From our small world we have gazed upon the cosmic ocean for untold thousands of years. Ancient astronomers observed points of light that appeared to move among the stars. They called these objects planets, meaning wanderers, and named them after Roman deities -- Jupiter, king of the gods; Mars, the god of war; Mercury, messenger of the gods; Venus, the god of love and beauty, and Saturn, father of Jupiter and god of agriculture. The stargazers also observed comets with sparkling tails, and meteors or shooting stars apparently falling from the sky.
Science flourished during the European Renaissance. Fundamental physical laws governing planetary motion were discovered, and the orbits of the planets around the Sun were calculated. In the 17th century, astronomers pointed a new device called the telescope at the heavens and made startling discoveries.
But the years since 1959 have amounted to a golden age of solar system exploration. Advancements in rocketry after World War II enabled our machines to break the grip of Earth's gravity and travel to the Moon and to other planets.
The United States has sent automated spacecraft, then human-crewed expeditions, to explore the Moon. Our automated machines have orbited and landed on Venus and Mars, explored the Sun's environment, observed comets, and asteroids, and made close-range surveys while flying past Mercury, Jupiter, Saturn, Uranus and Neptune.
These travelers brought a quantum leap in our knowledge and understanding of the solar system. Through the electronic sight and other "senses" of our automated spacecraft, color and complexion have been given to worlds that for centuries appeared to Earth-bound eyes as fuzzy disks or indistinct points of light. And dozens of previously unknown objects have been discovered.
Future historians will likely view these pioneering flights through the solar system as some of the most remarkable achievements of the 20th century.
Space History Rocket History
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