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Government Space Programs

While the United States leads the world in space initiatives and exploration, it is not the only country with active interests off the planet. Rivaling the achievements of the National Aeronautics and Space Administration (NASA) in space exploration is Russia, which inherited the Soviet Union's space assets and cherished space history. Although economic uncertainties undermine the stability and future of the Russian space program, at the end of 2001 it remained the only country, other than the United States, which could launch people into orbit.

The Russian Focus on Space Stations

As a major partner in the International Space Station program, Russia is responsible for sending Progress unpiloted cargo ships and Soyuz capsules to the outpost. The Soyuz spacecraft is a small, three-person vessel that serves as an emergency escape system for the station crew. Russian cosmonauts are scheduled to be part of every space station crew, and the commander's post is to alternate between a Russian cosmonaut and an American astronaut. Rosviakosmos, the Russian Aviation and Space Agency, works closely with the prime Russian aerospace contractor, the Korolev Rocket & Space Corporation Energia, which is also known as RKK Energia.

Russian companies built the station's base block, called Zarya, under a subcontract with the Boeing Company. Russia built and paid for the station's service module, named Zvezda, which serves as the living quarters for the station's crew and as the early command and control center. Russia has plans to build two research modules and docking compartments for the space station. Energia entered into a commercial agreement with the U.S. company Spacehab to develop one of the modules, which also could be used as temporary living quarters for visitors.

Russia had its own space station until 2001, when ground controllers shepherded the Mir space station through a fiery demise in Earth's atmosphere and burial at sea. Attempts to commercialize Mir failed and the Russian government ran out of funds to operate the space station. Most of the limited Russian government funding for space is earmarked for the International Space Station program.

Although Russian government funding for its space program is less than what is spent by the United States and many other countries, Russia has been remarkably resourceful in coming up with ways to finance and launch space hardware. For example, to the consternation of NASA and the other partners in the International Space Station program, Russia earned about $20 million by flying the first space tourist, American Dennis Tito, to the station in April of 2001. That amount of money would not even pay for a shuttle launch in America, but in Russia $20 million is enough to pay for several Soyuz and Progress flights to the station.

The Cooperative Efforts of Europe

Europe has been active in space for decades, working independently and with both the Americans and Russians long before the former Cold War foes began working together. While individual European countries maintain national space programs, most space initiatives are a combined effort managed through the fifteen-nation European Space Agency (ESA), which was founded in 1975. The countries that belong to ESA are Austria, Belgium, Denmark, Finland, France, Germany, Ireland, Italy, the Netherlands, Norway, Portugal, Spain, Sweden, Switzerland, and the United Kingdom.

Europe operates four space centers: the European Space Research and Technology Centre in the Netherlands; a control center in Germany; a hub for collecting and distributing information from Earth observation satellites in Italy; and the European Astronaut Centre in Germany, home to ESA's sixteen-member astronaut corps. Europe has its own launch system, the Ariane family of rockets, and a dedicated launch site in Kourou, French Guiana. Ariane rockets are sold commercially through Arianespace, which was formed in 1980 to market Ariane launch services worldwide. ESA's program includes both robotic and human space initiatives. ESA developed the Spacelab equipment that flew more than two dozen missions on NASA's space shuttles, and the agency sent astronauts to live on the Russian space station Mir.

ESA is a prime partner in the International Space Station program. Its contributions include the Columbus space laboratory, slated for launch in 2004, and a robotic arm for the Russian segments of the station. ESA also has plans for an automated cargo ferry for the station. Europe is a partner with NASA in the Hubble Space Telescope, the Ulysses solar probe, several Earth observation satellite systems, and several space-based observatories, including the Solar and Heliospheric Observatory, which is studying the Sun. ESA built the Huygens probe, which is en route to Saturn aboard the Cassini spacecraft. Huygens is to parachute through the hazy atmosphere of Titan, the largest moon of Saturn. Other planetary research projects include the Mars Express mission and the Rosetta comet probe. Space technology initiatives include the Artemis telecommunications satellites, the Galileo navigation satellites, and the SMART-1 spacecraft, the purpose of which is to demonstrate the use of solar-electric propulsion on a mission to the Moon.

Japan's Wide-Ranging Space Program

Japanese efforts to develop and market its own space launch system have been marred by difficulties, but the country has been a dedicated and stable space partner for the United States and Europe. Japan's space efforts are coordinated by the National Space Development Agency of Japan (NASDA), but several institutes, including the Institute of Space and Astronautical Science and the Science and Technology Agency, are also involved in space programs. Japan has a small astronaut corps that trains at the Johnson Space Center in Houston, Texas, alongside NASA astronauts.

Since the launch of its first satellite in February 1970, Japan has pursued advanced space technology. On July 4, 1998, Japan became only the third country in history to launch a probe to another planet, sending the Nozomi probe for a 2004 encounter with Mars. For the International Space Station, the Japanese are building a science laboratory called Kibo that includes an exposed back porch and a small robotic crane to operate experiments in the vacuum of space. In addition, Japan is developing a cargo transfer vehicle to ferry supplies to the station. Japan also is working on a system to land a spacecraft on the Moon. The project, which is targeted for launch in 2003, is called Selene ("Moon goddess") NASDA is backing a wide range of research efforts, including the development of a next-generation reusable space plane, new communications satellites, and Earth remote sensing systems.

