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Space Program


SPACE PROGRAM. In the late nineteenth century, fiction writers like Jules Verne and H. G. Wells published novels focusing on space travel in various forms. Although fictitious, these stories would spark the imaginations of several of the early rocket scientists, whose endeavors would ultimately make real the ability for machines to travel through space.

Early Space Pioneers

Several space pioneers soon began distinguishing themselves and giving direction to the new field. Among them, Russian teacher Konstantin Tsiolkowsky (1857–1935) sketched a rocket system in 1903 that was based on an 1883 paper "Modifying the Force of Gravity." He perfected his rocket system throughout the rest of his life, noting in particular the potential of using liquid propellants, a mix of fuel and oxidizer, to effectively move through a vacuum. Tsiolkowsky was one of several European visionaries, including Frenchman Robert Esnault-Pelterie (1881–1957) and Romanian-born Austrian Hermann Oberth (1894–1989), who contributed theoretical knowledge to the notion of human space travel.

Meanwhile, in the United States, Robert Goddard (1882–1945) made great progress in determining the parameters by which a rocket propulsion system might have become more effective. In 1915, this physics professor began using signal rockets, developed in the nineteenth century for the navy by B. F. Cotton. Cotton had tested different rocket shapes and weights of propellant, but Goddard, through multiple experiments, made such rockets over 60 percent more efficient and exhaust velocity went from 1,000 feet per second to 8,000 feet per second. Goddard had long theorized that liquid propellant might be more efficient than solid propellant, but he could not prove it. He soon got a chance to do so.

In the 1920s, Goddard began using liquid oxygen as the oxidizer and gasoline as the fuel (oxidizer gives the oxygen molecules required for the explosion that lets the fuel burn). Thanks to a grant from the Smithsonian, Goddard kept experimenting and on 16 March 1926, he finally succeeded in launching the first liquid-propelled rocket. Goddard was so reclusive, though, that few people learned of his achievement; he did not publish the results until some ten years later.

In fact, even when the American Rocket Society was founded in 1930 (known initially as the American Inter-planetary Society), it drew on space enthusiasts for its membership, but Goddard was not among them. Instead, owing to Charles Lindbergh's intercession with Harry Guggenheim, Goddard was granted additional funds to pursue his research in Roswell, New Mexico, where he spent 1932 to 1940 testing new rockets.

However, until the end of World War II, most of the impetus for space rocketry came from Germany and the Soviet Union. Several German pioneers, including a young Wernher von Braun, eventually went to work for the military after the Nazis came to power, devising liquid-fueled engines, testing optimum ballistic missile shapes, and constructing a series of test machines that, by 1943, led to the flight of the A-4 rocket, later called the V-2. An inefficient and costly machine, the V-2 was an effective weapon and the Nazis fired thousands of them at various cities on the European continent as well as England. The V-2 also became the basis for American postwar experiments with missiles.

After World War II, under Project Paperclip, select German scientists were brought into the United States (in violation of immigration rules regarding former Nazis) and set to work with American experts on various scientific projects. Among the Germans, Wernher von Braun found himself working in Huntsville, Alabama, for the Army Ballistic Missile Agency, and eventually devised a Red stone rocket. At the time, the American space program was nonexistent. Polls taken in the early 1950s showed that most Americans thought atomic-powered ground vehicles were more likely to appear in ensuing decades than any kind of space travel.

The Soviet Shock

Attitudes towards space shifted in the mid-1950s, and were reflected in President Dwight D. Eisenhower's call for the United States to orbit a satellite during the International Geophysical Year (1957–1958). However, the Soviet Union was the first to succeed in this endeavor by sending Sputnik 1 atop an R-7 ballistic missile on 4 October 1957. President Eisenhower was tempted to minimize the Soviet success, for an American project was under way; yet many in the United States felt this was a reflection of an America slowing down. The failure of the Vanguard TV-3 rocket (a model derived from the U.S. Navy's Viking project) eventually prompted the president to agree to have the army's Red stone rocket, modified into a Juno 1, and orbit a scientific satellite, Explorer 1, which reached orbit on 31 January 1958. Developed by University of Iowa physicist Dr. James Van Allen, the instrument allowed the detection of the radiation belt that bears his name.

