From an all-female spacewalk to the first image of a black hole, a lot has changed in the last twenty years of space exploration.

1. Astronaut diversity

It’s safe to say that NASA is much more diverse now than it used to be. Twenty years ago, most of NASA’s astronauts were men, and this year, two women participated in the first all-female spacewalk in our history.

Christina Koch and Jessica Meir ventured out of the space station to change batteries for solar energy production and complete a few other tasks. Changing batteries might sound simple enough, but this particular mission took over seven hours to complete.

The first all-female spacewalk was actually scheduled to happen in March of this year, but the women were short a spacesuit that fit their specifications-another reminder of how things have been catered to men in the past.

First-ever all-female spacewalk
First-ever all-female spacewalk: on October 18, 2019, NASA spacewalkers Christina Koch (foreground, suit with red stripe) and Jessica Meir (suit with no stripes) replaced a failed battery charge-discharge unit with a new one during a 7-hour, 17-minute spacewalk. They concluded the spacewalk at 2:55 p.m. EDT.

2. Low-orbit satellite internet

Even though high-speed internet flourishes in big cities, many rural communities still lack the infrastructure to link to a high-speed provider. Satellite internet allows people to use orbiting satellites to connect to a provider without relying on landlines or cables.

Over the past 20 years, satellite internet has become a more accessible option for people across the country. However, there are only two main providers of satellite internet in the US. It’s usually reserved for people who can afford to spend a little more and who have no other options, but Elon Musk is hoping to change all that with his space-based internet initiative.

SpaceX’s Starlink initiative plans to launch thousands of satellites into Earth’s orbit in order to provide internet coverage everywhere in the world. The satellites will orbit the planet at a lower altitude in order to provide a stronger signal.

The idea of universal internet access is exciting but will likely take years of trial and error to get right. Musk himself noted that it will take several launches in order to provide a decent internet signal through Starlink.

3. Commercial space exploration

One of the biggest developments in the last twenty years is the rise of commercial space travel. The first commercial trip to space actually took place in 2001 when Dennis Tito paid $20 million to visit the International Space Station (ISS).

Since then, Elon Musk has created SpaceX, Mike Melvill has piloted SpaceShipOne, and Virgin Galactic has introduced a space tourism package that will cost around $250,000 per traveler.

Boeing is also contracted to transport astronauts to and from the space station as a means of commercial, rather than government-funded, travel.

4. The first full year spent in space

The International Space Station continues to be at the heart of space exploration, providing crucial information and awe-inspiring imagery. In the last twenty years, a few records have been set, including the longest time spent in space.

NASA astronaut Scott Kelly and Russian cosmonaut Mikhail Kornienko returned to Earth in 2016 after spending an entire year in space to study the effects of an extended stay on the human body. What makes this mission even more unique is that Scott Kelly has a twin – so scientists were able to study the impact with genetically identical DNA.

For the most part, Kelly’s body fully adjusted and recovered after returning to Earth. However, there were a few abnormalities, such as lower cognitive scores. Some people believe this study shows it’s too dangerous to send humans on an extended trip, while others say we just don’t have enough information yet to decide.

Happy New Year Message from ISS
From left to right: NASA astronaut Timothy Kopra, NASA astronaut Scott Kelly, and ESA astronaut Timothy Peake. Kelly was nearing the completion of the ninth month of a year-long mission on the ISS when this photo was taken.

5. Advances in telescopes and imagery

High-tech telescopic cameras have evolved over the last twenty years, bringing us groundbreaking imagery.

Just this year scientists captured the very first image of a black hole 55 million light-years away from Earth in the M87 galaxy.

NASA’s Kepler Space Telescope detected the first exoplanet similar to Earth’s specifications in 2014 and confirmed its placement in 2015. The planet, known as Kepler-186f, orbits a much smaller and dimmer star in a habitable zone about 500 light-years away from Earth.

Telescope advancements also led to the somewhat upsetting news that Pluto is no longer considered a planet, but researchers now theorize a ninth planet could be orbiting in our solar system after all. Mathematical probability suggests “Planet X” could be orbiting the Sun, but it would take up to 20,000 years to make a single orbit.

The Curiosity Mars Rover and other red-planet robots have also provided high definition imagery over the last twenty years as we’ve never seen before.

Overall, it’s an exciting time for space exploration. Astronaut teams are becoming more diverse, satellite internet is expanding, and commercial space travel is advancing-plus, with ISS research, we’re closer than ever to sending a human to Mars.

Mars Curiosity Rover view of Mount Sharp
Curiosity Rover’s view of “Mount Sharp”. The Curiosity Mars Rover and other red-planet robots have provided high definition imagery over the last twenty years as we’ve never seen before.

Victoria Schmid

Victoria Schmid enjoys writing about technology for the “everyday” person. She is a specialist in consumer technology and internet culture. She has a background in broadcast journalism.
Victoria Schmid

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