Mankind has been gazing out at the final frontier for as long as we've felt compelled to look up. We can never know what went through the mind of prehistoric humans who gazed up at the night sky. Perhaps they thought nothing of it and shrugged at all of the shiny dots overhead. Or perhaps they thought: "If only we had rockets!" Well, the latter is unlikely, but the impulse to "go" to places we've never been before is nonetheless an age-old thought. Having explored (nearly) all of the Earth's surface, it's natural to look to the cosmos. Despite our wayfaring nature, however, we really haven't made it very far in space … Yet.
Thus far in our species' history, human beings have traveled no farther than the surface of Earth's own moon. Manned missions landed there six times between July 20, 1969, and Dec. 14, 1972, but it was the failed Apollo 13 mission in 1970 that sent humans the farthest into space. The crew on board for that ill-fated journey was forced to travel around to the far side of the moon, placing them 248,655 miles (400,171 kilometers) away from Earth. So for now they hold the distance record.
When and if we travel farther out there, it will likely be in partnership with private industry as opposed to a government going it alone. NASA, for example, has been asking private American space organizations, such as SpaceX, to use the International Space Station (ISS) during the years 2010 to 2015. (SpaceX and NASA inked a $1.6 billion agreement for a dozen flights to the ISS [source: Chow].) During this period, NASA doesn't plan to send any missions to the ISS, but it still wants an American presence aboard the ISS. If we ever do come around to launching humans past the moon to some new destination, such as Mars, it's a safe bet a similar partnership will be fundamental to its success.
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Why did Sputnik force the U.S. to put so much effort into space?
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Did you know you were going to fly in the final shuttle mission?
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