Space Organizations Part 2: U.S. Military, Foreign and Private

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Outer space, including the Moon and other celestial bodies, shall be free for exploration and use by all Nations

United Nations Treaty of 1967

Although NASA is the best-known space organization in the world, it is not the only one. The U.S. military has an active space program that existed even before NASA was formed. Most modern military space ventures center around ballistic missiles and data-gathering satellites. These are unmanned projects. There are also many foreign governments with space programs. Chief among these is the Russian space program operated by an agency called Rosaviakosmos. The Russian agency continues the program begun by the Soviet Union decades ago. For about half of the twentieth century the Soviet Union engaged in a bitter Cold War rivalry for space supremacy with the United States. The Soviets would achieve many milestones in space ahead of the United States.

In 1991, the Soviet Union splintered into individual nations (including Russia) that were friendlier with the United States. Civilian space agencies in the United States and Russia struggled to carry on ambitious space programs as their funding was cut. They began working together on many space ventures. Eventually space programs sprang up in Europe, China, Japan, and other countries. This presented opportunities for new alliances in space.

Private organizations have also contributed greatly to the world's space programs. These organizations form when individuals interested in rocket science, physics, astronomy, space travel, or space commerce join together to further their ambitions.


The United States must win and maintain the capability to control space in order to assure the progress and preeminence of the free nations.

—Air Force Chief of Staff General Thomas White, 1959.

The U.S. military had space aspirations long before spaceflight was possible. The three main branches of the military, the Army, Air Force, and Navy, began space programs following World War II. They sometimes collaborated, but more often they competed against each other to develop rockets, satellites, and manned space programs.

In 1958 President Eisenhower limited the military's role in space when he created a new civilian agency called the National Aeronautics and Space Agency (NASA). NASA was given responsibility for the nation's manned space programs. The military was allowed to pursue space projects that benefited national defense. Despite the separation, the two programs overlapped quite a bit. Even in the twenty-first century NASA is dependent on military resources to carry out human space exploration projects.

The Department of Defense also operates a number of space-related national defense projects. The Congressional Research Service estimates that the DOD spent $15.7 billion on classified and unclassified space projects during 2002 and $18.4 billion during 2003. The DOD has requested $20.4 billion for space projects in its 2004 budget.

The United States officially holds the policy that it will not develop space weapons, only defensive systems. Some critics complain that the line between the two is growing very fuzzy. For example, the Air Force is known to be working on a program called the Experimental Satellite Series (XSS). These are small, mobile satellites that can be maneuvered up to other orbiting objects and take pictures of them.

The XSS-10 was successfully tested in January 2003. Although the Pentagon denies that the XSS satellites are space weapons, it would be relatively easy to convert their photographic capabilities to firepower. Then they could seek out and destroy targets in orbit, such as the reconnaissance satellites of unfriendly countries. Development of anti-satellite weapons or ASATs is highly controversial. The Air Force plans to test a more sophisticated version of the XSS in late 2004.

World War II to 1955

The military space program began in earnest as World War II ended. In May 1945 a group of German rocket scientists led by Wernher von Braun surrendered to American forces. Under Operation Paperclip the U.S. Army signed a contract with von Braun's team and moved them to Fort Bliss, TX to work on America's rocket program. The Army also captured many German V-2 rocket parts. The von Braun team assembled the parts and launched rockets at the White Sands Proving Ground in New Mexico. On February 24, 1949, the team launched the first rocket from U.S. soil to travel beyond Earth's atmosphere and penetrate outer space. It was called BUMPER Round 5.

Meanwhile the U.S. Air Force had its own space program that included development of guided missiles and robotic aircraft at the Holloman Air Force Base near Alamogordo, New Mexico. As early as 1946 the Air Force was launching rockets into the upper atmosphere that carried fruit flies, fungus spores, and small mammals. An Aeromedical Field Laboratory was established at the base as part of the Air Force's "Man in Space" program. The laboratory researched the new field of space biology and conducted high-altitude balloon flights with animals and humans.

By the early 1950s the Air Force was launching rockets to test the effects of weightlessness and radiation on mice and monkeys. Some of the animals survived the flights, while others perished. According to historians at least four rhesus monkeys died when parachutes failed to open during descent of their spacecraft. In 1952 the Air Force ended its space biology program and turned toward ballistic missiles. However, by that time the Air Force had accumulated a wealth of knowledge and resources in the field of bioastronautics.

In 1950 the Army moved von Braun's rocket team from New Mexico to the Redstone Arsenal in Huntsville, Alabama. Four years later Von Braun proposed that the Army launch an unmanned satellite into orbit using a Redstone missile as the main booster. The plan was eventually called Project Orbiter.

The Navy also pursued rocket research following World War II using captured German rockets. The Naval Research Laboratory (NRL) in Washington, DC, equipped V-2 rockets with atmospheric probes and other scientific instruments. The NRL had a long and distinguished history in scientific research. It had been established in the 1920s at the urging of famous inventor Thomas Edison (1847–1931). The NRL invented the modern U.S. radar system and used V-2 rockets to obtain a far-ultraviolet spectrum of the sun and to discover solar x-rays. As the supply of V-2 rockets began to run out, the NRL developed its own rockets called Vikings and Aerobees.

1955 to 1958

In 1955 the United States decided to launch an unmanned satellite as part of the International Geophysical Year (IGY) project. The IGY was to run from July 1957 to the end of 1959. Various government agencies submitted proposals to develop the satellite. These included proposals from all three service branches: the Army's Project Orbiter, based on a Redstone rocket, an Air Force proposal based on an Atlas rocket, and the Navy's Project Vanguard, based on a Viking missile. Project Vanguard was selected. The Naval Research Laboratory was delegated responsibility for developing the satellite and including a scientific experiment upon it.

The first test flights of Project Vanguard were conducted in December 1956 and May 1957. Although both tests were successful, the project proceeded slowly. In October 1957 the Soviet Union successfully launched Sputnik 1 into Earth orbit. It was the world's first artificial satellite. The United States was stunned that the Soviets had achieved this great milestone. The Department of Defense (DOD) pressured the Navy to accelerate the Vanguard schedule. In early November 1957 the Soviets launched Sputnik 2 with a dog named Laika aboard.

