Skip to main content
Select Source:

Spacecraft, Manned

Spacecraft, manned

Since 1961, hundreds of men and women from more than a dozen countries have traveled in space. Until the 1980s, however, most of those people came from the United States and the former Soviet Union. The Soviets were the first to launch an unmanned satellite, Sputnik 1, in 1957. This event marked the beginning of the space race between the United States and the Soviet Union, a campaign for superiority in space exploration.

The first living being to travel in space was a dog named Laika. She was sent into space aboard the Soviets' Sputnik 2 in 1957. Laika survived the launch and the first leg of the journey. A week after launch, however, the air supply ran out and Laika suffocated. When the spacecraft reentered Earth's atmosphere in April 1958, it burned up (it had no heat shields) and Laika's body was incinerated.

Then on April 12, 1961, Soviet cosmonaut (astronaut) Yury Gagarin rode aboard the Vostok 1, becoming the first human in space. In 108 minutes, he made a single orbit around Earth before reentering its atmosphere. At about two miles (more than three kilometers) above the ground, he parachuted to safety. Only recently did scientists from outside Russia learn that this seemingly flawless mission almost ended in disaster. During its final descent, the spacecraft had spun wildly out of control.

American-crewed space program

The Mercury program was the first phase of America's effort to put a human on the Moon by the end of the 1960s. On May 5, 1961, the first

piloted Mercury flight, Freedom 7, was launched. It took astronaut Alan Shepard on a 15-minute suborbital flight (only a partialnot completeorbit of Earth) that went 116 miles (187 kilometers) up and 303 miles (488 kilometers) across the Atlantic Ocean at speeds up to 5,146 miles (8,280 kilometers) per hour. The capsule than parachuted safely into the Atlantic Ocean with Shepard inside.

Two months later, another U.S. suborbital flight was launched, this one carrying Virgil "Gus" Grissom. Grissom's flight was similar to Shepard's, except at splashdown his capsule took in water and sank. Grissom was unharmed, but his capsule, the Liberty Bell 7, was not recovered.

On February 20, 1962, just over nine months after Gagarin's flight, astronaut John Glenn became the first American to orbit Earth. His spacecraft, Friendship 7, completed three orbits in less than five hours.

Lunar program. The Apollo program was created for the purpose of landing American astronauts on the Moon. Engineers designed a craft consisting of three parts: a command module, in which the astronauts would travel; a service module, which contained supplies and equipment; and a lunar module, which would detach to land on the Moon.

The Apollo program was not without mishap. During a ground test in 1967, a fire engulfed the cabin of the Apollo 1 spacecraft, killing Gus Grissom, Ed White, and Roger Chaffee. This tragedy prompted a two-year delay in the launch of the first Apollo spacecraft. During this time, more than 1,500 modifications were made to the command module.

In December 1968, Apollo 8 became the first manned spacecraft to orbit both Earth and the Moon. On July 16, 1969, Apollo 11 was launched with astronauts Neil Armstrong, Edwin "Buzz" Aldrin, and Michael Collins on board. Four days later Armstrong and Aldrin landed on the Moon. When Armstrong set foot on lunar soil, he stated, "That's one small step for man, one giant leap for mankind." The Apollo 11 flight to the Moon is considered by many to be the greatest technological achievement of the modern world. Over the next three years, five more Apollo missions landed twelve more Americans on the Moon.

Soviet-crewed space program

Although the United States won the race to the Moon, the Soviet Union achieved other space race "firsts" during the 1960s. The Soviets launched the first three-person spacecraft, Voskhod ("Sunrise"), in October 1964. In March 1965, Soviet cosmonaut Alexei Leonov took the first space walk, spending ten minutes outside the Voskhod capsule connected to the craft only by telephone and telemetry cables (wires used to gather data).

The Soviet Union then began work on Soyuz ("Union"). The program proved to be a disaster. In April 1967, Soyuz 1 crashed to Earth with cosmonaut Vladimir Komarov on board. The tragedy halted the Soviet space program for 18 months. By the time they reentered the space flight quest, the Soviets had turned their attention to establishing the first orbiting space station, Salyut ("Salute").