In the meantime, however, additional Soviet success, including the orbiting of a dog aboard Sputnik 2, prompted charges of a missile gap and calls for a full-fledged space program. Consequently, on the advice of his science advisor, James Killian, and his team, Eisenhower agreed to create an agency devoted to space matters. Concerned that a military agency would not give a fair share to the need for scientific investigation, on 29 July 1958 Eisenhower signed the act transforming the National Advisory Committee on Aeronautics (NACA, created in 1915) into National Aeronautics and Space Administration (NASA).

As for early satellites, despite the success of Explorer 1, some 50 percent of its 18 launches in 1958 and 1959 had failed; the record improved slightly in 1960. By then, the American space program operated on three main tracks. A military one focussed on robotics that included Corona spy satellites and related tracking devices; a NASA unmanned program of probes designed for orbital and planetary work; and a NASA manned space program.


While NASA's focus on scientific experimentation remained an essential part of its function, in the context of the Cold War science often took second place to manned space flight and the need to compete with Soviet successes in space. In the meantime, Project Mercury came into existence in late 1958, with seven astronauts, all chosen from a pool of more than 100 military candidates, presented in April of the following year. A selection of female astronauts for Project Mercury, though made shortly after, failed to go forward due to congressional testimony, claiming this would delay the space program, would offer little of worth in return for the added cost, and would require bending newly established rules that called for all astronauts to be graduates of military test pilot schools (no women were allowed into such schools at the time).

On the technical level, the Mercury capsule was a relatively simple design, cone-shaped for effective ascent into orbit, but with a blunt end to allow for a slowed reentry into the atmosphere. Designed under the direction of former NACA engineer Maxime Faget, the capsule could be launched atop either a Red stone or an Air Force Atlas missile. Early tests of the capsule involved monkeys, but by the time of the first human flight, several design changes had been made in response to astronauts' requests, and included a window as well as redesigned switches and levers.

Because NASA maintained a policy of openness with the media, it became essential that no problems plague a manned flight. This concern for safety prompted added delays to the Mercury manned program. This allowed cosmonaut Yuri Gagarin to become the first human to orbit earth on 12 April 1961, for a little over 100 minutes. American Alan Shepard followed on May 5 aboard a Mercury capsule christened Freedom 7, but on a suborbital flight that lasted only fifteen minutes. The propaganda coup of the Gagarin flight was enormous, prompting many around the world to view the Soviet Union as the premier technological and military nation, ahead of the United States. It is in this context of Cold War feats that President John F. Kennedy, on the advice of his science advisors and of Vice President Lyndon B. Johnson, addressed a joint session of Congress on May 25 and called for the United States to land a man on the Moon by the end of the decade. In so doing, Kennedy framed the manned space program into a special mix of technological achievement and showmanship. Although personally uninterested in space, Kennedy understood that the human dimension of space exploration would encourage the public to go along and support what promised to be an extremely expensive endeavor.


A total of six Mercury flights happened between 1961 and 1963 and were soon replaced with the Gemini program, which focussed on the study of navigation and on living conditions in space. Indeed, the Moon program, known as Apollo, required completely new knowledge that could only be gathered in Earth orbit. The first two Geminis were unmanned, but the third included a Mercury veteran, Guss Grissomand a rookie from the new astronaut class, John Young (who would go on to become the longest serving astronaut in the space program). Orbital rendezvous between capsules or other satellites was carried out, as were endurance tests to understand how the human body might react to prolonged living in space. The first space walks also took place aboard Gemini missions. Although Cosmonaut Alexei Leonov was the first to carry out this feat, astronaut Ed White did the first American extra-vehicular activity (EVA) in June 1965. Gemini XII concluded the program in November 1966, and confirmed essential information without which a Moon landing would not have been possible.