Canada's Five-Pronged Program

The Canadian Space Agency has five major interests in space: Earth remote sensing, space science, human presence in space, satellite communications, and space technologies. Canada has a small but enthusiastic astronaut corps, which trains primarily at NASA's Johnson Space Center. Canada's first Earth-observing satellite, Radarsat, was launched in November 1995 and is being used for a variety of commercial and scientific projects including agricultural research, cartography, hydrology, forestry, oceanography, ice studies, and coastal monitoring.

Along with Russia, Europe, and Japan, Canada joins the United States as a full partner in the International Space Station program. Canada is providing a $1.6-billion remote manipulator system for the space station, which includes a 17.4-meter-long (57-foot-long) robotic arm, a mobile base, and robotic fingers to handle delicate assembly tasks.

The Ambitious Chinese Program

China has an ambitious space plan, which hopes to launch its own astronauts into orbit in 2003. Russia has trained Chinese astronauts at its cosmonaut training center in Star City, outside of Moscow. China unveiled its new spacecraft in a one-day, unpiloted test flight on November 20, 1999. In January 2001 the Shenzhou ("magic vessel") flew for a second test flight that lasted for a week. China has already launched its first navigation positioning satellite, the Beidou Navigation Test Satellite-1. Several institutes have joined together to develop a pair of microsatellites to map Earth and monitor natural disasters. Chinese officials have stated that the long-range goal of China's human space program is to build a space station. China, which is not a member of the International Space Station partnership, has developed and operated an unpiloted orbital platform in space.

The nation's Long March boosters have flown more than seventy missions since their debut in 1970, although the rocket has had some significant setbacks and spectacular failures. China also has had mixed success marketing its sixteen versions of the Long March rockets, with twenty-one commercial payloads flown through mid-2001. The country also is developing a new system of reusable launchers, as well as liquid-and solid-fuel boosters to carry small payloads into orbit.

India's Emerging Program

Another emerging player in the world space community is India, which founded its space program in 1972 and has launched at least twenty-six satellites, nine of which have been dedicated to improving the country's communications. India is developing its own heavy-lift launcher to send communications satellites into desirable orbital slots 35,786 kilometers (22,300 miles) above the planet. The country has delivered its own Earth-imaging satellites to low Earth orbit and flew a commercial mission in May 1999 with the Polar Satellite Launch Vehicle.

Other space initiatives include a proposal to send a robotic scientific probe to the Moon in 2005, in what would be India's first venture into deep space. This mission would also make India only the fourth nationafter the United States, Russia, and Japanto send a spacecraft to the Moon. The lunar probe would be launched on the new heavy-lift booster under development, the Geostationary Satellite Launch Vehicle, which made its debut test flight on April 18, 2001.

Israel's Boosters and Satellites

With national security an overriding concern, the young Israeli space program is focused on remote sensing technology, launch vehicle development, and lightweight minisatellites. Israel's Shavit launcher made its debut on September 19, 1988, when it placed the Ofeq 1 engineering test satellite into a low Earth orbit.

The Shavit booster is a small, three-stage, solid propellant booster based on a ballistic missile design. Israel Aircraft Industries, which developed the booster, is continuing to work on expanding the rocket's capabilities. An upgraded Shavit ("comet") was launched in 1995 to place the Ofeq 3 satellite into orbit. A launch failure in 1998 claimed the fourth satellite in the series, but a more advanced follow-on program, the Earth Resources Observation Satellite, has been successful.

Brazil's Developing Program

Brazil's space program is still young. Efforts to develop launch technology were stalled with the 1998 failure of its VLS-1 space booster. The accident also claimed a Brazilian research satellite. In October 1999, a joint Chinese-Brazilian Earth remote-sensing satellite was launched on a Chinese Long March booster, and the countries signed an agreement a year later to jointly develop and fly a follow-on mission. Brazil also developed a satellite to monitor the Amazon rain forest and has positions reserved in low Earth orbit for an eight-satellite communications network.

A junior partner in the International Space Station program, Brazil agreed to provide experiment platforms for use on the orbital outpost. The Technology Experiment Facility is intended to provide experiments involving long-term exposure to the space environment. Brazil also will provide a pallet that can be used to attach small payloads to the station's outer truss segments. Other equipment that Brazil has promised to supply to the space station include a research facility for optical experiments and Earth observations using the station's telescope-quality window; and an unpressurized cargo carrier that can be mounted in the shuttle's cargo bay and loaded with equipment for the space station. In exchange for these contributions, Brazil will have access to space station facilities for research and will be able to fly a Brazilian astronaut to the station to conduct experiments.

see also International Cooperation (volume 3); NASA (volume 3).

Irene Brown


Johnson, Nicholas, and David Rodvold. Europe and Asia in Space, 1993-1994. Kirt-land Air Force Base, NM: Kaman Sciences. Air Force Phillips Laboratory, 1995.

Simpson, J. "The Israeli Satellite Launch." Space Policy (May 1989):117-128.

Internet Resources

Vick, Charles, ed. Space Policy Project. Federation of American Scientists. <>.

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Government Space Programs