Space stations

On April 19, 1971, the Soviets launched Salyut 1, which was designed for both civilian and military purposes. The station was powered by two solar panels and divided into several different modules, three of which were pressurized for human life support. The three-person crew of Soyuz 11 successfully entered Salyut 1 on June 7, 1971. The cosmonauts' three-week stay set a new record for human endurance in space. But during their reentry into Earth's atmosphere, a cabin seal released prematurely and the spacecraft lost air pressure. The three crew members had not been issued pressure suits and suffocated instantly. As a result of this disaster, the Soviets could not refuel the station. They were forced to allow it to fall out of its orbit and burn up in reentry. Despite this major setback, the Soviets were eventually able to launch other Salyut stations as the decade progressed.

The only comparable U.S. space station has been Skylab. Launched on May 14, 1973, this two-story craft was 118 feet (36 meters) long and 21 feet (6.4 meters) in diameter and weighed nearly 100 tons (110 metric tons). Although Skylab encountered problems immediately after launch, a crew was able to repair the damage. In its six years of operation, Skylab housed three different crews for a total of 171 days. Studies on board the space station greatly increased our knowledge of the Sun and its effect on Earth's environment. In 1979, Skylab fell back to Earth.

A more advanced Soviet space station, Mir (which means both "Peace" and "World"), was launched in February 1986. Able to accommodate up to six crew members at a time, Mir was designed to afford greater comfort and privacy to its inhabitants so they would be able to remain on board for longer periods. Although plagued with technical problems in 1997, Mir continued to host Russian cosmonauts and international space travelers (a total of 104 people from 12 countries) who conducted some 23,000 experiments, including research into how humans, animals, and plants function in space. During its lengthy time in orbit, Mir attained a number of accomplishments: longest time in orbit for a space station (15 years), longest time in space for a human (437.7 days), and heaviest artificial object ever to orbit Earth. With a lone cosmonaut on board at the time, it even survived the collapse of the Soviet Union in 1991. During Mir 's lifetime, the Soviet Union and then Russia spent the equivalent of $4.2 billion to build and maintain the station. By 2001, however, the 135-ton (122-metric ton) craft had become too old to maintain properly, and Russia decided to let it fall back to Earth. On March 23, 2001, after having completed 86,330 orbits around the planet, Mir reentered the atmosphere and broke apart. Pieces of the station that did not burn up in the atmosphere splashed harmlessly into stormy waters 1,800 miles (2,896 kilometers) east of New Zealand.

The valuable knowledge scientists gained from Mir will be applied to the International Space Station (ISS), a permanent Earth-orbiting laboratory that will allow humans to perform long-term research in outer space. It draws upon the scientific and technological resources of sixteen nations. Construction of the ISS began in November 1998 with the launch of the Zarya control module from Russia. When completed in 2006, the ISS will measure about 360 feet (110 meters) in length, 290 feet (88 meters) in width, and 143 feet (44 meters) in height. It will have a mass of nearly 1 million pounds (454,000 kilograms) and will have a pressurized

living and working space of 46,000 cubic feet (1,300 cubic meters), enough for up to seven astronauts and scientists.

Space shuttles

The U.S. space shuttle is a winged space plane designed to transport humans into space and back. It is the first and only reusable space vehicle. This 184-foot-long (56-meter-long) vessel acts like a spacecraft, but looks like an airplane. In 1981, the first space shuttle to be launched was Columbia. Challenger, Discovery, and Atlantis rounded out the initial shuttle fleet, which flew 24 consecutive missions.

The shuttle program ran smoothly until the Challenger tragedy of January 28, 1986. That shuttle exploded 73 seconds after launch, due to a faulty seal in its solid rocket booster. All seven crew members died as a result. The fleet of shuttles was grounded for 32 months while more than 400 changes in the shuttle's construction were made.

The National Aeronautics and Space Administration (NASA) resumed shuttle flights in 1988, having replaced Challenger with Endeavor. Missions of the space shuttles have included the insertion into orbit of the Galileo space probe in 1989 and the Hubble Space Telescope (HST) in 1990. A variety of communications, weather, military, and scientific satellites have also been placed into orbit by crew members aboard space shuttles. The shuttles can be configured to carry many different types of equipment, spacecraft, and scientific experiments. In addition to transporting people, materials, equipment, and spacecraft to orbit, the shuttles allow astronauts to service and repair satellites and observatories in space. In fact, shuttles flew servicing missions to the HST in 1993, 1997, and 1999.

