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Default Gallery: NASA's Most Amazing Extraterrestrial Vehicles

</img>: Image: Courtesy NASA NASA's mission is to take humans where they've never been before, so in honor of the agency's 50th anniversary, we take a look through the vehicles NASA's used to carry us into the unknown.
This gallery looks through all the eras of NASA from the early glorified missile launches of the pre-NASA 1950s through the Apollo moon missions to the shuttle era and beyond. In the process, we provide you with a brief history of the agency and human progress in space exploration, from the first satellite launches to the Mars Phoenix Lander.
Explorer 1

Left: With the successful launch of the Juno 1 rocket, the United States entered the Space Age. That rocket, shown here, placed the Explorer 1 satellite into orbit around the Earth in January 1958. Explorer marked an important milestone in the space race between the United States and the USSR, as the Russians had launched the first-ever satellite in October 1957.
Explorer's launch actually predated the formation of NASA by a few months: It was carried out by the Army Ballistic Missile Agency, indicating that the United States viewed space both as a frontier and a prospective battlefield. After several months of data transmission, the Explorer's batteries died in May. It hung in orbit until March 1970, when it burned up over the Pacific.
</img>: Image: Courtesy NASA Astronaut Alan Shepard became the first American in Space 47 years ago. He flew aboard his Mercury-Redstone 3, named Freedom 7, to make a historic 15-minute suborbital journey May 5, 1961. This image shows Shepard in the craft before launch. After being stuck in the tiny capsule for four hours and suffering through a myriad of delays, Shepard implored mission control to "fix your little problem and light this candle."
Soviet cosmonauts ejected from their vehicles before landing, so Freedom 7 became the first ship to take a human into space and return him all the way to the Earth's surface. But it wasn't easy. Before the craft splash-landed (map coordinates)in the Atlantic Ocean off Florida, Shepard was subjected to 11 g's of force.
</img>: Image: Courtesy NASA After the Freedom 7 briefly entered space, NASA's next step was to put an American into orbit. They accomplished the feat on February 20, 1962 with the Friendship 7, another Mercury spacecraft, propelled into space by the new Atlas rocket. John Glenn circled Earth three times in a flight that lasted a total of 4 hours, 55 minutes, 23 seconds.
Left: Test Mercury spacecraft are assembled at Langley Research Center, Virginia.
</img>: Image: Courtesy NASA
As a reusable hypersonic craft that flew at the edges of space, the X-15 rocket plane is considered by some to be the most-direct predecessor to the space shuttle, and the bridge between standard jets and spacecraft. Eight test pilots had a chance to fly the craft, including NASA research pilot Bill Dana, pictured here next to X-15 No. 3. He reached a top speed in the plane of almost 4,000 miles per hour and soared 59 miles high.
</img>: Image: Courtesy NASA The most famous space mission in human history marked the first time that human beings had set foot on another celestial body. The Saturn V rocket blasted the astronauts into space July 16, 1969, on their way to the moon. Four days later, the command module circled the moon as the lunar lander brought astronauts Neil Armstrong and Buzz Aldrin to the surface. Stepping onto the moon for the first time, Armstrong delivered his famous line, "That's one small step for man, one giant leap for mankind."
</img>: Image: Courtesy NASA This is a model of the Eagle that landed. The Apollo program's lunar lander remains the only vehicle to carry human beings to the surface of another celestial body and then return them home. Twenty feet tall and 14 feet in diameter, it remains an engineering marvel. Half the module was designed for the descent stage and the other half for takeoff and rendezvous with the orbiting command module. Initially plagued with cost and schedule overruns, it eventually became the most dependable piece of the Apollo infrastructure: Six of these landers made the trip to the moon.

