A century of technology

Race to space

A drawing of a man flying above a landscape holding ropes as reins tied to a pair of fabric wings, held afloat by means of a small balloon strapped to his back.

After centuries of sketching, planning and trying, the 20th century would become the age of aviation and the conquest of space. With the first flights taking off at the beginning of the century and daring competitions to cross the channel and the Atlantic Ocean quickly following, aircrafts first proved their societal relevance in military service during World War I.

Read more about the battle to first cross the Atlantic in this blog

Initially used for reconnaissance flights, planes soon were involved in a wide range of tasks, culminating in their pivotal role in the battles over Flanders’ fields.

a group of soldiers stand around the remains of an aircraft carrying a German emblem

Between the two World Wars, transport by airplane became more common in other contexts as well.

a woman stands on the nose of a landed propeller plane, poised to jump into a shallow pool next to the plane. Three other women in swimsuits stand and watch.

Planes were avidly used for mail services, not only covering mid-long distances but also long range services to the outskirts of the British Empire and the US overseas territories.

A large airplane with the name 'Horatius' written on its nose stands behind a car parked on the tarmac. Several men in suits are seen standing in front of the plane, one of them holding a full mail sack.

Companies such as Imperial Airways or PanAm set the stage for transatlantic flights, connections to the Mediterrean and East Asia, starting passenger services for the wealthy few.

Advertising the many marvels of KLM, 1921 EYE Filmmuseum (The Netherlands). In Copyright - EU Orphan Work

Wooden and linen-covered aircrafts would gradually be replaced by lightweight metal constructions, allowing planes to fly higher. Increases in engine performance made aircrafts gain range and speed.

a row of propeller biplanes stand side to side, seen from the side, with their noses pointing to the left, on an airfield in the grass.

During World War II, air superiority would play a key role in the Allied victory. Stuka bombers assisting in the blitzkrieg, the Battle of Britain, the aerial bombing of cities such as London and Dresden and the fateful dropping of the atomic bombs over Japan are imprinted in our collective memory. From the 1940s on, the proven efficacy of aircraft carriers would put a stop to the use of battlecruisers and fundamentally transform naval operations.

A photograph taken from above of three propeller airplanes that are revving up for takeoff, dust kicking up around them on the airfield.

In the postwar era, jet passenger services initiated an age of mass air travel, laying the foundation of the modern tourism industry. Airports became staples of architectural design - their shiny surfaces and luscious curves conveying the rosy outlook on life typical of the time. As for aircrafts, advances in materials - from aluminium alloys to composites - engine efficiency and navigational innovations such as the GPS continuously pushed the limits to bigger, higher, further.

the interior of a Boeing plane, with shiny leather seats grouped three by three on either sides of the aisle. A man sits in a seat second from the right in the right aisle.

The 1990s would turn out to be the heyday of aviation, with jumbo jets flying millions of passengers to all corners of the globe. But as a new millennium dawned, the radiant optimism of the aviation sector started to wane. Concerns about sustainability, ecological impact and air pollution caused attitudes towards these mighty machines at the vanguard of technology to change for good.

Growing concerns about pollution caused by aviation, 1971. RTBF. In copyright

Browse more milestones in aviation history on film footage

By that time, travelling by air had crossed its final frontier, as the conquest of space was now well underway. The history of space travel, once again, is rooted in that of war.

A large truck is pulling out onto a road, its payload is a large rocket. On the side of the truck the words 'I aim at the stars, Die Wernher von Braun Story' can be read.

The V-2 ballistic missile, a device developed by Nazi engineers as Vergeltungswaffe, was meant to bring retribution to the Allies for their bombing of German cities. It could reach a height of 200 kilometres when vertically launched. The V-2 thus became the first object to fly to space, crossing the so-called Kármán line (the theoretical boundary between Earth's atmosphere and outer space) on 20 June 1944.

Rocket experiments, 1953. DR. In copyright

The pioneering work on the V-2 of aerospace engineer Werner Von Braun attracted the interest of the Allies and he was moved to the US after the war in ‘Operation Paperclip’. There, Von Braun led space exploration efforts at NASA, becoming the main designer of the Saturnus V rocket. This device, in turn, sent Apollo to the moon in 1969. By that time, however, the first space successes had turned out to be Russian.

A photograph of the inside of a large tunnel hangar, where models of Sputnik I and other spacecraft can be seen hanging from the ceiling.

Heading up the Cold War space race, the Soviets launched Sputnik 1 in 1957 and put Yuri Gagarin in orbit as the first human in space on April 12, 1961.

It would take a while for the rest of Europe to rejoin the space race. Its very own spaceport, the Guiana Space Centre, opened in 1968, while the European Space Agency (ESA) was founded in 1975. This initiated the development of the Ariane space launchers, the first of which took off in December 1979. A year later, Arianespace - the European satellite launch programme - was founded.

25 years of Ariane: a celebration, 1988. TV3 Televisió de Catalunya (TVC). In copyright

Read more about Europe's space flights

More than 500 satellites have been launched since, with the spacecraft Giotto one of many highlights. Successfully launched on an Ariane 1, it approached the nucleus of Halley’s Comet to a distance of 596 kilometres. The spacecraft was named after Renaissance painter Giotto di Bondone, who had first observed the comet at the dawn of the 14th century and is thought to have depicted it as the star of Bethlehem in his Adoration of the Magi.

Halley’s Comet always causes great excitement among scientists and astronomy fans. It was last seen in 1986 and is to return in 2061. Television documentary, 1985. TV3 Televisió de Catalunya (TVC). In copyright

The Space shuttle programme (1981-2011) would allow flights with payload to enter into orbit with a reusable spacecraft. Among those payloads were the Spacelab and the Hubble Space Telescope, which has allowed us to re-discover planet Earth from a new, breathtaking perspective. Finally, in 1998 the International Space Station became operational: a unique international collaboration , with astronauts permanently in orbit.

a man on a news bulletin stands next to an image of a satellite in space.

In the span of just a few decades, scientists, engineers and astronauts have turned groundbreaking technology into the axis of a Copernican revolution: the exploration of space has recalibrated the relationship between mankind, its planet, the universe to which they belong and the vast unknown that stretches out beyond.

The Universe Is, Like, Seriously Huge, 2017, Michael Büker. TIB - German National Library of Science and Technology. CC BY