Meanwhile Von Braun's team at the Redstone Arsenal had developed the Jupiter ballistic missile. Throughout the mid-1950s the Army had tried to convince the DOD that a Redstone or Jupiter rocket should be used to put a satellite into orbit. After Sputnik 1 the DOD was ready to listen. In November 1957 the Army was authorized to pursue Project Explorer as a backup to Project Vanguard. A month later the first full-scale Vanguard launch attempt failed when the rocket exploded two seconds after lift-off.

On January 31, 1958, the Army successfully launched Explorer 1, the first U.S. satellite, into space using a Jupiter-C rocket. The satellite was nearly 7 feet long and about 6 inches in diameter. It weighed 31 pounds. The scientific payload included temperature gauges and instruments to detect cosmic rays and the impacts of micro-meteorites. The payload was developed under the direction of James Van Allen, a physics professor at the University of Iowa. Data from Explorer 1 and the later Explorer 3 satellite led to Van Allen's discovery of radiation belts around the Earth. In 1958 the existence of the belts was confirmed by the Soviet satellite Sputnik 3. (See Figure 3.1.)

On March 17, 1958, the Navy finally got its Vanguard satellite into orbit. Vanguard Test Vehicle 4 was launched at Cape Canaveral, Florida, and put the 3-pound satellite into Earth orbit. The satellite was about the size of a grapefruit. It was the first orbiting satellite to be powered by solar energy. Solar cells also powered its radio until the radio failed in 1964. As of February 2004 the silent Vanguard satellite continues to circle the Earth. It has remained in orbit longer than any human-made object in space.

The satellite successes of the 1950s encouraged the Air Force's space ambitions. The service began planning a manned spaceflight program called Dyna-Soar. This was to be an aircraft based on the X-15 experimental plane that could be launched into orbit by a missile, but glide back to Earth and land on an airstrip. Another project was called Man in Space Soonest (MISS). MISS called for a manned satellite to be launched by 1960, a manned laboratory to be in earth orbit by 1963, and a manned lunar landing to take place by 1965.

In June 1958 the Air Force announced a list of test pilots chosen to participate in the MISS project. These would have been the very first American astronauts. Four months later NASA was formed and took responsibility for manned spaceflights. Dyna-Soar and MISS were cancelled. Most of the would-be astronauts were given NASA assignments.

NASA Takes Over

Throughout the 1950s the Air Force had lobbied Congressional leaders to be given control of the nation's space program. The Air Force had excellent launch capabilities and extensive research and development capabilities in space science and bioastronautics.

According to historians, President Eisenhower feared that militarizing the nation's space program would accelerate the nuclear arms race with the Soviet Union and build a politically powerful "military-industrial complex" in the United States. Many scientists were also opposed to military control of the space program. They feared that weapon development and manned space flights would receive priority over scientific objectives. As a compromise, several prominent U.S. scientists urged Congress to divide the space program into two parts, with manned programs operated by the military and science programs operated by NASA. In 1958 when the agency was put into operation President Eisenhower decided to allow NASA to run the nation's space program.

Over the next few years most of the military's space programs, assets, and resources were turned over to NASA. The new agency was very dependent on military scientists with expertise in space science, particularly those of the Air Force. Even after NASA was created, Air Force officials continued to lobby political leaders for control over space programs. This effort was supported by several influential people within the Kennedy administration. In 1961 President Kennedy's science advisor issued a report that was very critical of NASA. It recommended that any large manned space projects the nation pursued be controlled by the military services.

At the time, NASA was engaged in Project Mercury and planning the Apollo trips to the moon. The Air Force's Space Systems Division (SSD) proposed its own post-Mercury project called Lunex that promised to put three men on the moon by 1967. The SSD estimated the cost of the project at $7.5 billion.

The Army's plan for a manned spaceflight was called Project Adam. It called for one astronaut to be sealed inside a capsule atop a ballistic missile for his ride in orbit. Although the Army had excellent launch capabilities and rocket technology, it lacked expertise in bioastronautics. Project Adam did not include any monitoring of the human during his spaceflight to gain medical knowledge. The Army also advocated a military outpost on the moon as part of Project Horizon. This ambitious plan included a dock and fueling station in orbit around Earth.

The U.S. Navy had its own plan for a manned space-flight project called the Manned Earth Reconnaissance Project or Project MER. However, the Navy's space reputation was hurt by the poor performance of the Vanguard program. Also, the Navy was dependent on the Air Force for launch facilities and bioastronautics capabilities.

NASA had its share of influential supporters, including Overton Brooks (the chairman of the House Committee on Science and Astronautics) and Vice-President Lyndon Johnson, both of Texas. Neither wanted the military to control the nation's space ventures. In the end President Kennedy decided to support NASA. He increased the agency's budget and gave it responsibility for a manned lunar spaceflight.

NASA received Air Force help with many aspects of the early space programs. During the 1950s the Air Force obtained infant chimpanzees and monkeys that were trained at the Holloman base for spaceflights. Many of the animals were not named. A rhesus monkey named Sam (after the Air Force School of Aviation Medicine) flew aboard a Mercury test flight in 1959.

Another chimp was named Ham (an acronym for Holloman Aero Medical). During 1961 NASA launched Ham and another "chimponaut" named Enos into outer space to orbit the Earth. The Air Force continued to run a space chimp colony until 1997. At that time 21 chimps were turned over to a chimpanzee rescue group in Florida.

Military and Intelligence Satellites

Following the formation of NASA the U.S. military focused most of its space resources on development of ballistic missiles and satellites. Satellites were designed for a variety of purposes, including communications, navigation, weather surveillance, and reconnaissance (spying).

During the late 1950s the Air Force worked with the Central Intelligence Agency (CIA) to develop a reconnaissance satellite capable of photographing installations on the ground in the Soviet Union from space. The project was code-named Corona. Publicly the U.S. called the satellite Discoverer and claimed that it conducted scientific research. More than 100 Corona missions were flown during the 1960s and early 1970s. The Soviet Union orbited its own spy satellites and also claimed that they were for scientific purposes.

Prior to the 1980s all satellites were launched aboard rockets called Expendable Launch Vehicles (ELVs). Once above Earth's atmosphere a satellite separated from its ELV, and the ELV burned up during reentry. During the 1970s the Air Force used a number of ELVs including the Scout, Thor, Delta, Atlas, and Titan rockets.

