Space Exploration Missions by Decade

It's hard to believe that space exploration has been happening since the 1950s. What's even better is that there are plans to continue space exploration well into the future! We began our explorations with spacecraft that look quite quite primitive, especially compared to what's in store for the future. Let's take a closer look at some of the space exploration missions, with more information to come in the future. Here is a list of many of the best-known missions since Sputnik, with links to further reading about them.

Edited/revised by Carolyn Collins Petersen.


Sputnik 1
Sputnik 1. NASA

Space exploration began in earnest in the late 1950s, starting with Sputnik in 1957. From the very beginning, the Moon was an obvious and much sought-after target. But, we had to learn how to send things to space, first.  


Apollo 11 Launch
Apollo 11 Launch. NASA

The 1960s brought the Space Race between the United States and the then Soviet Union (now Russia) to full roar. Each country sent probes to the Moon, first learning to crash land while taking images, then soft landings. The ultimate goal was to land people on the Moon, which the United States did in 1969. 

The Moon wasn't the only target: Mars was also a tempting place to explore, and so NASA began sending probes there with an eye toward future human missions. The Russians showed early interest in Venus during this decade, with the U.S. following suit. 


Voyager 2
Voyager 2. NASA

 The decade of the 1970s saw more lunar landings, Mars and Venus exploration, and the launch of the Pioneer and Voyager missions to the outer solar system. It was the first decade of true interplanetary exploration. 


ISEE-3/ICE - International Sun-Earth Explorer 3 - International Cometary Explorer (ICE)
ISEE-3/ICE - International Sun-Earth Explorer 3 - International Cometary Explorer (ICE). NASA

Planetary exploration remained the theme in the 1980s, with spacecraft specifically targeted at the giant planets, Mars, Venus, Mercury, and Comet Halley. The space shuttles became the U.S.'s primary way of taking humans to space, specifically to begin work on the International Space Station in later decades.


Mars Pathfinder Mission
Mars Pathfinder Mission. NASA

Along with the long-term outer solar system missions,  the decade of the 1990s saw the launch of the Hubble Space Telescope, missions to study the Sun, new missions to the outer solar system, and the continual entry of other countries into the long-term space business. Japan and Europe, which had been sending project to space for some years, ramped up their activity, and joined China, the U.S. and the Russian Federation into space activities. 

2010+ (Cont.)

Mars Sample Return Lander Mission
Mars Sample Return Lander Mission. NASA

The next few years will see more Mars missions, lunar exploration, and an extension of probes to the outer solar system. Plus, human missions to Mars could begin to take shape as the technology for trans-Mars spacecraft is developed and tested.  

Our Future in Space Exploration

These lists contain just the best-known and ongoing missions of exploration and science. The world's space agencies are busy shaping new missions and targets of exploration.