Humans have always looked at the heavens and wondered about the nature of the objects seen in the night sky. With the development of rockets and the advances in electronics and other technologies in the 20th century, it became possible to send machines and animals and then people above Earth's atmosphere into outer space. Well before technology made these achievements possible, however, space exploration had already captured the minds of many people, not only aircraft pilots and scientists but also writers and artists. The strong hold that space travel has always had on the imagination may well explain why professional astronauts and laypeople alike consent at their great peril, in the words of Tom Wolfe in the The Right Stuff (1979), to sit “on top of an enormous Roman candle, such as a Redstone, Atlas, Titan or Saturn rocket, and wait for someone to light the fuse.” It perhaps also explains why space exploration has been a common and enduring theme in literature and art. As centuries of speculative fiction in books and more recently in films make clear, “one small step for man, one giant leap for mankind” was taken by the human spirit many times and in many ways before Neil Armstrong stamped humankind's first footprint on the Moon.
Achieving spaceflight enabled humans to begin to explore the solar system and the rest of the universe, to understand the many objects and phenomena that are better observed from a space perspective, and to use for human benefit the resources and attributes of the space environment. All of these activities—discovery, scientific understanding, and the application of that understanding to serve human purposes—are elements of space exploration.