Human Spaceflight Program

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Human Spaceflight Program

The first human to go into space, Soviet cosmonaut Yuri Gagarin, made a one-orbit, ninety-minute flight around Earth on April 12, 1961. Up to mid-2001, only 407 additional humans (370 men and 37 women) have gone into orbit, some of them making multiple journeys into space. Most of these individuals were a mixture of career astronauts, trained either to pilot space vehicles or to carry out a changing variety of tasks in orbit, and payload specialists, who also went through extensive training in order to accompany their experiments into space. In addition, there were a few people who got the opportunity to go into space because of their jobs on Earth (e.g., U.S. politicians). Other individuals flew into space because their country or company had paid for access to space, thereby getting the right to name someone to participate in the spaceflight in exchange for that funding. For example, a prince from Saudi Arabia went into space aboard a space shuttle and helped launch a Saudi communications satellite. A Japanese journalist, representing his television network, went aboard the Soviet space station Mir.

Citizens in Space

The United States began a "citizen in space" program in the 1980s. The goal of the program was to identify ordinary individuals who could communicate the experience of spaceflight to the general public. The first person selected was a teacher, Christa McAuliffe. Unfortunately, she and six other astronauts were killed when the space shuttle Challenger exploded seventy-three seconds after liftoff on January 28, 1986. After the disaster, the United States abandoned the idea of taking ordinary people into space, and limited trips aboard the space shuttle to highly trained specialists. The restriction was relaxed in 2002, when Barbara Morgan, another teacher, was assigned to flight status.

The Challenger disaster was a vivid reminder that taking humans into space is a difficult and risky undertaking. It is also very expensive; the launch of a space shuttle, for example, costs several hundred million dollars. Only two countries, the United States and Russia (from 1922 to 1991 known as the Soviet Union), have developed the expensive capabilities required for human spaceflight. In 1999 China tested, without people on board, a spacecraft that could support humans in orbit.

Low Earth Orbit

Human spaceflight since 1961 has been limited to low Earth orbit (LEO) with the exception of the period from December 1968 to December 1972, when twenty-seven U.S. astronauts (three per mission) traveled to the vicinity of the Moon during Project Apollo. Of these astronauts, twelve actually landed on the Moon's surface and carried out humanity's first exploration of another celestial body.

Project Apollo was the result of a 1961 Cold War political decision by U.S. President John F. Kennedy to compete with the Soviet Union in space. Since the end of Apollo, advocates have argued for new exploratory missions to the Moon and especially to Mars, which is considered the most interesting accessible destination in the solar system. However, the lack of a compelling rationale for such difficult and expensive missions has meant that no nation, or group of nations, has been willing to provide the resources required to begin such an enterprise. A major human spaceflight issue is: Under what circumstances, if any, will people once again journey beyond Earth orbit?

The Soviet Program

During the 1960s the Soviet Union attempted to develop the capability to send people to the Moon, but abandoned its efforts after three test failures with no crew aboard. Beginning in the early 1970s the Soviet Union launched a series of Salyut space stations, which were capable of supporting several people in space for many days. Then in March 1986 the Soviet Union launched the larger Mir space station. Mir was continuously occupied for most of the subsequent fifteen years until it reached the end of its lifetime; it was de-orbited into the Pacific Ocean in March 2001. Soviet cosmonaut Valery Polyakov spent 438 days aboard Mir, the longest spaceflight by any person. After the United States and Russia began cooperating in their human spaceflight activities in 1992, U.S. astronaut Shannon Lucid visited Mir, and spent 188 days in orbit, the longest spaceflight by an American.

Human Spaceflight at the Turn of the Century

Human spaceflight at the turn of the twenty-first century thus remained a government monopoly. The possibility of privately operated, profit-oriented human spaceflight activities remained an elusive objective, though it was advocated by a variety of groups and individuals. However, a significant step in the direction of private spaceflight occurred in April 2001 when American millionaire Dennis Tito paid Russia to send him for a six-day visit to the International Space Station.

In the United States, the National Aeronautics and Space Administration (NASA) in 1996 began to turn over much of the responsibility for operating the space shuttle to a private company, United Space Alliance, which was jointly owned by Boeing and Lockheed Martin, the two largest U.S. aerospace firms. But NASA limited United Space Alliance's freedom to market space shuttle launch services to nongovernment customers, and NASA retained control over which people could fly aboard the shuttle. However, after Tito's flight, this policy was re-evaluated, and NASA decided to accept applications from paying customers for such flights. A privately funded corporation called MirCorp worked with Russia to try to keep the Mir station in operation, perhaps by selling trips to the space station for tens of millions of dollars to wealthy individuals or by other forms of private-sector use of the facility. Tito was Mircorp's first customer, but he could not be launched in time to travel to Mir before it was de-orbited.

The International Space Station and Beyond

The International Space Station, developed and funded by a sixteen-nation partnership, will offer opportunities for privately financed experiments in its various laboratories. It may be possible for those carrying out such experiments to pay NASA to send their employees to the space station to carry out such experiments. If research or other activities aboard the International Space Station prove to have economic benefits greater than the cost of operating the facility, it is conceivable that it could be turned over to some form of commercial operator in the future. If the International Space Station were fully or partially commercialized, and the various ways of transporting experiments, supplies, and people to and from the station were operated in whole or part by the private sector, the future could see the overall commercialization of most activities in LEO. If this were to happen, governments would act as customers for the transportation and on-orbit services provided by the private sector on a profit-making basis.

The most exciting vision for the future is widespread public space travel, sometimes called space tourism.* If this vision were to become reality, many individuals, not just millionaires or those with corporate sponsorship, could afford to travel into space, perhaps to visit orbiting hotels or other destinations. Much has to happen, however, before this would be possible. Most fundamentally, different forms of space transportation, much less expensive and much less risky to operate, need to be developed. Although there have been many proposals for such transportation systems, none of these proposals has yet come close to becoming reality. The technological challenges to developing such a system are formidable and are likely to require a government-industry partnership, given the high costs associated with overcoming those challenges. Until these challenges are met, human spaceflight is likely to remain restricted to a fortunate few.

see also Astronauts, Types of (volume 3); Career Astronauts (volume 1); Cosmonauts (volume 3); History of Humans in Space (volume 3); International Space Station (volumes 1 and 3); Tourism (volume 1).

John M. Logsdon


Burrows, William. This New Ocean: The Story of the First Space Age. New York: Random House, 1998.

Heppenheimer, T. A. Countdown: A History of Space Flight. New York: JohnWiley &Sons, 1997.

Stine, G. Harry, et al. Halfway to Anywhere: Achieving America's Destiny in Space. New York: Evans, 1996.

Zubrin, Robert, with Richard Wagner. The Case for Mars: The Plans to Settle the Red Planet. New York: Simon & Schuster, 1996.

Internet Resources

Space Future. <>.

NASA History Office. <>.

*On April 25, 2002, South African Mark Shuttleworth followed in Dennis Tito's footsteps, traveling into space to become the world's second space tourist.

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Human Spaceflight Program

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