Encyclopedia of Bioastronautics

Living Edition
| Editors: Laurence R. Young, Jeffrey P. Sutton

Highlights of Human Spaceflight: The United States

  • Roger LauniusEmail author
Living reference work entry

Latest version View entry history

DOI: https://doi.org/10.1007/978-3-319-10152-1_67-2


Human Space Exploration Sputnik National Aeronautics and Space Administration Project Mercury NASA Project Gemini Apollo 11 International Space Station Skylab Colonization Moon Project Apollo Space Shuttle Columbia Challenger Vision for Space Exploration Space Station Freedom Commercial space Space tourism SpaceX Orbital Sciences Humans versus robots in space 


Essay focuses on the history of US space exploration from the 1950s into the twenty-first century, highlighting the four major flight programs – Mercury (1961–1963), Gemini (1965–1966), Apollo (1967–1972), Space Shuttle (1981–2011) – and the two extended orbital workshops, Skylab (1973–1974) and the International Space Station (2000–present). In addition, recent developments in space tourism and other commercial space activities are profiled.

Sputnik as a Cold War Crisis

Human space exploration emerged as a Cold War initiative of both the Soviet Union and the United States during the technological demonstrations of virtuosity in the early 1960s. After an arms race with nuclear components and a series of hot and cold crises in the Eisenhower era, coupled with the launching of Sputniks I and II in 1957, the United States pursued human spaceflight as a means of demonstrating American technological prowess before the world’s nonaligned nations.

This avenue of competition emerged in the most unusual of ways in the mid-1950s. In 1955 President Dwight D. Eisenhower approved a plan to orbit a scientific satellite as part of the International Geophysical Year (IGY) for the period, July 1, 1957, to December 31, 1958. This was an international cooperative effort to gather scientific data about the Earth and thereby nonthreatening. The Soviet Union quickly followed suit, announcing plans to orbit its own satellite.

The Naval Research Laboratory’s Project Vanguard was chosen on September 9, 1955, to support the IGY effort, largely because it did not interfere with high-priority ballistic missile development programs – it used the nonmilitary Viking rocket as its basis – while an Army proposal to use the Redstone ballistic missile as the launch vehicle waited in the wings. Project Vanguard enjoyed exceptional publicity throughout the second half of 1955 and all of 1956, but the technological demands upon the program were too great and the funding levels too small to guarantee success (Green and Lomask 1971).

The crisis that began with the October 4, 1957, launch of Sputnik I led directly to several US efforts aimed at “catching up” to the Soviet Union’s space achievements (Launius et al. 2000). Among these:
  • A full-scale review of the civil and military space programs of the United States, including scientific satellite efforts and ballistic missile development (inaugurated November 8, 1957).

  • Establishment of a Presidential Science Advisor in the White House who had responsibility for overseeing the activities of the Federal government in science and technology (established November 22, 1957).

  • Creation of the Advanced Research Projects Agency in the Department of Defense, and the consolidation of several space activities under centralized management (created February 7, 1958).

  • Passage of the National Defense Education Act of 1958 to provide Federal funding for education in scientific and technical disciplines. (Passed by Congress on September 3, 1958) (McDougall 1985; Dickson 2001; McCurdy 1997).

The National Aeronautics and Space Administration (NASA) also resulted from this crisis. Congress passed and President Dwight D. Eisenhower signed the National Aeronautics and Space Act of 1958 establishing the National Aeronautics and Space Administration (NASA) with a broad mandate to explore and use space for “peaceful purposes for the benefit of all mankind.” The core of NASA came from the earlier National Advisory Committee for Aeronautics with its 8000 employees, an annual budget of $100 million, and its research laboratories. It quickly incorporated other organizations into the new agency, notably the space science group of the Naval Research Laboratory in Maryland, the Jet Propulsion Laboratory managed by the California Institute of Technology for the Army, and the Army Ballistic Missile Agency in Huntsville, Alabama (Launius 1994, 29–41).

Project Mercury

The Department of Defense (DoD) had initiated the first serious effort to send humans into space, the “Man-in-Space-Soonest” effort that transferred to NASA just days after its establishment. Just 6 days after beginning operations on October 1, 1958, NASA Administrator T. Keith Glennan approved plans for Project Mercury, and on October 8 he established the Space Task Group at Langley Research Center under Robert R. Gilruth. Thirty-five key staff members from Langley, some of whom had been working on a military human spaceflight plan, were transferred to the new Space Task Group, as were ten others from the Lewis Research Center, near Cleveland, Ohio (Ezell 1988, 102, 139–140).

