Skip to main content

Space Programs


INTO ORBIT, 1920–1959

Imagining space travel may be said to have begun in Europe in the late sixteenth century when the great German astronomer Johannes Kepler wrote The Dream, a tale in which Kepler sends a witch to the moon on a broomstick that follows mathematically accurate trajectories. Within the next three hundred years other European writers contributed to the space-travel bookshelf, including France's Jules Verne, England's H. G. Wells, and Russia's Konstantin Tsiolkovsky. Tsiolkovsky (1857–1935), a mathematician as well as a science-fiction writer, published a paper in 1903, "Exploration of Space with a Rocket Device," that accurately calculated the escape velocity of his proposed spacecraft. By the second decade of the twentieth century Tsiolkovsky had been honored by the new Soviet government and installed as a member of the Academy of Sciences. He inspired young Russians to design rockets and fulfill his prophecy when he wrote, "The Earth is the cradle of humanity, but mankind cannot stay in the cradle forever." By the early twenty-first century Europeans had orbited Earth in space stations and shuttles, sent robotic explorers to Mars and the moons of Saturn, and established an agency in which they could work together.

INTO ORBIT, 1920–1959

This cooperation was a long time coming. From the 1920s through the 1950s, each European nation that looked to space worked independently. It was only after the launch of Sputnik 1 in 1957 and the ensuing space race between the United States and the Soviet Union that the rest of Europe realized that they could not compete with the extraordinary budgets of the superpowers. At first France, Britain, and Germany made separate arrangements with both the Soviets and the Americans, but none proved altogether satisfactory. In the early 1970s, those governments that were interested reached an agreement that allowed them to maintain national space programs, work with the United States and Russia, and work together as members of the European Space Agency (ESA) when joint interests warranted it. Alone and together west Europeans worked with the American space agency, NASA; with their neighbor to the east, the Soviet Union; and launched their own exploratory flights.

As early as 1924 young Germans and Soviets had formed rocket clubs with an eye to exploring space. A decade later, as both nations prepared for war, their governments drafted these rocket-builders into weapons research. The purges that swept the Soviet Union in the late 1930s destroyed many scientists. But scientist and engineer Sergei Korolev survived the gulag and forced labor during World War II without losing his patriotism or devotion to space exploration. Meanwhile the Nazis enlisted their rocket scientists in the war effort that resulted in the V-2 rocket-propelled bombs that devastated British cities and in the process ushered in the space age.

As Allied troops closed in on Germany in 1945, Wernher von Braun, head of the rocket program, surrendered with a hundred of his engineers to Americans who flew them almost immediately overseas. When Soviet troops reached Peenemünde, a fishing village on the island of Usedom in the Baltic Sea where the rockets had been built, most of the German rocket team was gone. They found one top guidance expert and several hundred rocket engineers as well as leftover hardware and shipped them all east. The British also retained twenty-three German engineers with whose help, in October 1945, they fired three leftover V-2s for an audience of American experts and one Soviet engineer. But Korolev, out of prison and recently rehabilitated, was prevented from watching the demonstration. Nonetheless, he was able to use the purloined German personnel and rocket detritus to kick-start the Soviet space effort.

The political map changed in the next five years, with Western Europe allied with the United States and facing a bloc of communist states dominated and occupied by the Soviet Union. In the Cold War that had quietly begun, each side stockpiled nuclear weapons and explored ways of developing intercontinental ballistic missiles (ICBMs) to deliver them. The leading missile designers were alumni of rocket clubs: von Braun had joined the Americans in Huntsville, Alabama, and Korolev headed a design bureau in Moscow. Both men successfully lobbied their governments for the wherewithal to launch satellites that would have military, scientific, and propaganda value while personally holding to visions of space travel as an adventure in its own right.

The Cold War did not stop scientific exchanges. The International Council of Scientific Unions declared the first International Geophysical Year (IGY), eighteen months between July 1957 and December 1958, devoted to peaceful cooperation and competition even during this difficult period. Scientists on both sides of the Iron Curtain pursued rocketry and it was in 1957 that both the Soviets and Americans launched their first vehicles into orbit. Although there had been "chatter" for a long time about sending a scientific instrument into orbit, the Soviet launch of Sputnik 1, the first artificial satellite, on 4 October 1957, caught the world by surprise.


The Soviet space program, in contrast with the West's, operated in secret under the leadership of Korolev with the blessings of Soviet premier Nikita Khrushchev. After Sputnik 1, Korolev launched Sputnik 2 carrying a live dog. The shock of Sputnik spurred the United States to create NASA, the National Aeronautics and Space Administration, in 1958. Within a year NASA selected the first American astronauts, which the Soviets matched in 1960 with their first cosmonauts. Then in April 1961, the Soviets startled the world again with the launch of the first human being into orbit. What was already a race heated up in May when President John F. Kennedy raised the ante by proclaiming that the United States would send a man to the Moon before the decade was out. The following year John Glenn became the first astronaut in orbit and soon astronauts and cosmonauts followed each other into space. In 1963 the Soviets broke the gender barrier by launching Valentina Tereshkova. She would be the only woman to travel into orbit until 1982. This was not Korolev's vision. He had anticipated seeing whole families traveling into space and planned to launch three other women. But his sudden death in 1966 left that dream unfulfilled and the entire Soviet program rudderless. After the loss of three cosmonauts in 1971, the Soviets quietly withdrew from the race to the Moon.