Development of the space shuttle opened up a new era in satellite deployment. The shuttle was reusable and included a crew of astronauts that could release, retrieve, and repair satellites as needed. The military was very excited about this prospect. During space shuttle development the DOD insisted that the vehicles be designed to carry heavy military satellites and be able to orbit the Earth along a polar path. Both requirements added substantially to the cost of the shuttle program and slowed its development.

The Air Force was given responsibility for developing a shuttle launch site at Vandenberg Air Force Base on the California coast. This would allow the shuttle to take off in a southerly direction toward the South Pole. The Air Force also developed a rocket for the shuttle program called the Interim Upper Stage (IUS). IUS boosters were designed to thrust satellites from the shuttle's typical orbit into higher orbits.

The first shuttle flight did not take place until April 1981. In June 1982 a shuttle carried a military satellite into orbit for the first time. Shuttles carried six subsequent DOD satellites into space during 1984 and 1985. Four of these satellites were SYNCOM communication satellites. The other two missions were classified.

When the shuttle was first proposed, NASA promised that it would fly frequently and routinely into Earth orbit and would meet the military's scheduling demands for satellite launches. It soon became apparent that this was not the case. The shuttle program was plagued by problems and flew only a few times each year. The DOD decided it could not rely completely on shuttles for the nation's military missions. In 1984 Air Force officials convinced Congress to fund development of a fleet of new ELVs for military missions. NASA protested strongly against this action, but was overruled.

The initiative turned out to be a good one. The explosion of the space shuttle Challenger shortly after liftoff in 1986 forced NASA to make drastic changes in the shuttle program. This had profound effects upon the military's space ambitions. The Challenger explosion happened only months before the first planned launch of a shuttle from the Air Force from Vandenberg Air Force Base. The base's shuttle launch facilities were dismantled. Most of the related equipment was turned over to NASA. The DOD focused more resources on developing ELVs.

In September 1988 the space shuttle resumed flying. Between 1988 and 1992 shuttles carried less than 10 military payloads into space. These were satellites that could not be launched aboard ELVs for some reason.

Star Wars

On March 23, 1983, President Ronald Reagan announced a new military space venture for the United States. He called it the Space Defense Initiative or SDI. Basically the plan called for the placement of a satellite shield in space that would protect the United States from incoming Soviet nuclear missiles. Reagan said that SDI would make nuclear weapons "impotent and obsolete."

Earlier that month Reagan had denounced the Soviet Union as the "focus of evil in the modern world." The Soviet news agency TASS responded that Reagan was full of "bellicose lunatic anti-communism." Reagan's SDI proposal heightened tensions between the two countries. The Soviets warned that it would set off a new and more dangerous arms race. Later that year the U.S.S.R. broke off nuclear arms negotiations in Geneva, Switzerland.

The media nicknamed the SDI proposal the "Star Wars" program. (Star Wars had been a hit 1977 movie featuring elaborate space weapons.) Many scientists publicly questioned whether SDI was technically feasible given the technologies of the times. Major newspapers openly ridiculed the idea. Politicians complained about the potential costs. Discovering whether SDI was even possible was expected to be immensely expensive. Even high-ranking government officials feared that SDI would start an arms race in space.

In March 1984 the DOD established a Strategic Defense Initiative Organization (SDIO). Later that year the Army successfully tested an interceptor missile as part of SDIO operations. The missile was launched from the Kwajalein Missile Range in the Marshall Islands. It flew above the atmosphere and then located and tracked a reentry missile that had been launched from Vandenberg Air Force Base in California. The interceptor missile homed in on the target using onboard sensors and computer targeting. It crashed into the target and destroyed it.

Reagan met with Soviet premier Mikhail Gorbachev for private talks during 1985 and 1986. Both times they argued about SDI. In a 1986 meeting in Reykjavik, Iceland, Premier Gorbachev offered to cut Soviet missile stocks if the United States would cease development of the SDI project. Reagan refused. By this time the military had developed a working concept for the space shield that included numerous small, computerized satellites. The concept was called "Brilliant Pebbles."

In 1989 President George Bush assumed office. He supported the SDI project, and research and development continued on it. Two years later, the United States entered the Gulf War against Iraq. By this time the Soviet Union had dissolved into a number of independent republics. The Cold War was over. Soon after Bill Clinton became president in 1993, the SDIO was redesignated the Ballistic Defense Missile Organization (BDMO). The new threat was considered to be limited-range missiles in the hands of unfriendly dictators and terrorists.

In January 2002 President George W. Bush converted the BDMO into the Missile Defense Agency (MDA). The goal of the MDA is to intercept and destroy ballistic missiles along their flight path. Preferably this would be done outside of Earth's atmosphere so that nuclear or biological warheads would be destroyed during reentry.

As of July 2004 the MDA continues development and testing of interceptor missiles and tracking systems. One of these systems is called the Space Tracking and Surveillance System (STSS). This is a series of satellites in low Earth orbit that would detect and track ballistic missiles launched anywhere on the planet. Eventually the system will include space-based infrared sensors that will be able to distinguish missile warheads from other nearby objects (such as decoys, rocket casings, or space debris). The first launch of an STSS satellite is planned for 2007.

The missile defense systems under development have met with severe criticism from the scientific community. On the eve of the deployment in Alaska and California of the first ten interceptor missiles, which are scheduled to be in place by September 2004, the Union of Concerned Scientists, an organization of independent scientists who provide research and analysis of such policy issues as the environment and missile development, issued a report titled "Technical Realities: An Analysis of the 2004 Deployment of a U.S. National Missile Defense System" ([Online] [accessed July 26, 2004]) which stated:

The ballistic missile defense system that the United States will deploy later this year will have no demonstrated defensive capability and will be ineffective against a real attack by long-range ballistic missiles. The administration's claims that the system will be reliable and highly effective are irresponsible exaggerations. There is no technical justification for deployment of the system, nor are there sound reasons to procure and deploy additional interceptors.

According to an article published by Reuters ([Online] [accessed July 26, 2004]) "[e]ven unsophisticated 'counter measures'" such as decoy balloons with the same infrared "signature" (appearance on a detection and tracking instrument) as a ballistic missile remain a major—and complex—problem with the system. Although one of the report's authors is Philip Coyle, who was the Department of Defense's chief weapons tester under the Clinton Administration, from 1994 to 2001, the Pentagon dismissed the report, arguing that it would be "irresponsible" not to make even the limited defense capacities of the system available to protect Americans. The Pentagon estimates that it will require $53 billion over the 2004–2009 time span to fully install the various air-, sea-, land- and space-based components of the proposed missile defense system.