</img>: Image: Courtesy NASA The Apollo lunar roving vehicle was an electric dune buggy built for the moon. One was included in each of the last three manned missions to the moon, Apollo 15 to Apollo 17. Each rover drove more than 15 miles across the lunar surface, ranging several miles from the landing module and reaching a maximum speed of 8 mph. Here, we see Apollo 17 mission commander Eugene Cernan with that mission's rover.
For some detailed fantasy fodder, check out NASA's Lunar Rover Operations Handbook -- just in case you're ever kidnapped, sent through a time machine and forced to stand in for Cernan.
</img>: Image: Courtesy NASA Skylab, America's first experimental space station, was launched in 1973 and soon hosted its first crew, who conducted experiments in solar astronomy, Earth resources and medicine, as well as five student experiments. In total, the lab was occupied for 171 days, with residents logging 42 hours of spacewalks.
In 1979, it experienced an unexpectedly early re-entry and fell from the sky over Esperance, Western Australia. "There was this bunch of brightly colored lights, followed by big sonic booms," Stan Thornton, a resident of the town, told Wired.com in 2001. "The sky lit up like a big retail shop."
</img>: Image: Courtesy NASA/JPL The Voyagers, as a duo, were both launched in 1977 and are now the farthest human objects from Earth. After providing the first looks at Jupiter's giant red spot, Voyager 1 is now almost 10 billion miles from Earth and outside the known orbit of any natural solar object, excluding long-period comets. It will be the first human object to reach interstellar space. Voyager 2 is on a similar path.
Left: This shot of Neptune is among the last photos that the spacecraft took before heading out of the solar system.
</img>: Image: Courtesy NASA Designed to usher in a new era of reusable spacecraft, the various space shuttles have carried out more than 120 missions and have deployed more than 60 satellites, including the groundbreaking Hubble Space Telescope. Sometimes called the most complex machines ever built, they've flown hundreds of millions of miles. However, their successes have been shadowed by the high-profile, lethal endings of the Columbia and Challenger. Three ships, the Atlantis, Endeavour and Discovery (pictured) will remain in service until 2010, when the shuttles will be retired. They'll be replaced by the next-generation Ares launch vehicles.
</img>: Image: Courtesy NASA In 1997, NASA aimed the Cassini-Huygens spacecraft towards Saturn and waited. Seven years later, Cassini entered Saturn's orbit and has been sending back beautiful images of the planet, its moons and rings ever since. Cassini jettisoned the Huygens probe in December 2004. After orbiting Titan, Huygens landed on that moon in January 2005, sending scientists the most-detailed images of Titan's surface ever seen.
Since then, Cassini has continued to image the planetary system. Here, Saturn's pale, icy moon Dione is offset by the gold and blue hues of the planet, in this image taken October 11, 2005. The horizontal stripes near the bottom of the image are Saturn's rings. Cassini was nearly in the same plane as the rings when the image was taken, making them look thin and masking their awesome scale.
</img>: Image: Courtesy NASA When the international space station is completed, it will be a 900,000-pound, 190-by-146-foot orbiting hub for space science and exploration -- probably the most complicated space endeavor ever undertaken. Assembled in orbit from component modules, it has about 15,000 square feet of living space and has been continuously inhabited since November 2000. It's powered by 240 square feet of solar arrays and features a suite of scientific modules, including NASA's Destiny, which became the agency's first permanent lab since SkyLab when it went into operation in 2001. When all is said and done, the total cost of the ISS could end up running to $100 billion. Given that steep price tag, and with NASA firmly focused on the moon and Mars, the ISS's future looks murky.
</img>: Image: Courtesy NASA In one of the most creative missions in NASA history, the Deep Impact spacecraft actually fired a projectile into the surface of Comet Tempel 1 to learn more about its interior. Even though blasting the comet was the flashiest part of the 2005 mission, further observation by the spacecraft's main imager captured another surprise: the first-ever evidence of water ice on the surface of a comet. In this picture, the "impactor" is located at the bottom of the craft.
</img>: Image: Courtesy NASA/JPL/UA/Lockheed Martin One of NASA's "cheaper, better, faster" missions, the little lander that could completed a perfect touchdown in May of this year near the Martian north pole. In the next month, it will finish a series of tests to assess the suitability for life of the ice-laden Martian dirt. Then, after a mere 90 days on the surface, it will shut down, never to be heard from again. Here, the lander is pictured in prelaunch trials in 2007.
</img>: Image: Courtesy NASA/Sean Smith The model for the next generation of lunar rover isn't a buggy: It's a truck. The "crew mobility chassis" is designed to provide astronauts with maximum mobility, with all of its wheels able to pivot in any direction. Another key aspect of the lunar truck is that it serves as a mobile control station for robots like the K10, seen in the distance of this image snapped during a training exercise.


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