Space Exploration Timeline Title

2001 - 2010


February 12, 2001

First Landing on an Asteroid

The Near Earth Asteroid Rendezvous (NEAR) spacecraft is successfully landed on the surface of the asteroid Eros. NEAR sends back unprecedented images of the asteroid's surface during its hour-long descent. NEAR had been in orbit around Eros since February 14, 2000. It was never designed to land on the asteroid. The landing is a last minute idea to get some additional data as the spacecraft as it runs out of fuel and nears the end of its mission.

February 14, 2001

100th U.S. Space Walk

U.S. astronauts Thomas Jones and Robert Curbeam Jr. make history as they perform the 100th space walk in the United States space program. The space walk is part of the installation procedure for the new Destiny module of the International Space Station.

March 11, 2001

New Space Walk Record

U.S. Shuttle astronauts Susan Helms and Jim Voss set a new endurance record as they install the Leonardo module aboard the International Space Station. The total time spent in space is 8 hours 56 minutes.

April 28, 2001

First Tourist in Space

American businessman Dennis Tito becomes the first tourist to fly into space. His 20 million dollar offer is rejected by the United States, but is later welcomed by the Russian space program. A Soyuz space capsule delivers the space tourist and the Russian crew to the International Space Station, where Tito is given limited access to the station.


February 1, 2003

Space Shuttle Columbia Disaster

The space shuttle Columbia breaks up in the atmosphere over Texas while returning to the Kennedy space center. The entire seven-member crew is lost in the accident. Columbia was the first space shuttle to fly and this is her 28th mission. Investigations conclude that a piece of foam from the fuel tank broke off during launch and punctured the orbiter's left wing. This hole in the wing allowed hot gases to enter during reentry, causing the orbiter lose control and break up while traveling over 13,000 miles per hour. NASA grounds the entire space shuttle fleet until safety updates can be made.

October 15, 2003

First Chinese Manned Spaceflight

The Shenzhou 5 spacecraft is launched from Jiuquan Satellite Launch Center in China. It carries Yang Liwei who becomes the first man sent into space by the Chinese space program. China sets goals for an eventual manned space station and a manned mission to the Moon.


January 3, 2004

Spirit Rover Lands on Mars

After parachuting through the atmosphere and then bouncing to a stop using giant air bags, the Mars rover Spirit lands on the red planet in a location known as Gusev crater. Designed to last only three months, Spirit and its sister rover, Opportunity, prove to be tough and the mission is continued for several years.

January 25, 2004

Opportunity Rover Lands on Mars

The sister rover to Spirit, Opportunity lands on the opposite side of the planet Mars in a location known as Meridiani Planum. After a mission extension of several years, Opportunity and its companion, Spirit, send back extraordinary images of the Martian surface and perform chemical experiments on rock samples. Many new discoveries include layered rock formations that could have been formed in water and tornado-like dust devils moving across the surface.

June 21, 2004

First Manned Private Space Flight

A privately financed and built spacecraft known as SpaceShipOne makes history as the first non-government spacecraft to be flown into space. Pilot Mike Melvill fly the craft to an altitude of 62 miles (100 kilometers). The team hopes to win the Ansari X PRIZE by making two space flights within two weeks of each other. SpaceShipOne was built by famed aerospace designer Burt Rutan of Mojave-based Scaled Composites, with financial backing from Microsoft Corporation co-founder Paul Allen.

July 1, 2004

Cassini Probe Arrives at Saturn

After a journey of nearly seven years, the Cassini probe arrives at the planet Saturn, where it will spend four years photographing the ringed planet and its many moons for. Cassini carries with it another small probe called Huygens that will later be sent to land on Saturn's largest moon, Titan. Huygens will attempt to send back to Earth the first images of the surface of Titan.

