Space and space travel were a national obsession in the 1960s and 1970s. As the United States and the Soviet Union competed against each other to be ‘first’ into space and so on, the public became enthralled with the idea of space travel. Over the next five decades that fervor has died down quite a lot. NASA, the organization founded to facilitate the space program, has become much less interesting than it was when it was actively sending people into space to do cool things. In fact, the private sector has now become the more interesting player in the space game.
Despite the decrease in interest in regards to NASA, it played a huge role through the late half of the 20th century in shaping America’s sense of adventure. Each new mission was seen as an accomplishment not of just the scientists and astronauts, but of America itself. NASA was seen in those days as the leaders in American innovation and inspiration. Because of that competition with the Soviet Union, each of NASA’s successes was seen as a reason why the United States was better.
One such mission kicked off on this day in 1971. On May 30th, 1971, NASA launched Mariner 9, whose mission was to navigate around Mars to finish the atmospheric studies started by the earlier Mariner probe missions. This was just one of the ambitious missions NASA launched to learn more about the Red Planet.
Mariner 9 reached Mars on November 14, 1971. It was most notable because it became the first spacecraft to successfully orbit another planet. The mission barely beat out the Soviets who sent their Mars 2 and 3 probes a month later.
Over the next year, the probe would send back almost 7400 photos of Mars back to Earth. The goal of Mariner 9 was to continue to map the atmosphere of Mars. Originally, this was supposed to be a dual mission like with Mariner 6 and 7, which had successfully been launched for mars in 1969. However, Mariner 8 was ruined.
Mars has always been a fascination for Earthlings. As one of the closest planets to Earth (Venus is closer most of the time), it has always been a subject for our intense study. NASA and the private sector both continue to spend time and resources to learn all they can about Mars. Some in the private sector have even planned one-way expeditions to the Red Planet in hopes of forming a colony there.
While the success and influence of the Mariner 9 launch is minimal in terms of broader history, it was another major milestone for NASA. Every success was well received by the American public through the 1960s and 1970s as the fervor surround space exploration was very high. On the other side of things, the failures were also of great interest to the public.
Over the course of the next three decades or so, NASA would see several major disasters strike, including the Space Shuttle Challenger explosion that killed seven astronauts. Add those disasters in with several mistakes (like using the wrong units to perform calculations), and NASA has seen a major fall from grace in the 2000s. Whether the private sector can bring back American’s interest in space exploration remains to be seen.