It took 3 years to send the first American into space. Alan Shepard made the first suborbital Mercury flight on May 5, 1961, in the process establishing that the United States could send to and recover from space an individual. A second suborbital Mercury flight took place on July 21, 1961, when Gus Grissom about Liberty Bell 7 repeated to a large degree the Shepard flight, although there was an accident after landing when the hatch blew and the spacecraft sank into the Atlantic Ocean before it could be recovered. This spacecraft was eventually recovered in 1999 and is now on display as a museum piece in the Kansas Cosmosphere. The success of these two missions had prompted the decision to begin orbital flights (Swenson et al. 1966).

On February 20, 1962, after several postponements, NASA launched an astronaut on an orbital flight. On that date John Glenn became the first American to circle the Earth, making three orbits in his Friendship 7 Mercury spacecraft. Glenn’s flight provided a welcome increase in national pride, making up for at least some of the earlier Soviet successes. The public, more than celebrating the technological success, embraced Glenn as a personification of heroism and dignity.

Three more successful Mercury flights took place during 1962 and 1963. Scott Carpenter made three orbits on May 20, 1962, and on October 3, 1962, Wally Schirra flew six orbits. The capstone of Project Mercury came on May 15–16, 1963, when Gordon Cooper circled the Earth 22 times in 34 h. The program had succeeded in accomplishing its purpose: to successfully orbit a human in space, explore aspects of tracking and control, and learn about microgravity and other biomedical issues associated with spaceflight (Swenson et al., 446–503).

Project Gemini

Even as the Mercury program was underway and Apollo hardware was beginning development, NASA program managers recognized that there was a huge gap in the capability for human spaceflight between that acquired with Mercury and what would be required for a lunar landing. They closed most of the gap by experimenting and training on the ground, but also by flying ten human spaceflight missions in Project Gemini during the 1965–1966 period.

Gemini could accommodate two astronauts for extended flights of more than 2 weeks. It pioneered the use of fuel cells instead of batteries to power the ship and incorporated a series of modifications to hardware. Problems with the Gemini program abounded from the start. These difficulties shot a $350 million program to over $1 billion. By the end of 1963, most of the difficulties with Gemini had been resolved, albeit at great expense, and the program was ready for flight.

Following two unoccupied orbital test flights, the first operational mission took place on March 23, 1965. Mercury astronaut Grissom commanded the mission, with John W. Young, a Naval aviator chosen as an astronaut in 1962, accompanying him. The next mission, flown in June 1965, stayed aloft for 4 days and astronaut Edward H. White II performed the first extra-vehicular activity (EVA) or spacewalk. Eight more missions followed through November 1966. Despite problems great and small encountered on virtually all of them, the program achieved its goals. Additionally, as a technological learning program Gemini had been a success, with 52 different experiments performed on the ten missions. The bank of data acquired from Gemini helped to bridge the gap between Mercury and what would be required to complete Apollo within the time constraints directed by the president.

By the end of the Gemini program in the fall of 1966, orbital rendezvous and docking had become routine, astronauts could perform spacewalks, and it seemed clear that humans could live, work, and stay healthy in space for several weeks at a time. Above all, the program had added nearly 1000 h of valuable spaceflight experience in the years between Mercury and Apollo, which by 1966 was nearing flight readiness. The bank of data acquired from Gemini helped to bridge the gap between Mercury and what would be required to complete the Apollo Moon landings (Hacker and Grimwood 1977).

Project Apollo

The capstone of the heroic age of human space exploration involved expeditions to the Moon in the latter 1960s and early 1970s, Project Apollo. A unique confluence of Cold War political necessity, personal commitment and activism, scientific and technological ability, economic prosperity, and public mood made possible the May 25, 1961, announcement by President John F. Kennedy to carry out a lunar landing program before the end of the decade as a means of demonstrating the United States’ technological virtuosity (Logsdon 2010).