At the beginning of the twenty-first century, the mission of many shuttle flights was the continuing construction of the ISS. In December 1998, the crew aboard Endeavor initiated the first assembly sequence of the ISS; they also became the first crew to enter the space station. In October 2000, when Discovery was launched on a mission to continue construction of the ISS, the event marked the one-hundredth flight of a U.S. space shuttle.

[See also Space station, international ]

Cite this article
Pick a style below, and copy the text for your bibliography.

  • MLA
  • Chicago
  • APA

"Spacecraft, Manned." UXL Encyclopedia of Science. . 14 Dec. 2017 <>.

"Spacecraft, Manned." UXL Encyclopedia of Science. . (December 14, 2017).

"Spacecraft, Manned." UXL Encyclopedia of Science. . Retrieved December 14, 2017 from

Spacecraft, Manned

Spacecraft, manned

Manned spacecraft are vehicles with the capability of maintaining life outside of Earth's atmosphere. Partially in recognition of the fact that women as well as men are active participants in space travel programs, manned spacecraft are now frequently referred to as crewed spacecraft.

In its earliest stages, crewed space flight was largely an exercise in basic research. Scientists were interested in collecting fundamental information about the Moon , the other planets in our solar system , and outer space. Today, crewed space flight is also designed to study a number of practical problems, such as the behavior of living organisms and inorganic materials in zero gravity conditions.

A very large number of complex technical problems must be solved in the construction of spacecraft that can carry humans into space. Most of these problems can be classified in one of three major categories: communication, environmental and support, and re-entry.

Communication refers to the necessity of maintaining contact with members of a space mission as well as monitoring their health and biological functions and the condition of the spacecraft in which they are traveling. Direct communication between astronauts and cosmonauts can be accomplished by means of radio and television messages transmitted between a spacecraft and ground stations. To facilitate these communications, receiving stations at various locations around Earth have been established. Messages are received and transmitted to and from a space vehicle by means of large antennas located at these stations.

Many different kinds of instruments are needed within the spacecraft to monitor cabin temperature , pressure, humidity , and other conditions as well as biological functions such as heart rate, body temperature, blood pressure, and other vital functions. Constant monitoring of spacecraft hardware is also necessary. Data obtained from these monitoring functions is converted to radio signals that are transmitted to Earth stations, allowing ground-based observers to maintain a constant check on the status of both the spacecraft and its human passengers.

The fundamental requirement of a crewed spacecraft is, of course, to provide an atmosphere in which humans can survive and carry out the jobs required of them. This means, foremost, providing the spacecraft with an Earth-like atmosphere in which humans can breathe. Traditionally, the Soviet Union has used a mixture of nitrogen and oxygen gases somewhat like that found in the earth's atmosphere. American spacecraft, however, have employed pure oxygen atmospheres at pressures of about 5 lb per square inch, roughly one-third that of normal air pressure on the earth's surface.

The level of carbon dioxide within a spacecraft must also be maintained at a healthy level. The most direct way of dealing with this problem is to provide the craft with a base, usually lithium hydroxide, which will absorb carbon dioxide exhaled by astronauts and cosmonauts. Humidity, temperature, odors, toxic gases, and sound levels are other factors that must be controlled at a level congenial to human existence.

Food and water provisions present additional problems. The space needed for the storage of conventional foodstuffs is prohibitive for spacecraft. Thus, one of the early challenges for space scientists was the development of dehydrated foods or foods prepared in other ways so that they would occupy as little space as possible. Space scientists have long recognized that food and water supplies present one of the most challenging problems of long-term space travel, as would be the case in a space station. Suggestions have been made, for example, for the purification and recycling of urine as drinking water and for the use of exhaled carbon dioxide in the growth of plants for foods in spacecraft that remain in orbit for long periods of time.

