Space exploration, the investigation of physical conditions in space and on stars, planets, and other celestial bodies through the use of artificial satellites (spacecraft that orbit the earth), space probes (spacecraft that pass through the solar system and that may or may not orbit another celestial body), and spacecraft with human crews.
Satellites and Probes
Although studies from earth using optical and radio telescopes had accumulated much data on the nature of celestial bodies, it was not until after World War II that the development of powerful rockets made direct space exploration a technological possibility. The first artificial satellite, Sputnik I, was launched by the USSR (now Russia) on Oct. 4, 1957, and spurred the dormant U.S. program into action, leading to an international competition popularly known as the "space race." Explorer I, the first American satellite, was launched on Jan. 31, 1958. Although earth-orbiting satellites have by far accounted for the great majority of launches in the space program, even more information on the moon, other planets, and the sun has been acquired by space probes.