Project Apollo, backed by sufficient funding, was the tangible result of a perceived threat to the United States by the Soviet Union. The space agency’s annual budget rose quickly from $500 million in 1960 to a high point of $5.2 billion in 1965 to complete Apollo. A comparable percentage of the $2.4 trillion federal budget in 2014 would have equaled more than $82 billion for NASA, whereas the agency’s actual budget then stood at $16.6 billion. NASA’s budget began to decline beginning in 1966 and continued a downward trend until 1975 (Launius 2003b).

After a tragic fire that killed three astronauts – Gus Grissom, Ed White, and Roger Chaffee – during a ground test on January 27, 1967, NASA went back to the design tables to make the spacecraft more reliable. Thereafter, the first Apollo mission to capture public significance was the circumlunar flight of Apollo 8 in December 1968. The three astronauts were aboard – Frank Borman, James A. Lovell Jr., and William A. Anders – orbited the Moon on December 24–25 and then fired the boosters for a return flight. It “splashed down” in the Pacific Ocean on December 27 (Zimmerman 1998). Two more Apollo missions occurred before the climax of the program, with them the time had come for a lunar landing.

That landing came during the flight of Apollo 11, which lifted off on July 16, 1969. On July 20, 1969, the Lunar Module – with astronauts Neil A. Armstrong and Edwin E. “Buzz” Aldrin aboard – landed on the lunar surface, while Michael Collins orbited overhead in the Apollo command module. Armstrong set foot first on the surface, telling millions who saw and heard him on Earth that it was “one small step for [a] man – one giant leap for mankind.” Aldrin soon followed him out and the two explored their surroundings, planted an American flag but omitted claiming the land for the USA as had been routinely done during European exploration of the Americas, collected soil and rock samples, and set up scientific experiments. The next day they rendezvoused with the Apollo capsule orbiting overhead and began the return trip to Earth, splashing down in the Pacific on July 24.

Five more landing missions followed at approximately 6-month intervals through December 1972, each of them increasing the time spent on the Moon. The scientific experiments placed on the Moon and the lunar soil samples returned have provided grist for scientists’ investigations ever since. The scientific return was significant, but the program did not answer conclusively the age-old questions of lunar origins and evolution. Three of the latter Apollo missions also used a lunar rover vehicle to travel in the vicinity of the landing site, but despite their significant scientific return none equaled the public excitement of Apollo 11 (Murray and Cox 1989).

In all there were three Earth-orbital missions, Apollos 7 and 9; two circumlunar missions during this program, Apollo 8 and Apollo 13 (the later the result of an accident); and six landing missions, Apollo 11 and 12, 14–17, conducted at approximately 6-month intervals between July 1969 and December 1972. While geopolitics drove the effort, the scientific experiments placed on the Moon and the lunar samples returned have provided grist for scientists’ investigations ever since.

The Space Shuttle Program

After the Moon landings, NASA pursued the development of a reusable Space Shuttle that was supposed to be able to travel back and forth between Earth and space more routinely and economically than ever before. President Richard Nixon approved the Space Shuttle as a follow-on to Apollo in January 1972. The shuttle became the largest, most expensive, and highly visible project undertaken by NASA after its first decade, and it continued as a central component in the US space program until its retirement in 2011 (Heppenheimer 1999; Jenkins 2001).

The Space Shuttle that emerged in the early 1970s consisted of three primary elements: a delta-winged orbiter spacecraft with a large crew compartment, a 15 by 60 feet cargo bay, and three main engines; two Solid Rocket Boosters (SRB); and an external fuel tank housing the liquid hydrogen and oxidizer burned in the main engines. The orbiter and the two solid rocket boosters were reusable. The Shuttle was designed to transport approximately 45,000 tons of cargo into near-Earth orbit, 100–217 nautical miles (115–250 statute miles) above the Earth. It could also accommodate a flight crew of up to ten persons, although a crew of seven would be more common, for a basic space mission of 7 days. During a return to Earth, the orbiter was designed so that it had a cross-range maneuvering capability of 1100 nautical miles (1265 statute miles) to meet requirements for liftoff and landing at the same location after only one orbit. This capability satisfied the DoD’s need for the Shuttle to place in orbit and retrieve reconnaissance satellites (Heppenheimer 2002).