The Apollo program did not begin under auspicious conditions. A total of three unpiloted launches and twelve piloted launches occurred between 1967 and 1972. However, before these happened, on 27 January 1967, a fire broke out during a ground test, killing all three Apollo 1 astronauts. The tragedy prompted several redesigns, delaying the next manned flight until October 1968, when Apollo 7 lifted off into Earth orbit. At Christmas 1968, Apollo 8 had reached lunar orbit, but Apollo 9 and 10 were still needed to test the hardware, including the lunar module, before the successful walk of Neil Armstrong and Edwin Aldrin on 20 July 1969. Aside from Apollo 13, marred by an oxygen tank explosion (which the crew survived), all other missions were successful, with number 17 ending the series on 19 December 1972. By then, the Nixon administration, faced with mounting debts from the Vietnam War as well as broader economic stagflation, ordered the last two missions cancelled and asked NASA to cut costs in all its programs.

As a result, NASA faced a lack of direction in the manned space program. A collaborative effort with the Soviet Union resulted in the Apollo-Soyuz test project in 1975, while in 1973, a modified Saturn V orbited the Skylab laboratory, which became the first American space station, housing three crews of three during 1973.

The Space Shuttle

By 1970, work had begun on a reusable space vehicle, capable of transporting astronauts, satellites, and various cargo into orbit. Although initially designed to be entirely reusable, the shuttle transportation system(STS) eventually became only semi-reusable (the solid rocket boosters can be cleaned and recycled, but the large fuel tank burns up during reentry). Furthermore, added costs meant that NASA contracted for only four shuttles. The fifth, prototype Enterprise (named following a write-in campaign by Star Trek fans), was never reconditioned for space flight and used only to test the gliding capabilities of the shuttle. Pushed back numerous times for technical reasons, the first flight of the shuttle, carried out by orbiter Columbia, took place on 12 April 1981 and was followed by twenty-three other successful missions in five years. These included a series of firsts, such as the first American woman in space, Sally Ride, and the first African American in space, Guion Bluford, both in 1983. Foreign astronauts flew on board, from representatives of the European Space Agency, to a Saudi prince and two members of Congress. Impressive though this record is, it masks constant problems NASA faced living up to its promises of a reusable vehicle. From a one-week projected turnaround, the shuttle in fact came to require several months of preparation. Yet after only four test flights, NASA certified the shuttle as operational, even though insiders felt that this would not be the case until the shuttle operated twenty-four flights a year. Pressure to maintain a tight schedule eventually led to catastrophe. On 28 January 1986, the twenty-fifth mission, flown by Challenger, exploded shortly after lift-off, killing all on board including civilian teacher Christa McAuliffe. The investigation concluded that a defective rubber O-ring around one of the boosters had caused a leak of hot gas that eventually exploded. For almost thirty-one months, the shuttle program remained grounded while changes were implemented, these included canceling NASA's commitment to orbiting commercial satellites. In late 1988, however, shuttle flights resumed and a replacement shuttle, Endeavor, was constructed. Since then, the shuttle fleet has passed the one-hundred mission mark, and no replacement vehicle has been designed to replace the twenty-year old system.

The International Space Station

The latest use of the shuttle has been to visit space stations in orbit. From 1995 to 1998, several shuttles flew to the Russian station Mir to drop off astronauts on long-term missions intended to gain experience for missions to the International Space Station (ISS). The ISS represents both an evolution and a scaling down of plans for a permanent presence in space. Initially a Cold War project named "Freedom" intended as a response by the U.S. and select allies to the Soviet-built Mir, the ISS underwent scaling down in light of budgetary restrictions and the end of the Cold War. The shift in goals also opened the door to international cooperation between the United States, Russia, Europe and Japan, allowing costs to be cut, while conducting scientific experiments in orbit. In 1993, an agreement was reached that included the funding of several important modules to be built by Russia. Begun in 1998 with the orbiting of the Russian Zarya module, and projected to cost over $60 billion, the seven-laboratory installation was expected to be completed in 2004. Yet it has hit tremendous cost overruns that have called into question the advantages of a permanent presence in space. Advocates argue that the ISS will act as a symbolic United Nations in space, where the long-term returns will be as much social and cultural as scientific.