U.S. Strategic Command

In 1985 the Reagan Administration established the U.S. Space Command to oversee military space operations. Its commander was also in charge of the North American Aerospace Defense command (NORAD). NORAD protects the air space of the United States and Canada. In 1992 President George Bush established the U.S. Strategic Command (StratCom) to oversee the nation's nuclear arsenal.

Following the terrorist attacks of September 11, 2001, President George W. Bush abolished U.S. Space Command and assigned its responsibilities to StratCom. Strat-Com is headquartered at Offutt Air Force Base in Nebraska. It is the command and control center for U.S. strategic forces, controls military space operations, and is responsible for early warning and defense against missile attacks.

StratCom has four space-related missions:

  • Satellite launches and operations including telemetry, tracking, and command. Satellite launches take place at Cape Canaveral, Florida, and Vandenberg Air Force Base, California.
  • Armed forces support via use of communication, navigation, weather, missile warning, and intelligence satellites
  • Protecting U.S. access to space and denying access to enemies
  • Researching and developing space assets that can engage enemies from space. Such projects cannot presently be implemented due to long-standing U.S. policy against deploying orbiting weapons.


Much of StratCom's space operations are carried out by the Air Force Space Command (AFSPC) headquartered at Peterson Air Force Base (AFB) in Colorado. The AFSPC has facilities at three other Colorado locations (Cheyenne Mountain Air Station, Schriever AFB, and Buckley AFB) and in Alaska, California, Florida, North Dakota, Wyoming, Montana, New Hampshire, and Greenland. AFSPC is supported by around 25,000 active-duty military personnel and civilians and 14,000 contractor employees.

The AFSPC operates the Global Positioning System and launches and operates satellites that provide weather, communications, intelligence, navigation, and missile warning capabilities. The Command also provides services, facilities, and aerospace control for NASA operations.

The AFSPC's Space Control Center maintains a database of approximately 9,000 objects known to be in Earth orbit. These include operating and inoperative satellites, pieces of rockets, and other objects. The AFSPC estimates that only about 7 percent of the objects that it monitors are operational satellites. Another 15 percent are believed to be rocket bodies. The remainder is general space debris. The agency tracks objects as small as ten centimeters in diameter, roughly the size of a baseball.

When a space shuttle mission is taking place, the Center tracks the shuttle's path and establishes a 25-mile-long safety zone around the vehicle as shown in Figure 3.2. If the Center determines that an object is on a collision path with the shuttle, the Center notifies NASA so that evasive maneuvers can be performed.

DOD Manned Space Flight Support Office

In 1958 the U.S. government established the DOD Manned Space Flight Support Office (DDMS) to support NASA's manned space flight programs. The DDMS provided medical support and communications, tracking, and data capabilities, and recovered astronauts and space capsules after splashdown for all manned programs from Mercury (1959–1963) through Skylab (1973–1974).

When the space shuttle program began in the 1980s the DDMS assumed responsibility for astronaut rescue and recovery, payload security, and a variety of contingency services in the event of an emergency. Near the Kennedy Space Center in Florida the DDMS has at its disposal a number of Air Force and Navy resources including helicopters, tanker aircraft, ships, air traffic control facilities, and medical and search-and-rescue personnel. The DDMS also supports potential emergency landing sites in Spain, Morocco, and Gambia.


NASA and Rosaviakosmos (the Russian Space Agency) operate the two most active space programs in the world. Rosaviakosmos evolved from the great space agency of the former U.S.S.R. The Soviet space program achieved many important milestones in robotic and human spaceflight. Other nations with the resources to do so have ventured into space. Some have sent their astronauts aboard U.S., Soviet, or Russian spacecraft. Others have developed their own space vehicles and programs. This has created new opportunities for cooperation and competition among space-faring nations.

Table 3.1 lists the space agencies of various countries around the world. Major programs are described below.


The Russian Space Agency is called Rosaviakosmos (RKA). It was officially created on February 25, 1992, by decree of the President of the Russian Federation. The RKA inherited the technologies, programs, and facilities of the Soviet Union space program.

Sergei Korolëv

Sergei Korolëv (1906–1966) is considered the founder of the Soviet Union space program. Korolëv was born in Zhitomir, a town in what is now the Ukraine. An engineer and aviator who began building rockets in the 1930s, he founded a rocket organization called Gruppa Isutcheniya Reaktivnovo Dvisheniya (Group for Investigation of Reactive Motion). Following World War II the government appointed Korolëv to develop Soviet missile systems.

In August 1957 his team successfully tested the R-7, the world's first intercontinental ballistic missile (ICBM). The R-7 was powerful enough to carry a nuclear warhead to the United States or a satellite into outer space. In October 1957 an R-7 rocket carried Sputnik 1 into orbit. It was the world's first artificial satellite. The Soviet Union had beaten the United States into space.


Korolëv's next challenge was to beat the United States to the Moon. In January 1959 the Soviet probe Luna 1 flew past the moon. In September 1959 Luna 2 was (deliberately) crashed into the lunar surface, making it the first manmade object to reach the Moon. A month later Luna 3 took the first photographs of the far side of the moon. Korolëv was already working on a spacecraft for manned missions. It was a modified R-7 called Vostok ("East" in English). Vostok included a sphere-shaped cosmonaut module that held one person. The module was too heavy for a parachute. Instead it included an ejection seat so that the cosmonaut could eject from the module following reentry and parachute to Earth by himself.

Throughout 1960 and early 1961 the Vostok was tested unmanned, with dogs, small mammals, and a mannequin aboard. Vostok flying dogs included Strelka, Belka, Pchelka, Mushka, Chernushka, and Zvezdochka. Many of the dogs died during these tests. The mannequin was nicknamed Ivan Ivanovich, which is the Russian equivalent of "John Doe."