The Soviets and NASA launched rockets carrying three kinds of payload into orbit: the first, like Sputnik, were satellites that travel in Earth orbit carrying the instruments, military, commercial and scientific, that revolutionized telecommunications, weather, Earth observations and military surveil-lance; the second kind, with great fanfare, sent people into space; the third, with as much attention, sent exploratory vehicles on missions to the Moon, Venus, Mars, comets and the outer planets in the solar system.

France, Great Britain, Germany and the rest of the world watched as Soviets and Americans vied for space firsts, including the first photographs of the dark side of the Moon, and followed the first space disaster when the three American astronauts on Apollo 1 died in a fire on the launch pad in 1967. Keenly aware that they were on the sidelines, Western European nations, alone and in concert, planned their own launch facility even as they negotiated with Soviets and Americans to rent theirs.

France was especially eager to be independent. As early as 1950 the first international astronautical conference met in Paris. After Sputnik in 1958, Charles de Gaulle led France as it chartered the Centre National d'Etudes Spatiales (CNES). That same year France launched its Veronique rocket from its temporary base at Hamaguir, a desert plateau in Algeria, where it had three launch pads, storage space, and housing for six hundred people. In 1960 France began its own rocket program and initiated a collaborative space effort with its neighbors that resulted, in 1964, in the formation of the European Space Research Organization (ESRO) with ten members: Belgium, Britain, Denmark, France, Germany, Italy, the Netherlands, Spain, Sweden, and Switzerland. The same year a second agreement between Australia, Belgium, Britain, France, Germany, Italy, and the Netherlands gave birth to the European Launcher Development Organization (ELDO). As part of the settlement following the Algerian War, France agreed to evacuate its North African launch site. In 1964 the French government selected Kourou in French Guiana for its new base.

In 1973 these organizations gave way to the European Space Agency (ESA), whose original members were Germany, Belgium, Denmark, Spain, France, Britain, Switzerland, the Netherlands, Italy, and Sweden. Member nations continued to run their own programs, some still do, but ESA gradually assumed more power as it negotiated with the Soviet (now Russian) Space Agency and with NASA. The 1970s were hard for NASA. Their post-Apollo plans ran into the congressional obstacles of reduced funding and demands for redesigns for the proposed space shuttle and space station. As NASA endured postponements, the Soviets launched a series of space stations, which, beginning with Salyut 6 in 1977, could maintain at least two cosmonauts working productively for up to 175 days. Then in 1979, France, with ESA participation, launched Ariane 1 from Kourou and celebrated the end of America's commercial launch monopoly. Within a few years the company Arianespace (a French-led European company that tried, unsuccessfully, to compete with NASA) included thirty-six industrial partners and thirteen banks.

American budgetary problems led NASA to negotiate an agreement with ESA in 1973. In exchange for delivering one flight-ready Spacelab, a modular laboratory built to fit inside the space shuttle's cargo hold, Europe would share half of the payload for the first mission, which NASA would launch without charge. At least one European would fly on that mission. Later astronaut assignments would be negotiated. After the first mission, NASA would own the module but agreed to order another Spacelab in the future on which ESA could fly additional experiments and astronauts but for which ESA would pay launch costs. The first Spacelab flew at the end of 1983 with seventy-two experiments and German scientist-astronaut Ulf Merbold representing ESA. Spacelab missions continued through 1998, carrying ten ESA astronauts in fifteen years.

France, especially, felt short-changed with this arrangement and in 1985 began planning Hermes, a space-plane that would carry a crew of two to four scientists or a five-ton payload for thirty days, or ninety days if docked to a space station. Hermes would have made ESA independent of the Soviets and NASA, but it proved much more expensive than anticipated, gradually lost financial support from ESA members, and disappeared from the scene in the early 1990s.

In order to upstage NASA in the early 1980s, the Soviets secretly selected a group of scientifically trained women cosmonauts and chose Svetlana Savitskaya to fly to the Salyut 7 space station in August 1982, eight months ahead of Sally Ride's mission for NASA in April 1983. Two years later, when NASA announced that Katherine Sullivan would be the first woman to do a spacewalk, the Soviets flew Savitskaya a second time. A Russian woman would be the first to walk in space. Savitskaya, however, decried Soviet chauvinism at her press conferences. The Soviets never flew a planned all-female crew, and the third and last Soviet/Russian woman cosmonaut to date, Elena Kondakova, flew in 1994. By 2003 NASA had launched thirty-six women into orbit.