Unmanned Space Program

Ever since its creation, NASA has also proceeded apace in the unmanned investigation of the solar system and beyond, and in the lofting of satellites for other purposes. Although some of its most important scientific planetary projects have been subordinated to the more popular (and more expensive) manned space program, the U.S. space program has continued to assist with many new discoveries. In the 1960s, NASA launched Mariner planetary probes to Mars, Venus, and Mercury, with Mariner 9 becoming the first U.S. spacecraft to orbit another planet, Mars, in 1971. A series of satellites designed to observe the Sun, the "Orbiting Solar Observatories," proved extremely useful, and OSO 7, launched in 1971, became the first satellite to film a solar flare. As for Pioneer 10 and 11, launched in 1972 and 1973, these probes conducted successful investigations of the outer planets, and Pioneer 10, after passing Pluto, became the first man-made object to leave the solar system in 1983. NASA also sent a multitude of probes to Mars, including the successful Viking 1 and 2 landers that touched down on the red planet in 1976, and the Pathfinder in 1997.

In the early 1970s, NASA also put some of its satellite technology to use for the purposes of examining the climate, predicting crop yield, and charting water pollution as well as the state of the ice cap. This Earth Resource Technology Satellite (ERTS) program demonstrated clearly the advantages of an automated presence in space, and drew considerable attention for the immediate information it could provide, in contrast to long-term scientific exploration. Furthermore, the U.S. space program owns half of the COMSAT corporation, which participates in the International Telecommunication Satellite Consortium(Intelsat), a group that operates a worldwide network of communication satellites.

As an alternative to deep space probes, NASA also began studying the possibility of an orbiting "Large Space Telescope" (LST) that would be able to focus on objects ten times more distant than any earth telescope. The result was the Hubble Space Telescope, launched by the space shuttle in 1990.


Bilstein, Roger. Order of Magnitude: A History of the NACA and NASA, 1915–1990. Washington, D.C.: NASA, 1989.

Bulkeley, Rip. The Sputniks Crisis and Early United States Space Policy: A Critique of the Historiography of Space. Bloomington: Indiana University, 1991.

Burrows, William E. Exploring Space: Voyages in the Solar System and Beyond. New York: Random House, 1990.

Heppenheimer, T. A. Countdown. A History of Space flight. New York: Wiley, 1997.

Hudson, Heather E. Communication Satellites: Their Development and Impact. New York: Free Press, 1990.

Launius, Roger, and Howard McCurdy. Space flight and the Myth of Presidential Leadership. Urbana: University of Illinois, 1997.

McCurdy, Howard. Space and the American Imagination. Washington, D.C.: Smithsonian, 1997.

McDougall, Walter.… The Heavens and the Earth: A Political History of the Space Age. Baltimore: Johns Hopkins University Press, 1997.

Vaughan, Diane. The Challenger Launch Decision: Risky Technology, Culture, and Deviance at NASA. Chicago: University of Chicago, 1996.

Winter, Frank H. Prelude to the Space Age: The Rocket Societies 1924–1940. Washington, D.C.: Smithsonian, 1983.

Guillaumede Syon

See alsoMissiles, Military ; andvol. 9:Voice from Moon: The Eagle Has Landed .

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Space Program


The Russian space program has a long history. The first person in any country to study the use of rockets for space flight was the Russian schoolteacher and mathematician Konstantin Tsiolkovsky. His work greatly influenced later space and rocket research in the Soviet Union, where, as early as 1921, the government founded a military facility devoted to rocket research. During the 1930s, Sergei Korolev emerged as a leader in this effort and eventually became the "chief designer" responsible for many of the early Soviet successes in space in the 1950s and 1960s.

Under Korolev's direction, the Soviet Union in the 1950s developed an intercontinental ballistic missile (ICBM), with engines designed by Valentin Glushko, which was capable of delivering a heavy nuclear warhead to American targets. That ICBM, called the R-7 or Semyorka ("Number 7"), was first successfully tested on August 21, 1957. Its success cleared the way for the rocket's use to launch a satellite.