While NASA failed to meet the goal of flying the shuttle into space by 1978, there was tremendous excitement when Columbia, the first operational orbiter, took off from Kennedy Space Center, Florida, on April 12, 1981. After 2 days in space, excitement permeated the nation as Columbia returned from space landing like an aircraft at Edwards Air Force Base, California. The first flight had been a success, and both NASA and the media ballyhooed the beginning of a new age in spaceflight, one in which there would be inexpensive and routine access to space for many people and payloads. Speculations abounded that within a few years Shuttle flights would take off and land as predictably as airplanes and that commercial tickets would be sold for regularly scheduled “spaceline” flights (Jenkins 2001).

In spite of the high hopes that had attended the first flight of Columbia, the shuttle program provided neither inexpensive nor routine access to space. By January 1986, there had been only 24 Space Shuttle flights, although in the 1970s NASA had projected more flights than that for every year. While the system was reusable, its complexity, coupled with the ever-present rigors of flying in an aerospace environment, meant that the turnaround time between flights was several months instead of several days. Since the flight schedule did not meet expectations and it took thousands of work hours and expensive parts to keep the system performing satisfactorily, observers began to criticize NASA for failing to meet the cost-effectiveness expectations that had been used to gain the approval of the shuttle program 10 years earlier.

Many analysts agreed that the shuttle had proven to be neither cheap nor reliable, both primary selling points, and that the program had been both a triumph and a tragedy. These criticisms reached crescendo proportions following the tragic loss of Challenger during a launch on January 28, 1986. Several investigations followed the accident, the most important being the presidentially mandated blue ribbon commission chaired by William P. Rogers. It found that the Challenger accident resulted from a poor engineering decision, an O-ring used to seal joints in the SRBs that was susceptible to failure at low temperatures, introduced innocently enough years earlier. Rogers kept the commission’s analysis on that technical level and documented the problems in exceptional detail. The commission did a credible if not unimpeachable job of grappling with the technologically difficult issues associated with the Challenger accident (Vaughan 1996).

With this accident, the shuttle program went into a two-year hiatus while NASA worked to redesign the SRBs and revamp its management structure. NASA engineers completely reworked the components of the shuttle to enhance its safety and added an egress method for the astronauts. A critical decision resulting from the accident and its aftermath – during which the nation experienced a reduction in capability to launch satellites – was to expand greatly the use of expendable launch vehicles. The Space Shuttle finally returned to flight without further incident on September 29, 1988, without any major accidents thereafter. Through all of these activities, a good deal of realism about what the shuttle could and could not do began to emerge in the latter 1980s (Mack 1998).

The missions that followed undertook scientific and technological experiments ranging from the deployment of important space probes like the Magellan Venus radar mapper in 1989 and the Hubble Space Telescope in 1990, through the continued flights of “Spacelab,” built by the European Space Agency, through a three-person EVA in 1992 to retrieve a satellite for repair, through two Hubble servicing missions, to a dramatic series of cooperative flights with the Russian Space Agency and dockings with the Space Station Mir beginning in 1995. Through all of these activities, a good deal of realism about what the shuttle could and could not do began to emerge in the latter 1980s.

After flying effectively from 1988 through February 1, 2003, another accident took place. While returning from its mission, STS-107, the space shuttle Columbia broke up during re-entry into the atmosphere 16 min before touchdown at the Kennedy Space Center, Florida, after a successful 16-day science mission in Earth orbit. The breakup started over California as the spacecraft and debris scattered over the lower part of the central United States from Texas to the Gulf of Mexico. At the time of its breakup, Columbia was traveling at more than Mach 12 at an altitude of approximately 200,000 feet. The accident seems to have been the result of an impact of a portion of foam insulation from the External Tank on the left leading edge of the orbiter during launch of the mission on January 16.

This debris strike damaged part of the wing’s leading edge and the shuttle’s thermal protection system. Accordingly, during reentry the damaged portion of the wing allowed friction to heat the vehicle’s superstructure to the point that it failed, leading to Columbia’s breaking apart. Lost in the accident was the crew of seven astronauts: Mission Commander Rick Husband; Pilot William “Willie” McCool; Mission Specialists Kalpana Chawla, David Brown, and Laurel Clark; Payload Commander Michael Anderson; and Payload Specialist Ilan Ramon. Ramon was the first astronaut from Israel to fly on a Space Shuttle.