ArgentinaComisión Nacional de Investigaciones EspacialesCONAE
AustraliaAustralian Space OfficeASO
AustriaÖsterreichische Gesellschaft für Weltraumfragen Ges.m.b.H (Austrian Space Agency)ASA
BelgiumBelgium Federal Science Policy OfficeSPO
BrazilAgência Espacial BrasileiraAEB
BulgariaBulgarian Aerospace AgencyBASA
CanadaCanadian Space AgencyCSA
ChinaChina National Space AdministrationCNSA
DenmarkDansk Rumforsknignsinstitut (Danish Space Research Institute)DSRI
FinlandNational Technology Agency of FinlandTekes
FranceCentre National d'Etudes SpatialesCNES
GermanyDeutschen Zentrum für Luft- und RaumfahrtDLR
HungaryMagyar Ürkutatási Iroda (Hungarian Space Office)HSO
IndiaIndian Space Research OrganisationISRO
IndonesiaNational Institute of Aeronautics & SpaceLAPAN
IsraelIsrael Space AgencyISA
ItalyAgenzia Spaziale ItalianaASI
JapanJapan Aerospace Exploration AgencyJAXA
KoreaKorea Aerospace Research InstituteKARI
NetherlandsNationaal Lucht-en Ruimtevaartlaboratorium (National Aerospace Laboratory)NAL
NorwayNorsk Romsenter (Norwegian Space Centre)NSC
PolandSpace Research CentreSRC
PortugalInstituto Nacional de Engenharia e Tecnologia IndustrialINETI
RomaniaRomanian Space AgencyROSA
SpainInstituto Nacional de Técnica AeroespacialINTA
SwedenSwedish National Space BoardSNSB
United KingdomBritish National Space CentreBNSC
source: Created by the author, 2004

On April 12, 1961, the Soviets launched the first man into space aboard Vostok 1. His name was Yuri Gagarin. Gagarin was one of the 20 original cosmonauts selected by the Soviet Union in 1959 for manned spaceflights. Korolëv played a major role in selecting and training the cosmonauts. In 1960 they began training at a sprawling new complex called Zvyozdny Gorodok (Star City) in the Russian countryside. Gagarin's flight into orbit lasted 108 minutes and reached an altitude of 203 miles. During descent, Gagarin parachuted safely from the module and landed in a rural field. A month later, on May 6, 1961, U.S. astronaut Alan Shepard became the first American in space.

There were five more Vostok flights from 1961 through 1963. Vostok 2 carried Gherman Titov to 17.5 orbits around Earth on August 6–7, 1961. Vostok 3 and Vostok 4 were launched only one day apart on August 11 and 12 of 1962. Vostok 3 carried Andriyan Nikolayev, and Vostok 4 carried Pavel Popovich. The two cosmonauts landed within minutes of each other on August 15, 1962. In June 1963 Vostok 5 and Vostok 6 also conducted a joint operation. Vostok 5 launched on June 14th with Valeri Bykovsky aboard. It was followed two days later by Vostok 6 with Valentina Tereshkova aboard. Tereshkova was the first woman in space and had been personally selected for the task by Korolëv. The two cosmonauts returned to Earth on June 19, 1963.

The Vostok program and the U.S. Mercury project both took place between 1961 and 1963. The Soviet cosmonauts beat the U.S. astronauts into space and spent much more time there. The longest Mercury flight lasted only one day and ten hours. The longest Vostok flight lasted nearly five days.


In 1964 the Soviets began testing a multi-passenger spacecraft called Voskhod, which means "sunrise" in English. The Voskhod module had a parachute descent system that eliminated the need for ejection seats. On October 12, 1964, Voskhod 1 carried three men into space: Vladimir Komarov (the pilot), Boris Yegorov (a physician), and Konstantin Feoktistov (a scientist). Their flight lasted just over twenty-four hours and circled the Earth sixteen times. A few months later Voskhod 2 was put into orbit with two cosmonauts aboard: Aleksey Leonov and Pavel Belyayev. On March 18, 1965, Leonov conducted the first extravehicular activity (space walk) in history. It lasted about ten minutes.

Despite these successes, the Voskhod 2 mission was plagued by life-threatening problems. Leonov's spacesuit and the vehicle's airlock and reentry rockets malfunctioned. The crew module spun out of control during reentry and landed in heavy woods far from its intended landing point. At the time, a number of crewed Voskhod missions were planned for the 1960s, including one with an all-female crew. However, the problems of Voskhod 2 and the death of Korolëv in January 1966 shook the Soviet space agency. All of these planned missions were cancelled.


During his lifetime Sergei Korolëv was relatively unknown outside the U.S.S.R. The Soviet Union was very secretive about its national affairs and provided scant information about them to foreign media. This was particularly true for the inner workings of its space program. It was only following his death that the Western world learned about Korolëv's many contributions to space travel. These included numerous rockets and launch vehicles, satellites and probes of different types, and manned spacecraft. His most famous spacecraft was the Soyuz ("Union" in English). Modified versions of Soyuz rockets are still used by Rosaviakosmos in the 21st century.

Korolëv is also remembered for his one great failure, the N-1 rocket. This was supposed to be the superbooster that would launch a Soviet spacecraft called the L1 (or Zond) to the moon. Korolëv's design team created the L1 from a modified Soyuz spacecraft. The N-1 superbooster was similar in scope to von Braun's Saturn V rocket. Korolëv worked on the N-1 project from 1962 until his death in 1966, but never achieved an operational rocket.

His successors continued the work after his death, but were not successful.

On July 3, 1969, an unmanned N-1 rocket exploded only seconds before lift-off. The resulting fireball was so huge it destroyed the launch facilities. Thirteen days later a U.S. Saturn V rocket launched Apollo 11 on its way to the moon.

The Soviet space program was shrouded in secrecy. Successes were publicized, while failures and plans were not. Although the Soviets had ambitions to land a man on the moon, this goal was never announced publicly. It was only years later that the West learned about it. Some people in the United States assumed that the Soviet Union was aiming for the moon, but this was not certain. After the U.S. reached the moon first the Soviets insisted that they had never intended to go there.