An important aspect of spacecraft design is the provision for power sources needed to operate communication, environmental, and other instruments and devices within the vehicle. The earliest crewed spacecrafts had simple power systems. The Mercury series of vehicles, for example, were powered by six conventional batteries. As spacecraft increased in size and complexity, however, so did their power needs. The Gemini spacecrafts required an additional conventional battery and two fuel cells, while the Apollo vehicles were provided with five batteries and three fuel cells.

One of the most serious on-going concerns of space scientists about crewed flights has been their potential effects on the human body. An important goal of nearly every space flight has been to determine how the human body reacts to a zero-gravity environment.

At this point, scientists have some answers to that question. For example, we know that one of the most serious dangers posed by extended space travel is the loss of calcium from bones. Also, the absence of gravitational forces results in a space traveler's blood collecting in the upper part of his or her body, especially in the left atrium. This knowledge has led to the development of special devices that modify the loss of gravitational effects during space travel.

One of the challenges posed by crewed space flight is the need for redundancy in systems. Redundancy means that there must be two or three of every instrument, device, or spacecraft part that is needed for human survival. This level of redundancy is not necessary with uncrewed spacecraft where failure of a system may result in the loss of a space probe , but not the loss of a human life. It is crucial, however, when humans travel aboard a spacecraft.

An example of the role of redundancy was provided during the Apollo 13 mission. That mission's plan of landing on the Moon had to be aborted when one of the fuel cells in the service module exploded, eliminating a large part of the spacecraft's power supply. A back-up fuel cell in the lunar module was brought on line, however, allowing the spacecraft to return to Earth without loss of life.

Space suits are designed to be worn by astronauts and cosmonauts during take-off and landing and during extravehicular activities (EVA). They are, in a sense, a space passenger's own private space vehicle and present, in miniature, most of the same environmental problems as does the construction of the spacecraft itself. For example, a space suit must be able to protect the space traveler from marked changes in temperature, pressure, and humidity, and from exposure to radiation, unacceptable solar glare, and micrometeorites. In addition, the space suit must allow the space traveler to move about with relative ease and to provide a means of communicating with fellow travelers in a spacecraft or with controllers on the earth's surface. The removal and storage of human wastes is also a problem that must be solved for humans wearing a space suit.

Ensuring that astronauts and cosmonauts are able to survive in space is only one of the problems facing space scientists. A spacecraft must also be able to return its human passengers safely to Earth's surface. In the earliest crewed spacecrafts, this problem was solved simply by allowing the vehicle to travel along a ballistic path back to Earth's atmosphere and then to settle on land or sea by means of one or more large parachutes. Later spacecraft were modified to allow pilots some control over their re-entry path. The space shuttles, for example, can be piloted back to Earth in the last stages of reentry in much the same way that a normal airplane is flown.

Perhaps the most serious single problem encountered during re-entry is the heat that develops as the spacecraft returns to Earth's atmosphere. Friction between vehicle and air produces temperatures that approach 3,092°F (1,700°C). Most metals and alloys would melt or fail at these temperatures. To deal with this problem, spacecraft designers have developed a class of materials known as ablators that absorb and then radiate large amounts of heat in brief periods of time. Ablators have been made out of a variety of materials, including phenolic resins, epoxy compounds, and silicone rubbers.

Some scientists are beginning to plan beyond space shuttle flights and the International Space Station . While NASA's main emphasis for some time will be unmanned probes and robots, the most likely target for a manned spacecraft will be Mars. Besides issues of long-term life support, any such mission will have to deal with long-term exposure to space radiation. Without sufficient protection, galactic cosmic rays would penetrate spacecraft and astronaut's bodies, damaging their DNA and perhaps disrupting nerve cells in their brains over the long-term. (Manned flights to the Moon were protected from cosmic rays by the earth's magnetosphere.) Shielding would be necessary, but it is always a trade-off between human protection and spacecraft weight. Moreover, estimates show it could add billions of dollars to the cost of any such flight.

See also Space and planetary geology; Space physiology

Cite this article
Pick a style below, and copy the text for your bibliography.

  • MLA
  • Chicago
  • APA

"Spacecraft, Manned." World of Earth Science. . 14 Dec. 2017 <>.

"Spacecraft, Manned." World of Earth Science. . (December 14, 2017).

"Spacecraft, Manned." World of Earth Science. . Retrieved December 14, 2017 from