The loss of Columbia signaled the beginning of an important policy debate about the future of human spaceflight. NASA again grounded the shuttle fleet to address the technical problems that had led to the accident, but wanted to return to flight as soon as possible. Others, some of them members of Congress, thought that the shuttle fleet should not only be grounded but immediately retired. For instance, Representative Bart Gordon (R-Texas) said he would never vote for funding to return the shuttle to flight. “It’s my opinion that we can’t make the existing orbiter as safe as it needs to be,” said Gordon. “I’m not going to just sit by and put Americans at risk every time they go into space. If we had the same accident rate in our commercial aviation industry, thousands of people would be killed every day in this country, and we would not accept it” (Launius 2004).

The questions about human spaceflight in the aftermath of the Columbia accident were affected by the decision on January 14, 2004, when President George W. Bush announced the decision retire the Space Shuttle as a human launcher, replace it with something else, and direct NASA to focus on a new Moon/Mars exploration agenda. This “Vision for Space Exploration” required a new vehicle, one that could be used to support operations in Earth orbit, but also to go farther.

What NASA came up with was the Constellation program, a presumed reuse of as much of the existing Space Shuttle technology to build a new Ares I crew launch vehicle, consisting of a Space Shuttle solid rocket booster as a first stage and an external tank as the beginning point for a second stage. A human space capsule, Orion, was to sit atop this system. A proposed second rocket, the Ares V cargo launch vehicle, would provide the heavy lift capability necessary to journey back to the Moon or to go beyond. This hardware would support, NASA officials believed, an expansive “Vision for Space Exploration.” This effort did not remain official policy for long, however, and into the middle of the twenty-first century’s second decade, there has still been no replacement for the Space Shuttle (Launius 2013).

The Space Shuttle flew 135 missions between 1981 and its retirement in 2011. It also left an important but divided legacy:
  • It has been an important symbol of the USA’s human spaceflight capability.

  • It is an impressive and elegant piece of technology that no other nation could build and operate.

  • It has proven itself a flexible space vehicle with the ability to carry a diversity of payloads and perform a variety of missions.

  • It has served as an acceptable platform for scientific inquiry.

  • It was an expensive, difficult to operate reminder of technological overreach.

At the point of the Space Shuttle’s retirement, it still enjoys the same praises and suffers from the same criticisms that have been voiced since shortly after the program first began. It was always the only vehicle in the world with the dual capability to deliver and return large payloads to and from orbit. The design, while quite old, remains state-of-the-art in many respects, including computerized flight control, airframe design, electrical power systems, thermal protection system, and main engines.

At the same time, it was extremely expensive to fly and was unable to deliver on its promise of routine access to space. Costing between $400 million and $1 billion for every flight, the shuttle program never achieved its intended “routine” operations. It also required enormous care to operate such a finicky technology.

The Space Station Program

The core mission of any future space exploration is humanity’s departure from Earth orbit and moving on to other places in the Solar System, perhaps for permanent stays. From virtually the beginning of the twentieth century, those interested in the human exploration of space viewed as central to this mission the building of a massive Earth-orbital space station serving as the jumping off point to the Moon and the planets. NASA placed this plan on the back burner during Project Apollo, but at the end of the 1960s it developed a very important initiative to use Apollo technology to realize at least partially the long-standing dream of a space station. What NASA built was a relatively small orbital space platform, called Skylab, which operated with three different crews in 1973–1974.

Skylab whetted American appetites for a real space station. In 1984, as part of its interest in reinvigorating the space program, the Ronald Reagan administration called for the development of a permanently occupied space station. Congress made a down payment of $150 million for Space Station Freedom in the fiscal year 1985 NASA budget. From the outset, both the Reagan administration and NASA intended Space Station Freedom to be an international program. The inclusion of international partners, many now with their own rapidly developing spaceflight capabilities, could enhance the effort. As a result, NASA leaders pressed forward with international agreements among thirteen nations to take part in the Space Station Freedom program (Launius 2003a).

Almost from the outset, the Space Station Freedom program proved controversial. Most of the debate centered on its costs versus benefits. At first projected to cost $8 billion, for many reasons, some of them associated with tough Washington politics, within 5 years the projected costs had more than tripled and the station had become too expensive to fund fully in an environment in which the national debt had exploded in the 1980s. NASA pared away at the station budget, and in the end the project was satisfactory to almost no one. In the latter 1980s and early 1990s, a parade of space station managers and NASA administrators, each of them honest in their attempts to rescue the program, wrestled with Freedom and lost.