Firsts in Space

Despite losing the moon race, the Soviet space program achieved many firsts in space during the 1950s and 1960s:

  • Sputnik 1—The first artificial satellite in orbit (October 4, 1957)
  • Sputnik 2—The first space passenger, Laika the dog, spent seven days in orbit (November 3, 1957)
  • Luna 2—The first artificial object to reach a celestial body (September 14, 1959)
  • Vostok 1—Yuri Gagarin is the first person to orbit the Earth (April 12, 1961)
  • Vostok 2—Gherman Titov is the first person to spend a full day in orbit (August 6–7, 1961)
  • Vostok 3 and Vostok 4—First spaceflight including two spacecraft in orbit at once (August 11–15, 1962)
  • Vostok 6—Valentina Tereshkova is the first woman in space (June 16, 1963)
  • Voskhod 1—First spaceflight including three people (October 12–13, 1964)
  • Voskhod 2—Aleksei Leonov is the first person to take a space walk (March 18, 1965)

The Soviet space program also experienced a tragic first in space. On April 23, 1967, the Soviet space agency launched the first manned Soyuz rocket with Vladimir Komarov aboard. A day later the flight ended in tragedy when the module's parachute failed during descent. Komarov was killed. He was the first human to die during a spaceflight. On June 29, 1971, three more cosmonauts died when their Soyuz 11 spacecraft depressurized during descent after visiting the Salyut 1 station. Their names were Georgiy Dobrovolskiy, Vladislav Volkov, and Viktor Paysayev. At that time cosmonauts did not wear space-suits during launch and reentry. This was later changed to provide them greater safety.

A New Focus

The Soviet's Moon program continued well into the 1970s. However, neither the N-1 nor a competing rocket called the Proton ever became dependable enough for manned launches. During the early 1970s the Soviets concentrated on perfecting their Soyuz rockets and building a space station. Like NASA, the Soviet space agency had always envisioned an orbiting space station as the next step after a lunar visit.

On April 19, 1971, space station Salyut 1 was launched into orbit. It was another first for the Soviet Union. The United States space station Skylab would not launch for another two years. Between 1971 and 1982 the Soviets put seven Salyut stations into orbit, one after another. These were designed to be temporary stations. Some of them fell out of orbit only months after being launched.

The last station, Salyut 7, stayed in orbit for nearly nine years, from April 1982 to February 1991. It hosted 10 crews of cosmonauts that spent a total of 861 days in space. The Soviet space program gained invaluable experience in long-duration exposure to weightlessness. The Salyut program was also notable in that cosmonauts and scientists from Cuba, India, and France were invited to visit the stations.

In 1972 the U.S.S.R. and the U.S. agreed to work together to achieve a common docking system for their respective spacecraft. This would permit docking in space of U.S. and Soviet spacecraft during future missions. On July 17, 1975, a Soviet Soyuz spacecraft carrying two cosmonauts docked with an Apollo spacecraft carrying three astronauts. (See Figure 3.3.)

The crewmembers conducted a variety of scientific experiments during the two-day docking period. Both spacecraft returned to Earth safely. The Apollo-Soyuz Rendezvous and Docking Test Project was the first union of spacecraft from two different countries.

By 1976 the Soviet space program was engrossed in another new project called Buran, a reusable space plane modeled after the U.S. shuttle. Buran means "snowstorm" in English. The Buran program (like the U.S. shuttle program) was plagued by development, cost, and scheduling problems. Although an unmanned Buran was successfully orbited in November 1988, the program was halted soon afterwards due to funding cuts.

The 1980s were a tense time in U.S.-Soviet relations. The Soviets were at war with Afghanistan and cracking down on dissidents in Poland. In 1983 the military shot down a Korean jet liner that allegedly veered into U.S.S.R. air space. More than 60 Americans were among the 269 passengers killed. The Soviet Union felt threatened by President Reagan's so-called "Star Wars" proposal to build a satellite shield. Throughout the decade, arms talks with the United States failed repeatedly.

On February 8, 1987, the Soviet space agency launched the space station Mir into orbit. Unlike the temporary Salyut stations, Mir was designed to last for years and to be continuously inhabited. Dozens of cosmonauts, astronauts, and space tourists visited the station during its fifteen-year lifetime in space. On March 22, 1995, cosmonaut Valeri Polyakov returned to Earth after spending 437 days and 18 hours aboard Mir. It was a new record that remained unbroken in early 2004.

Rosaviakosmos Takes Over

During the early 1990s the Soviet Union splintered into a number of individual republics. The largest of these is Russia. In 1992 the new Russian government established a space agency called Rosaviakosmos to take over the space programs of the old Soviet Union. Russia and the United States began a new era of cooperation in space. In 1993 the two countries agreed to work together to build an International Space Station (ISS). Between 1994 and 1998 U.S. shuttles carried astronauts and cosmonauts into orbit together and to missions on the Mir station. In 1998 ISS construction began when the Russians placed the first module (Zarya) into orbit. Construction is expected to take place at least through 2010.

Rosaviakosmos controls all of the country's nonmilitary space flights. Military space ventures are controlled by Russia's Military Space Forces (VKS). The two agencies share control of the Baikonur Cosmodrome in Kazakhstan and the Gagarin Cosmonaut Training Center at Star City, Russia. The Plesetsk Cosmodrome launch facility in northern Russia is under the control of the VKS. The RKA employs only a few hundred people. The vast majority of civilian space work is performed by contractors.

At its Web site ( the RKA lists six major goals:

  • Conduct environmental monitoring
  • Develop global positioning systems
  • Place satellites in orbit for telecommunication and television broadcasting purposes
  • Participate in orbital manned flights including the ISS
  • Conduct fundamental space research
  • Upgrade launch systems, infrastructure, and test facilities


The European Space Agency (ESA) was formed in 1973 from two existing organizations, the European Space Research Organisation and the European Launcher Development Organisation. The ESA includes fifteen member states:

  • Austria
  • Belgium
  • Denmark
  • Finland
  • France
  • Germany
  • Ireland
  • Italy
  • The Netherlands
  • Norway
  • Portugal
  • Spain
  • Sweden
  • Switzerland
  • United Kingdom

In addition, the ESA has agreements with Canada and Hungary to participate as members in some projects. Although the ESA is independent of the European Union (EU), it maintains close ties with the EU and the two organizations share a joint space strategy.

ESA headquarters are located in Paris, France. Other ESA facilities include the European Space Research and Technology Centre (ESTEC) in Noordwijk, The Netherlands; the European Space Operations Centre (ESOC) in Darmstadt, Germany; the European Astronauts Centre (EAC) in Cologne, Germany; the European Space Research Institute (ESRIN) in Frascati, Italy; and liaison offices in Belgium, Russia, and the United States. The ESA operates a launch base in French Guiana, near the equator in South America. As of 2002 (the latest date available) the ESA employed nearly 1,900 people.