Both the United States and the Soviet Union had announced their intent to launch an earth satellite in 1957 during the International Geophysical Year (IGY). Fearing that delayed completion of the elaborate scientific satellite, intended as the Soviet IGY contribution, would allow the United States to be first into space, Korolev and his associates designed a much simpler spherical spacecraft. After the success of the R-7 in August, that satellite was rushed into production and became Sputnik 1, the first object put into orbit, on October 4,1957. A second, larger satellite carrying scientific instruments and the dog Laika, the first living creature in orbit, was launched November 3, 1957. Three Soviet missions, Luna 13, explored the vicinity of the moon in 1959, sending back the first images of its far side. Luna 1 was the first spacecraft to fly past the moon; Luna 2, in making a hard landing on the lunar suface, was the first spacecraft to strike another celestial object.

Soon after the success of the first Sputniks, Korolev began work on an orbital spacecraft that

could be used both to conduct reconnaissance missions and to serve as a vehicle for the first human space flight missions. The spacecraft was called Vostok when it was used to carry a human into space. The first human was lifted into space in Vostok 1 atop a modified R-7 rocket on April 12, 1961, from the Baikonur Cosmodrome in Kazakhstan. The passenger, Yuri Gagarin, was a twenty-seven-year-old Russian test pilot.

There were five additional one-person Vostok missions. In August 1961, Gherman Titov at age twenty-five (still the youngest person ever to fly in space) completed seventeen orbits of Earth in Vostok 2. He became ill during the flight, an incident that caused a one-year delay while Soviet physicians investigated the possibility that humans could not survive for extended times in space. In August 1962, two Vostoks, 3 and 4, were orbited at the same time and came within four miles of one another. This dual mission was repeated in June 1963; aboard the Vostok 6 spacecraft was Valentina Tereshkova, the first woman to fly in space.

As U.S. plans for missions carrying more than one astronaut became known, the Soviet Union worked to maintain its lead in the space race by modifying the Vostok spacecraft to carry as many as three persons. The redesigned spacecraft was known as Voskhod. There were two Voskhod missions. On the second mission in March 1965, cosmonaut Alexei Leonov became the first human to carry out a spacewalk.

Korolev began work in 1962 on a second-generation spacecraft, called Soyuz, holding as many as three people in an orbital crew compartment, with a separate module for reentry back to Earth. The first launch of Soyuz, with a single cosmonaut, Vladimir Komarov, aboard, took place on April 23, 1967. The spacecraft suffered a number of problems, and Komarov became the first person to perish during a space flight. The accident dealt a major blow to Soviet hopes of orbiting or landing on the moon before the United States.

After the problems with the Soyuz design were remedied, various models of the spacecraft served the Soviet, and then Russian, program of human space flight for more than thirty years. At the start of the twenty-first century, an updated version of Soyuz was being used as the crew rescue vehiclethe lifeboatfor the early phase of construction and occupancy of the International Space Station.

While committing the United States in 1961 to winning the moon race, President John F. Kennedy also made several attempts to convince the Soviet leadership that a cooperative lunar landing program would be a better alternative. But no positive reply came from the Soviet Union, which continued to debate the wisdom of undertaking a lunar program. Meanwhile, separate design bureaus headed by Korolev and Vladimir Chelomei competed fiercely for a lunar mission assignment. In August 1964, Korolev received the lunar landing assignment. The very large rocket that Korolev designed for the lunar landing effort was called the N1.

Indecision, inefficiencies, inadequate budgets, and personal and organizational rivalries in the Soviet system posed major obstacles to success in the race to the moon. To this was added the unexpected death of the charismatic leader and organizer Korolev, at age fifty-nine, on January 14, 1966.