In 1993 the international situation allowed NASA to negotiate a landmark decision to include Russia in the building of an International Space Station (ISS). On November 7, 1993, the United States and Russia announced they would work together with the other international partners to build a space station for the benefit of all. Even so the ISS remained a difficult issue through the 1990s as policymakers wrestled with competing political agendas without consensus. With the first crew’s arrival on-orbit at the ISS in 2000, the program entered a new era of sustained human presence in space.

On October 31, 2000, the momentous occasion arrived when the first crew to occupy the International Space Station inaugurated a new era in space history. When American astronaut Bill Shepherd and Russian cosmonauts Yuri Gidzenko and Sergei Krikalev lifted off in a Russian Soyuz spacecraft from the Baikonur Cosmodrome in Kazakhstan en route to their new home aboard the ISS, it represented the last day in which there were no human beings in space. Shepherd, of Babylon, New York, was commander of the three-person Expedition One crew, the first of several crews to live aboard the space station for periods of up to 6 months. With cosmonauts Gidzenko and Krikalev, Shepherd worked on assembly tasks as new elements, including a US Laboratory, were added to the orbiting outpost. They also conducted early science experiments.

STS-97 became the last Space Shuttle mission of the twentieth century late in 2000, and it proved an exceptionally important mission. This time the Space Shuttle Endeavour and its five-member crew installed the first set of US solar arrays onto the station and became the first crew to visit Expedition One. The solar arrays set the stage for the arrival of the US Destiny Laboratory Module, which arrived at the station in February 2001 on STS-98. The Destiny module, the first station laboratory, had been built by the United States and promised a center place for future research activity on ISS.

The fate of the ISS has been much discussed since its completion near the end of the Space Shuttle program. Now after more than 15 years of human presence in Earth orbit about the International Space Station is seems appropriate to consider what this means. The dream of a permanent presence in space, made sustainable by a vehicle providing routine access at an affordable price, has driven space exploration advocates since the beginning of the twentieth century. All spacefaring nations of the world had accepted that paradigm as the raison d’être of their programs by the late twentieth century. It drove the United States to develop the Space Shuttle as a means of achieving routine access, and it prompted an international consortium of 16 nations to build a space station to achieve a continuous human presence in space. It has, however, not been an overwhelmingly positive experience. Problems with the systems, international disagreements, and scientific results have all proven less then optimal. The ISS may well be abandoned by 2020, or perhaps as late as 2028 (Kitmacher 2010).

Space Tourism

A new age of space entrepreneurship in the United States really began with a set of decisions in the 1980s designed to stimulate private human space tourism. This was reflected in a set of relatively narrow legislative and executive branch initiatives outlined in various laws and policy directives. Direct federal investment in space R&D and technology served as the principal means of stimulating the private space community during that era (Reed 1998).

Beginning in the mid-1990s, several start-up companies were organized to develop new launch vehicles in response to the development of an anticipated expansive market. At the same time, the dream of space settlement sparked a rising chorus of support from the so-called “new space” community. They supported the efforts of billionaire Dennis Tito, who bucked NASA and pioneered the way for orbital space tourism by spending a week in April 2001 on the ISS. In so doing, advocates of space tourism believed that he had challenged and overturned the dominant paradigm of human spaceflight: national control of who flies in space overseen with a heavy hand by NASA and the Russian Space Agency. In making his way over the objections of NASA, Tito supporters believed he had paved the way for others to follow. South African Mark Shuttleworth also flew aboard ISS in the fall of 2001, without the rancor of the Tito mission. Several others have made excursions since that time and more will come, either paying their own ways or obtaining corporate sponsorships (Launius and Jenkins 2006).

Tourism, and this may be the highest form of adventure tourism, seems to be the method of choice for those who want to explore and settle places beyond Earth. Once less expensive access to space is attained, an opening of the space frontier may well take place in much the same way as the American continental frontier emerged in the nineteenth century, through a linkage of courage and curiosity with capitalism. New space advocates also took encouragement from the success of SpaceShipOne in 2004, which received the Ansari X-Prize of $10 million for being the first private space vehicle to fly twice into space within a 10-day period. As this capability advances, supporters emphasized, the role of the government should become less dominant in near space. The development of space tourism capabilities for both suborbital and orbital missions is currently underway. Additionally, there are efforts to undertake a one-way mission to Mars and to form compacts for settlements elsewhere.