September 29, 2004

First X PRIZE Attempt

The privately developed spacecraft, SpaceShipOne, makes its first attempt to claim the X PRIZE as Mike Melvill pilots the craft to an altitude of 337,500 feet (63.9 miles or 102.9 kilometers). The team hopes to win the Ansari X PRIZE by making another trip into space within two weeks.

October 5, 2004

X PRIZE Awarded

SpaceShipOne claims the $10 million X PRIZE by making its second trip into space within two weeks. On this flight, civilian astronaut Brian Binnie pilots the craft to an altitude of 367,442 feet (112 kilometers), far surpassing the 100-kilometer (62.5-miles) altitude required to win the X PRIZE. The flight also brakes the altitude record for an airplane, set by X-15 pilot Joseph Walker in 1963. The SpaceShipOne team hopes to license their technology for use in future commercial space flights.

October 7, 2004

America's Space Prize Offered

Following the recent X PRIZE win by SpaceShipOne, Hotel magnate Robert Bigelow has offers $50 million to the first private spacecraft to achieve orbit. The winner of this prize will also be offered contracts to ferry passengers to the first private space stations to be built by Bigelow's company, Bigelow Aerospace. A spacecraft will have to travel six times faster and four times higher than SpaceShipOne, which recently claimed the Ansari X PRIZE by becoming the first private spacecraft to fly into space.


January 14, 2005

First Landing on an Alien Moon

After descending by parachute for 2 hours and 28 minutes, the Huygens probe lands on Saturn's largest moon, Titan. Even though a technical glitch limits the probe's imaging capabilities, Huygens is successful in sending a series of images back to Earth. For the first time, scientists get a look at the surface of a moon other than our own. The images show a surface that is flat and littered with small rocks. Dark areas on some images could indicate the presence of liquid methane.

July 4, 2005

First Impact With a Comet

After a journey of 174 days, the Deep Impact space probe fulfills its mission by slamming into a comet known as Tempel 1. The probe impacts the comet at a speed of 10.3 kilometers (6.3 miles) per second. The probe's mothership photographed the impact and analyzed the resulting debris. Among the many discoveries was water ice within the comet.

July 26, 2005

Space Shuttle Returns to Flight

The space shuttle Discovery launches from the Kennedy space center, marking the shuttle's return to flight two and a half years after the Columbia disaster. The flight is not entirely successful, however. Cameras on the orbiter record a piece of foam breaking off from the fuel tank during launch, sparking fears of another Columbia-style accident. NASA again grounds the shuttle fleet until the liquid fuel tank can be redesigned.


January 15, 2006

First Comet Samples Returned to Earth

After a journey of nearly seven years and 2.9 billion miles (4.6 billion kilometers), NASA's Stardust mission successfully comes to a conclusion in the desert salt flats of the Utah Test and Training Range. The capsule safely parachutes to the ground after collecting dust and particle samples from comet Wild 2. The samples are collected by the probe in the comet's coma within 147 miles (236 kilometers) of the comet’s nucleus. Scientists believe that comets may be composed of the same primitive material that initially formed the Solar System. Analysis of the samples may help to reveal some of the secrets behind solar system formation.


March 6, 2009

The Hunt for Extrasolar Planets

The Kepler spacecraft launches on a mission to search for planets outside our solar system. This first-of-its-kind spacecraft uses a technique known as the "transit" method to search for planets orbiting distant stars. As a planet moves in front of the star's disk, the light from the star dims ever so slightly and in a regular cycle. Kepler can detect these cycles to detect a planet and also to approximate its size and orbit.


December 8, 2010

First Commercial Orbit and Return

A company called SpaceX becomes the first private company to launch a spacecraft to orbit and return it safely to the Earth. This landmark event had only been accomplished by governments before this day. The unmanned capsule, known as Dragon, is launched from Cape Canaveral, Florida, on December 8 atop a Falcon 9 rocket. After completing two orbits around the Earth, the Dragon spacecraft successfully splashes down in the Pacific Ocean off the coast of Mexico.