Also in the 1980s, with a functioning space station, the Soviets were following a new agenda that included scientific experimentation, not the least of which involved monitoring the health of its cosmonauts, who gradually increased the length of their missions to over a year. They also used the station to host visiting cosmonauts for diplomatic, financial, and propaganda purposes. Visitors came from the communist states of Czechoslovakia, Poland, East Germany, Bulgaria, Hungary, Romania, and Cuba, and from France and Britain as well. After the USSR gave way to the Russian Federation, the Russian Federal Space Agency (RKA) signed an agreement with NASA in 1992 for a program called Shuttle-Mir. NASA considered this the first stage of what became the International Space Station. American astronauts would learn about space stations by flying on Mir for a sum that would rescue the Russian space program as it made the transition to a free-market economy. At the millennium Russia was one of sixteen nations sharing the International Space Station (ISS), along with the members of ESA, Canada, Japan, Brazil, and, of course, the United States.

Mir fell to a fiery end in 2001, and astronauts and cosmonauts began occupying the still incomplete International Space Station. The loss of the shuttle Columbia in 2003 grounded NASA, halting work on the Station. In the interim NASA reconsidered its space priorities and turned its focus to human missions to the Moon and Mars. ESA and the other partners in the ISS assumed that the shuttle program would resume sooner than it did and would complete the International Space Station, a task totally dependent on the shuttles' ability to carry the completed segments of the station's infrastructure into space. However, in reviewing the shuttles' problems NASA estimated that the remaining shuttles might not be able to fulfill this promise before the program is phased out in 2010.

With the future of the ISS uncertain, robotic exploration of Mars has continued with great success. Europe triumphed in January 2005 when its Huygens probe separated from NASA's Cassini orbiter, and as programmed, penetrated the clouds covering Titan, one of Saturn's moons, and touched down on land, sending back images of what looks like a lake and volcano on its surface. Huygens continued to send back data for about ninety minutes after landing. Europeans are also thinking again of going it alone in privately financed projects. The winning of the Ansari X Prize, given to the first privately financed team to orbit a spacecraft with passengers and return it safely and ready to fly again, by an American millionaire in 2004 kindled hope of a future of perhaps less costly private ventures that would include space tourism, independent scientific research, and private launch pads for telecommunication satellites.

Although Europe continues to support astronauts who may fly on one of NASA's remaining shuttles or work on the ISS, Europeans look with pride to the success of robotic explorers like Huygens. Unlike NASA, the ESA also supports sending art projects, if not artists, into orbit as part of an effort to explore the cultural impact of space exploration. European art works have flown on the Russian space station Mir. The London-based Arts Catalyst Science-Art Agency has sent artists from France and Slovenia, as well as Britain, on parabolic flights on which they have created a variety of space-centered art projects.


After the terrorist attacks in 2001, Europeans, on the whole, did not change course on the purpose and value of space exploration. It is unclear how long they will continue to depend on NASA's launch facilities and its robotic spacecraft as a joint international effort. Europe may turn to private companies or to its own military establishments. The exploration of space is poised between the forces of the global market and terrorist acts, forces that vie with each other in directing how Europe and the rest of the world utilize space in the decades ahead.

See alsoAviation; Braun, Wernher von; Cold War; Gagarin, Yuri; Science; Sputnik.


Cassutt, Michael. Who's Who in Space: The International Space Station Edition. New York, 1999.

Collins, Guy. Europe in Space. Houndmills, U.K., 1990.

Crouch, Tom D. Aiming for the Stars: The Dreamers and Doers of the Space Age. Washington, D.C., 1999.

Harvey, Brian. Europe's Space Programme: To Ariane and Beyond. London, 2003.

Kevles, Bettyann Holtzmann. Almost Heaven: The Story of Women in Space. New York, 2003.

Bettyann Holtzmann Kevles

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

  • MLA
  • Chicago
  • APA

"Space Programs." Encyclopedia of Modern Europe: Europe Since 1914: Encyclopedia of the Age of War and Reconstruction. . 16 Sep. 2019 <>.

"Space Programs." Encyclopedia of Modern Europe: Europe Since 1914: Encyclopedia of the Age of War and Reconstruction. . (September 16, 2019).

"Space Programs." Encyclopedia of Modern Europe: Europe Since 1914: Encyclopedia of the Age of War and Reconstruction. . Retrieved September 16, 2019 from

Learn more about citation styles

Citation styles gives you the ability to cite reference entries and articles according to common styles from the Modern Language Association (MLA), The Chicago Manual of Style, and the American Psychological Association (APA).

Within the “Cite this article” tool, pick a style to see how all available information looks when formatted according to that style. Then, copy and paste the text into your bibliography or works cited list.

Because each style has its own formatting nuances that evolve over time and not all information is available for every reference entry or article, cannot guarantee each citation it generates. Therefore, it’s best to use citations as a starting point before checking the style against your school or publication’s requirements and the most-recent information available at these sites:

Modern Language Association

The Chicago Manual of Style

American Psychological Association

  • Most online reference entries and articles do not have page numbers. Therefore, that information is unavailable for most content. However, the date of retrieval is often important. Refer to each style’s convention regarding the best way to format page numbers and retrieval dates.
  • In addition to the MLA, Chicago, and APA styles, your school, university, publication, or institution may have its own requirements for citations. Therefore, be sure to refer to those guidelines when editing your bibliography or works cited list.