Each member state funds mandatory ESA activities based on that country's gross national product. Mandatory activities include space science programs and the agency's general budget. In addition the ESA operates optional projects in which countries may choose to participate and fund.

During the 1970s the ESA developed the Ariane rocket to launch satellites into orbit. One of the remarkable features of the rocket is that it can carry two satellites at once. Between 1979 and 2003 Ariane rockets were used in more than 130 successful launches. According to the ESA, the agency controlled 50 percent of the commercial satellite launch business during 2003.

As of February 2004 the ESA was participating in the ISS project and operating two interplanetary missions: Mars Express and the Huygens Probe. The Mars Express was launched on a Soyuz/Fregat rocket from Baikonur, Kazakhstan in June 2003 and went into orbit around Mars in December 2003. A landing vehicle named Beagle 2 left the spacecraft to head for the planet's surface, where it was due to land on December 25, 2003. ESA lost contact with Beagle 2 and, as of February 2004, had not been able to verify that the lander survived its journey.

The other major mission being operated by the ESA is the Huygens Probe. This probe was launched aboard the NASA spacecraft Cassini in October 1997 and is on its way to Saturn. The probe will leave the spacecraft and descend to the surface of Titan, Saturn's largest moon. It is expected to arrive on Titan in 2005. The probe is named after Christiaan Huygens (1629–1695), the Dutch astronomer who discovered Saturn's rings and Titan. If successful, Huygens will be the first probe to ever land on a celestial body in the outer solar system.

France's space agency is called the National Centre for Space Studies (CNES). CNES plays a major role in the European Space Agency. CNES suffered from budget problems during the early 2000s. In April 2003 it pulled out of two major missions to save money: the Netlander mission and the Gamma-Ray Large Area Space Telescope, an observatory for studying black holes being planned by NASA and institutions in Germany, Italy, Japan, and Sweden. France also announced that the CNES will suspend plans to fly experiments aboard the ISS.


China's space program is operated by the China Aerospace Science and Technology Corporation (CASC). The CASC is a state-run enterprise that develops and produces rockets, spacecraft, and related products. It has conducted satellite launches since 1970. CASC launch sites include Jiuquan in the Gobi desert, Taiyuan in northern China, and Xichang in southeastern China.

On October 15, 2003, the CASC conducted its first human spaceflight. A Chinese "taikonaut" named Yang Liwei was launched aboard a spacecraft called Shenzhou 5 (Shenzhou means "Divine Vessel" in English). The launch vehicle was believed to be a modified Soyuz rocket. Liwei spent 21 hours and 23 minutes in space and completed 14 orbits.

Soon after the flight, the U.S. Congressional Research Service (CRS) released a report entitled China's Space Program: An Overview, which summarized what is known about China's space ambitions. The CRS believes that China will conduct another crewed launch sometime in 2004 or 2005. Future plans call for development of a space station in Earth orbit, interplanetary robotic probes, and a crewed lunar landing. The country has shown keen interest in participating in international space ventures and has such agreements with Russia, Brazil, and the European Space Agency. It is estimated that China spends approximately $2 billion a year on its space program.


The Japan Aerospace Exploration Agency (JAXA) was created on October 1, 2003, by merging the Institute of Space and Astronautical Science (ISAS), the National Space Development Agency of Japan (NASDA), and the National Aerospace Laboratory of Japan (NAL).

JAXA's major ongoing projects as of February 2004 include the Mars orbiter Nozomi, the asteroid sampler Hayabusa, and development of Kibo (a laboratory module for the ISS). Nozomi was launched in 1998 and was to go into orbit around Mars in December 2003. An equipment failure prevented this from happening. In December 2003 Nozomi flew by Mars and continued on in a solar orbit. Hayabusa was launched in May 2003 and should go into orbit around the asteroid Itokawa in 2005. The robotic explorer is designed to land on the asteroid, take a surface sample, and return to Earth. The asteroid is named after Dr. Hideo Itokawa, who is considered the founder of Japan's space program. The Kibo laboratory facility is scheduled for delivery to the ISS in 2006. JAXA also participates in a number of scientific satellite projects with international partners.

In January 2004 JAXA announced that it intends to expand its space program over the coming decades to include a variety of robotic lunar and interplanetary probes. Flights to the moon, Venus, and Mercury are in the planning stages.


Private space organizations advocate space travel, develop space technology, and/or engage in space-related commerce. These organizations are usually formed by scientists or hobbyists interested in particular aspects of space exploration. They have played a major role in space history by bringing together innovative people, researching and developing new technologies, and influencing government decisions on the future of spaceflight.

One of the first private space organizations was a German group called Verein für Raumschiffahrt (VfR), or Society for Spaceship Travel. The VfR was formed in July 1927 in Berlin by a group of scientists and authors interested in rocket research. In particular, they wanted to raise money to finance rocket experiments being conducted by Professor Hermann Oberth at the University of Munich. During the early 1930s the group sponsored rocket research projects around Germany. The VfR included many famous members, including Wernher von Braun. The group disbanded in 1933 as the Nazi Party gained power in Germany.

The 1930s witnessed the formation of private space organizations throughout western and eastern Europe. In the Soviet Union there was Gruppa Isutcheniya Reaktivnovo Dvisheniya (Group for Investigation of Reactive Motion). Sergei Korolëv was one of its founding members. He went on to become the chief designer of the Soviet space program. The British Interplanetary Society (BIS) was founded in October 1933. This group of scientists and intellectuals is credited with advancing many important theories used in space flight, including a design for a lunar landing vehicle that was incorporated into the Apollo Program. As of February 2004 the BIS is very active and publishes several influential journals.

American Institute of Aeronautics and Astronautics

In April 1930 a group of American scientists, engineers, and writers interested in space exploration formed the American Interplanetary Society. The founders included G. Edward Pendray (inventor of the time capsule), David Lasser (an engineer and technical writer who advocated space travel) and Laurence Manning (a science fiction writer). In 1934 the name of the group was changed to The American Rocket Society (ARS). By this time the members were predominantly rocket scientists who specialized in the research, design, and testing of liquid-fuelled rockets. The American Rocket Society featured many prominent members including Robert Goddard.

During World War II several ARS members started a company called Reaction Motors, Inc., to support the war effort. The company later developed rocket engines used in the famous X-series planes. Over the decades, the company evolved into ATK Thiokol Propulsion, the manufacturer of the space shuttle's rockets.

