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I am planning a 6-lecture course on Space Exploration for our local Elder College. It is aimed at a motivated audience with general knowledge in science. The objective is to generate interest in Space Exploration. I plan to feature a single spacecraft mission in each lecture to illustrate benefits and knowledge gained by that mission.

So, which 6 missions best illustrate the benefits to society (both material and basic knowledge)?

Obvious favorites would be GPS system, Hubble and Voyager .

This question is partially opinion-based. Please include factual information to support answers so we can comply with SE standards.

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  • $\begingroup$ I would add the Saturn V to the list $\endgroup$ Oct 10, 2023 at 16:43
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    $\begingroup$ The Pioneer space probes for giving us our first glimpses of the planets beyond Jupiter & for being amongst the first to reach terminal velocity for the solar system. The Voyager probes as well given that one of the probes is still providing us with data on conditions beyond the influence of the Sun. I'd also add Viking 1 to the list for its soft landing on Mars, but also for taking the picture of the "face" on Mars at Cydonia which gave us a psychological kick in the pants about the potential for other intelligent life elsewhere in the cosmos. $\endgroup$
    – Fred
    Oct 10, 2023 at 19:09
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    $\begingroup$ I think this question is opinion based. However: Voyager, Apollo capsules and CSM's, Soyuz and Progress, Mariner, Hubble, STS $\endgroup$ Oct 10, 2023 at 20:19
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    $\begingroup$ If it's for teaching, it may be beneficial to try and find at least one Soviet program. This will give a different perspective. Perhaps the Salyut series of space stations? $\endgroup$ Oct 11, 2023 at 22:04
  • $\begingroup$ @Infinite_Maelstrom - Yes, very true, growing up, any material on space exploration was very skewed towards US as being the only one to make any progress. Would think of Sputnik, Vostok, Soyuz/Salyut, in addition to STS, Skylab, ISS, Apollo/Saturn, Voyager/Pioneer... $\endgroup$ Oct 13, 2023 at 1:57

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I think you have to include the Shuttle program, both because of its successes and failures.

First, the Shuttle program was long. It commenced in 1972, started flying in 1981, and ended 2011. It flew 135 missions so the sum knowledge gained there is substantial in itself.

Second, it played a key role supporting other impactful programs, including Hubble, which it launched and serviced, and the ISS.

Third, the failures of the Shuttle program are important to mention since knowledge needs to gained from both successes and failures. The failures could start from the planning and design stages (overselling and overestimation of Shuttle capabilities, whether it was wise to have cargo and humans in the same vehicle) and of course include its two accidents.

A key point to make is that the challenges of spaceflight aren't purely technical. Vision, planning, organizational dynamics, and politics are just as important as engine design.

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I would imagine that besides "pushing the final frontier" it would help if each of the six spacecraft represented different types of spacecraft, allowing each lecture to cover different aspects of space exploration. My picks would be:

Sputnik 2 - 1957

The second satellite in history, Sputnik 2 was the first to carry scientific instruments, making the first direct scientific observations from space. It also carried a dog named Laika which was the first living organism launched from Earth into orbit, and the first mammal. Although Sputnik 1's radio transmitter provided some limited scientific information, Sputnik 2 really marks the beginning of scientific exploration of the cosmos by spacecraft.

Vostok - 1961

Placing the first human into outer space cannot be minimized in terms of the historic achievement. And while Sputnik had a big effect on the space race, what really created the push to reach the Moon was Yuri Gagarin's Vostok flight. With some modifications, the Vostok (East) capsule, renamed as Voskhod (Sunrise) enabled the world's first spacewalk, the first (relatively) soft return landing on dry land, and the first space flights with two and three people. And the world's first female astronaut Valentina Tereshkova flew on a Voskhod capsule in 1963.

Apollo Lunar Module - 1969

It was the first spaceship built solely for flying in space. And the first, and so far only spacecraft to land astronauts on another world.

Space Shuttle - 1981

The first reusable spacecraft, the first spacecraft recovered from orbit intact, the first spacecraft to carry four, five, six, seven and eight passengers. Essentially the first work vehicle in space, the Space Shuttle was equipped with a robotic arm, massive cargo bay, and a built-in airlock, enabling transporting astronauts and equipment to and from a worksite and supporting their on-orbit operations. Although famously expensive to operate, the Shuttle had a profound effect on our perceptions about what is possible in human spaceflight, as well as highlighting the dangerous and unforgiving nature of space travel with tragic clarity.

Voyager 1 and 2 - 1977

Not the first interplanetary space probes, but so far the ones that have gone the farthest. Made the first ever visits to Uranus and Neptune. And they are the first spacecraft to leave the solar system, or at least explore its boundaries. After nearly fifty years the Voyager spacecraft are still transmitting data. Voyager 1 is currently more than 160 times further from the Sun than we are. The radio signals that it transmits, travelling at the speed of light, take nearly 24 hours to reach us.

Hubble Space Telescope - 1990

Not the first space telescope, but because of its capabilities Hubble seemed to mark the beginning of an unprecedented period of discovery, as well as captivating an entire generation with its stunning visible light views of the universe. It is also so far the only space telescope designed to be maintained on orbit by astronauts. Like the Apollo Moon landings, Hubble's impact our perception of space is hard to measure, but clearly massive.

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  • $\begingroup$ Good list, but - no space stations? $\endgroup$ Oct 12, 2023 at 20:42
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    $\begingroup$ @Infinite_Maelstrom - the thing about space stations is that generally speaking they do things that other spacecraft have done but for longer periods. So not quite as many firsts. The Space Shuttle for example essentially acted as a space station on some missions, and in other cases even carried a small space station, or at least space laboratory (Spacelab/Spacehab). It could only support shorter missions of around two weeks. Probably the biggest contribution of space stations so far is providing experience in long term physiological effects, as well as experience assembling things in space. $\endgroup$ Oct 12, 2023 at 22:30
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In terms of pushing technical boundaries in space, I don't think I'd add GPS to the list. While technically very interesting, I don't feel it solved a new "space problem".

My list would be:

  1. Sputnik 1 - first satellite; perhaps also cover Explorer 1
  2. Gemini - solving orbital rendezvous
  3. Saturn-Apollo - solving long duration manned missions
  4. Salyut - first crewed space station; perhaps also cover Skylab
  5. Pioneer and Voyager - first missions to outer planets; but I would cover Venera too
  6. STS - see post by user71659

I really want to add Hubble, JWST and all the other observatories, for what they have done to popularise astronomy and space travel. However, being limited to 6, I think I would leave these out: while they were ground breaking in many technical areas, I don't feel they pushed the space frontier as much as the other 6 in the list.

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  • $\begingroup$ If you look at the early history, the first flight of Robert Goddard in 1926 and the V2 rocket from Werner van Braun could be added $\endgroup$ Oct 12, 2023 at 8:25
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    $\begingroup$ @TheRocketfan You should write up your own answer with justification for your choices. OP is asking for 6, these are my choices. $\endgroup$
    – Ludo
    Oct 12, 2023 at 8:56
  • $\begingroup$ If I have the time to do so, I will. $\endgroup$ Oct 12, 2023 at 11:16
  • $\begingroup$ @Ludo ... Venera is a good suggestion. As well as overcoming technical hurdles, they provided novel scientific knowledge. Due to the cacophony of drum-beating during the Cold War, they were not well publicized in the West. $\endgroup$
    – Woody
    Oct 12, 2023 at 15:15

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