satellite, into orbit around Earth. The U.S. raced to catch up, and the following year established the National Aeronautics and Space Administration, with the goal of staking America’s claim to its own piece of the cosmos. In the 60 years since, NASA has done just that.
Generations of exploration have seen spacecraft bearing both the American flag and the NASA logo ranging throughout the solar system. The diagram below, color-coded by decade, tracks most of those journeys. It is an illustration of ambition, of innovation, even of obsession.
The national passion for the moon of the 1960s and ’70s resulted in not just machines making the lunar journey, but also people. Our continuing love affair with Mars has today produced nothing less than American infrastructure—rovers, landers, orbiters—on and around the Red Planet.
There have been journeys to the inner planets: the Messenger, Magellan and Mariner spacecraft to Mercury and Venus. There have, too, been expeditions to Jupiter and Saturn and their colorful flocks of moons. Asteroids and comets and the sun itself have also been studied up close.