Whither Human Spaceflight in the Twenty-First Century

The first part of the twenty-first century has offered both serious challenges and enormous potential for the development of new human launch vehicles that could finally achieve the long-held dream of reliable, affordable access to space. But the policy questions posed by the 2003 loss of Columbia about the future US human spaceflight still loom large, as does the retirement of the Space Shuttle in 2011, and the failure to replace that system with another.

Perhaps the private sector efforts of SpaceX, Orbital Sciences, and others will come to the rescue of human spaceflight in the US The recent success of the launch of Falcon 9 and the Dragon capsule by SpaceX is a positive sign, but I urge caution in trumpeting it as THE answer to the nation’s human space access dilemma. Although the trajectory is positive, the SpaceX team still has a long road to hoe from this test flight to an operational system.

Likewise, the US Air Force’s recent success with a modified X-37B reusable orbital vehicle suggests that innovation for noncrewed military purposes may also be applicable to NASA’s human spaceflight program.

Interestingly, beyond technology R&D at NASA – which of course may be critical to the next human spaceflight system – the space agency may well have to look beyond its personnel and its various centers for the next human space access system. This is not unprecedented, but it is troubling after more than 50 years of being able to harness on its own capabilities to resolve these technological challenges. The space agency relied on modified ballistic missiles developed by the military to launch its Mercury and Gemini spacecraft into orbit, but since Apollo it has owned and operated its own systems.

President Obama’s 2009 decision to rely on private sector efforts to develop next generation human space access capabilities was a bold, controversial initiative. However, it turns out, it represents a path that hearkens back to an earlier model in which NASA had more equal partnerships with other organizations to accomplish its space exploration mandate.

Who knows what the future might hold? Only time will tell. Space exploration provides a window on the universe from which fantastic new discoveries may be made. Humans may well discover extraterrestrial life. They may set their eyes on the image of an Earth-like planet around a nearby star. They may discover some fantastic material that can only be made in a gravity-free realm. Perhaps they may discover some heretofore unknown principle of physics. Maybe they will capture an image of the creation of the universe. That is the true excitement of the endeavor.

The twenty-first century promises to be an exciting experience for many reasons, but spaceflight offers a uniquely challenging set of possibilities. With sufficient diligence and resources, of course, virtually anything humans can imagine in spaceflight may be achieved. We should be concerned, however, that neither sufficient diligence nor resources will be available for this great initiative. In the process of failure, we may also lose our longstanding intrinsic ability for access to space with our seasoned, capable, and resolute astronaut corps. These outcomes are most unsettled as the new century proceeds.


  1. Dickson PL (2001) Sputnik: the shock of the century. Walker and Co., New YorkGoogle Scholar
  2. Ezell LN (1988) NASA historical data book: volume ii: programs and projects 1958–1968. NASA, WashingtonGoogle Scholar
  3. Green CM, Lomask M (1971) Vanguard: a history. Smithsonian Institution Press, WashingtonGoogle Scholar
  4. Hacker BC, Grimwood JM (1977) On shoulders of titans: a history of project Gemini. NASA, WashingtonGoogle Scholar
  5. Heppenheimer TA (1999) The space shuttle decision: NASA’s quest for a reusable space vehicle. NASA, WashingtonGoogle Scholar
  6. Heppenheimer TA (2002) Development of the space shuttle, 1972–1981. Smithsonian Institution Press, WashingtonGoogle Scholar
  7. Jenkins DR (2001) Space shuttle: the history of the national space transportation system, the first 100 missions. Jenkins, Cape CanaveralGoogle Scholar
  8. Kitmacher GH (2010) Reference guide to the international space station: assembly, complete edn. Create Space Independent Publishing Platform, HoustonGoogle Scholar
  9. Launius RD (1994) NASA: a history of the U.S. civil space program. Krieger, MalabarGoogle Scholar
  10. Launius RD (2003a) Base camp to the stars: the space station in American thought and culture. Smithsonian Institution Press, WashingtonGoogle Scholar
  11. Launius RD (2003b) Public opinion polls and perceptions of U.S. human spaceflight. