Space exploration is constantly driven by humanity's desire to move on and learn more about the cosmos.
A new book, "The History of Smithsonian Space Exploration: From Antiquity to the Extraterrestrial Future" (Smithsonian Books, 2018), published October 23, follows humanity's journey into space.
The author, space philosopher Roger D. Launius, shows the groundbreaking advances in astronomy and space by staring at the stars as he sends astronauts to the moon and launches satellites into the galaxy's vastness of science. [NASA: 60 Years of Space Exploration]
Space.com spoke with Launius about key moments in the history of space exploration and where we're going to send people to Mars and beyond.
Space.com: In your experience as a space historian, what are some of the most iconic moments in human history that have helped lay the foundations for space exploration?
Roger D. Launius: The discovery of 1
Also, the realization that points of light in the sky at night are not just points of light – some of them are planets. As soon as people got over it, we began to speculate about whether we could go there. Then, in the 20th century, we saw the fusion of scientific and technological understanding, along with the development of skills that enabled us to go into space.
Space.com: How has the idea of space changed from the world? Babylonian astronomers from 700 BC
Launius: In essence, this transformation took place in the context of the scientific revolution. Ancient civilizations pursued the stars … but they certainly did not understand that what they were looking at was a body that could have a hard surface to possibly stand on – that came with the scientific revolution.
Space.com: What are the different roles that astronomy has played in shaping human history, from religious influence to the use of rockets as weapons to stars for navigation?
Launius: Astronomy is the oldest of all sciences. It goes back to the first record of human history. From the observations, people learned when to grow crops and [gained] an understanding of the changing seasons. When you realize that, you begin to find an explanation – that the earth is spinning [the sun]. As a result, calendars were developed, as well as the ability to tell time.
Space.com: You mentioned in the book that if early explorers traveled to new areas, they would describe the unknown creatures they encountered as "foreign." Now, as we search for other worlds in the universe, do you think that we will find some extraterrestrial life?
Launius: I hope so! That's the ultimate question – are we alone in the universe? Space science is trying to answer that question. I think we'll probably find the answer in the 21st century.
Ultimately, it's about discovering some form of life – probably microbial. The biomass of this planet suggests that 99.9 percent of all living things are of microbial origin, most of which are subterraneous or submerged. If that is the case, one would expect that to be the life best encountered anywhere else in our solar system or beyond. Consequently, it would not be the life we could communicate with. It would probably be something that is not good for us, and we probably would not be good for it, because it would have evolved differently, in a different place, under different circumstances. [Best Spaceflight and Space History Books]
Space.com: How did we get to the phase of space exploration we are in?
Launius: From theoretical work in the late 19th century by people like [“Russian rocket pioneer”] Konstantin Tsiolkovsky … to experimentalists like Robert Goddard [who invented the world’s first liquid-fueled rocket] we now have the consistent one and persistent development of rocket technology that enables us to get off this planet, which is the only way we can undertake space exploration.
This development process, which is largely driven by military research to kill people and smash things, is very important, unlike space research. In the 20th century, we were able to use this technology for [other] purposes. Space exploration builds on this concept.
Space.com: Where are we going with the space program?
Launius: I think we'll see more satellites on the edges of the solar system in the 21st century. I also believe that humans could rejoin the moon and even fly to Mars.
Space.com: What, if any, challenges, do you think we are facing international space exploration?
Launius: It is always difficult to work with several nations. We have to negotiate and decide what is acceptable to both sides. It's complicated by different cultures, languages and priorities – but I think if we look back in a hundred years, we would see the International Space Station as one of our greatest achievements – at least until now. And it is not memorable for the on-board science, but for the ability to bring together several nations for scientific and technological pursuit, rather than building war weapons.
Space.com: Are there any major revelations about the history of space exploration that you hope will leave readers?
Launius: Space exploration is much more difficult than ever thought. Over time, however, we have learned that we can achieve almost anything we can imagine.
This interview was edited for length. You can buy "The Smithsonian History of Space Exploration" from Amazon.com.