In 1932 a group of American aeronautical engineers and scientists formed the Institute of Aeronautical Sciences. The name was later changed to the Institute of Aerospace Sciences (IAS). Although originally focused on Earth-bound aviation, the IAS grew increasingly interested in space flight. In 1963 the IAS merged with the ARS to become the American Institute of Aeronautics and Astronautics (AIAA).

As of February 2004 the AIAA has more than 31,000 members and is the largest professional society in the world devoted to aviation and spaceflight. Its stated purpose is "to advance the arts, sciences, and technology of aeronautics and astronautics and to promote the professionalism of those engaged in these pursuits." The AIAA has published more than 350 books and 250,000 technical papers throughout its history.

The Planetary Society

The Planetary Society is a nonprofit space advocacy group based in Pasadena, California, that is funded by donations from its members. It was founded in 1980 by Carl Sagan, Bruce Murray, and Louis Friedman, all of whom had worked for the Jet Propulsion Laboratory.

Its stated purpose is to encourage solar system exploration and the search for extraterrestrial life. As of January 2004 the Society has more than 100,000 members in more than 140 countries and claims to be the largest space interest group on Earth. It operates an educational Web site at

The Planetary Society funds projects that support its goals and educate the public about space travel. It also encourages its members and the public to contact government leaders regarding space exploration projects. During the 1980s the Society waged a campaign to encourage the U.S. Congress to restore funding for NASA's Search for Extra-Terrestrial Intelligence (SETI) project. In the early 1990s the battle was over NASA's planned postponement of the Mars Observer mission. In late 2003 and early 2004 Planetary Society members sent more than 10,000 postcards to Congressional leaders to protest funding cuts for NASA's planned mission to Pluto. According to the Planetary Society, all three of these campaigns were successful in that government funding was restored to the projects.

The Planetary Society also funds space-related research, missions, and educational programs. In the early 2000s it launched an extensive project called Red Rover Goes to Mars, to coincide with NASA's Mars Exploration missions. The project included an essay contest for students that resulted in the names used for the Mars Rovers: Spirit and Opportunity. The contest was sponsored by the Planetary Society and the Lego toy company.

The two also funded creation of DVDs that were mounted to the Rovers for the missions. The DVDs were specially crafted out of silica glass (instead of plastic) and contain the names of nearly 4 million people who asked NASA to be listed. Each DVD surface features a drawing of an "astrobot" saying "Hello" to Mars. The spacecraft safely landed on Mars in January 2004. Photos transmitted to NASA by the rovers after landing showed that the DVDs survived the journey. The Rovers are designed to remain on Mars and not return to Earth.

Other components of the Red Rover Goes to Mars project included a contest in which the winning students visited mission control during the Mars missions and a classroom project in which students built models of the Mars Rover and the Martian landscape.

Other programs being funded by The Planetary Society as of January 2004 include:

  • Cosmos 1—A mission to test a solar sail in orbit around Earth. A solar sail is a novel technology that could power spaceflight in the future. It is composed of giant ultra-thin silvery blades that unfurl after launch to reflect sunlight. The electromagnetic radiation of sunlight exerts force on the objects upon which it shines. This force is fairly strong in outer space due to the absence of atmospheric friction, and it could potentially push a solar sail in much the same way that the wind pushes sailing ships on the Earth's oceans. Each blade of Cosmos 1 is 47 feet long. The sail was to be launched in 2004 by the Russian Navy. The mission is sponsored by The Planetary Society and the media company Cosmos Studios through a contract with the Russian Space Agency. It is the first space mission ever funded by a private space interest organization.
  • Mars Microphone—A project in which instruments are placed aboard spacecraft going to Mars. The first Mars Microphone traveled on NASA's Mars Polar Lander mission of 1999 and was the first privately funded instrument to fly on an American planetary mission. NASA lost contact with the spacecraft soon before it was to land on Mars. In the future the Society plans to send eight microphones aboard a European Mars mission.
  • SETI@home—A project in which private citizens can allow their home computers to be used to analyze data recorded by a giant radio telescope as part of the search for extraterrestrial intelligence (SETI). NASA operated a SETI program for a short time in the early 1990s, but it was cancelled due to lack of funding. The Planetary Society funds several SETI projects including this one conducted by the University of California at Berkeley. The data come from the Arecibo Observatory in Puerto Rico, the largest radio telescope on Earth. People can volunteer to run a special screen saver program on their personal computers that analyzes small chunks of the data and reports the results to the researchers.
  • Projects BETA and META II—These SETI projects rely on radio telescopes. Project BETA is based at Harvard University and scans the skies of the northern hemisphere. Project META II is based in Buenos Aires, Argentina, and scans the southern skies.
  • Optical SETI Projects—The Planetary Society supports four of these projects, two in Massachusetts and two in Berkeley, California. The projects rely on a specially built optical telescope that searches for brief pulses of light.
  • Gene Shoemaker Near Earth Objects Grants—These grants fund studies of natural space objects (such as asteroids) that could potentially threaten Earth with impact.

Off-Beat Space Organizations

Off-beat means eccentric or non-conventional. Off-beat space organizations are not focused on the traditional scientific and technological goals of rocket societies and professional groups, but rather on more imaginative pursuits. One of the most famous is the Artemis Society International (ASI). In Greek mythology Artemis was Apollo's twin sister. The ASI advocates private space-flights to the moon using the motto "12 men have walked on the Moon. When do you get to go?"

Under its Artemis Project the ASI plans to establish a permanent self-supporting community on the moon. This will be accomplished via a process called moon mining in which oxygen and other resources will be extracted from beneath the lunar surface. The ASI claims to have many commercial and industrial clients interested in their mining venture. Private citizens who want to join the Artemis Project pay to become members of the Moon Society. Membership benefits include a subscription to the ASI publication Moon Miners' Manifesto and the opportunity to invest in lunar mining companies.

The ASI works closely with two other space organizations called the National Space Society and the Lunar Reclamation Society (LRS). These groups also advocate private space travel and colonization of the Moon. The LRS plans to use resources mined from the Moon to solve some of Earth's environmental and energy problems. The National Space Society claims to have more than 25,000 members worldwide.

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Space Organizations Part 2: U.S. Military, Foreign and Private

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