The Soviet lunar landing program went forward fitfully after 1964. The missions were intended to employ the N1 launch vehicle and a variation of the Soyuz spacecraft, designated L3, that included a lunar landing module designed for one cosmonaut. Although an L3 spacecraft was constructed, the N1 rocket was never successfully launched. After four failed attempts between 1969 and 1972, the N1 program was cancelled in May 1974, thus ending Soviet hopes for human missions to the moon. On July 20, 1969, U.S. astronaut Neil Armstrong stepped from Apollo II Lunar Module onto the surface of the moon.

By 1969, the USSR began to shift its emphasis in human space flight to the development of Earth-orbiting stations in which cosmonaut crews could carry out observations and experiments on missions that lasted weeks or months. The first Soviet space station, called Salyut 1, was launched April 19, 1971. Its initial crew spent twenty-three days aboard the station carrying out scientific studies but perished when their Soyuz spacecraft depressurized during reentry. The Soviet Union successfully orbited five more Salyut stations through the mid-1980s. Two of these stations had a military reconnaissance mission, and three were devoted to scientific studies. The Soviet Union also launched guest cosmonauts from allied countries for short stays aboard Salyuts 6 and 7.

The Soviet Union followed its Salyut station series with the February 20, 1986, launch of the Mir space station. In 19941995, Valery Polyakov spent 438 continuous days aboard the station. More than one hundred people from twelve countries visited Mir, including seven American astronauts between 1995 and 1998. The station, which was initially scheduled to operate for only five years, supported human habitation until mid-2000, before making a controlled atmosphere reentry on March 23, 2001.

The Soviet Union in the 1980s developed a large space launch vehicle, called Energiya, and a reusable space plane similar to the U.S. space shuttle, called Buran. However, the Soviet Union could no longer afford an expensive space program. Energiya was launched only twice, in 1987.

To continue its human space flight efforts, Russia in 1993 joined the United States and fourteen other countries in the International Space Station program, the largest ever cooperative technological project. Two Russian cosmonauts were members of the first crew to live aboard the station, arriving in November 2000, and it is intended that at least one cosmonaut will be aboard the station on a permanent basis. Russian hardware plays an important role in the orbiting laboratory. Russia's role was increased when the U.S. space plane Challenger burned up on entry in February 2003. The Soyuz "lifeboat" became the only way in or out until regular U.S. flights were resumed.

In addition, the Soviet Union has carried out a comprehensive program of unmanned space science and application missions for both civilian and national security purposes. Spacecraft were sent to Venus and Mars. Other spacecraft provided intelligence information, early warning of missile attack, and navigation and positioning data, and were used for weather forecasting and telecommunications.

In contrast to the United States, the Soviet Union had no space agency. Various design bureaus had influence within the Soviet system, but rivalry among them posed an obstacle to a coherent Soviet space program. The Politburo and the Council of Ministers made policy decisions. After 1965, the government's Ministry of General Machine Building managed all Soviet space and missile programs; the Ministry of Defense also shaped space efforts. A separate military branch, the Strategic Missile Forces, was in charge of space launchers and strategic missiles. Various institutes of the Soviet Academy of Sciences proposed and managed scientific missions.

After the dissolution of the USSR, Russia created a civilian organization for space activities, the Russian Space Agency, formed in February 1992. It quickly took on increasing responsibility for the management of nonmilitary space activities and, as an added charge, aviation efforts. It later was renamed the Russian Aviation and Space Agency.

See also: gagarin, yuri alexeyevich; international space station; mir space station; science and technology policy; sputnik; tsiolkovsky, konstantin eduardovich


Dickson, Paul. (2001). Sputnik: The Shock of the Century. New York: Walker.

Hall, Rex, and Shayler, David J. (2001). The Rocket Men: Vostok and Voshkod, the First Soviet Manned Space-flights. New York: Springer Verlag.

Harvey, Brian. (2001). Russia in Space: the Failed Frontier? New York: Springer Verlag.

Oberg, James. (1981). Red Star in Orbit. New York: Random House.

Russian Aviation and Space Agency web site. (2002). <>.

Siddiqi, Asif. (2000). Challenge to Apollo: The Soviet Union and the Space Race, 19451974. Washington, DC: Government Printing Office.

John M. Logsdon

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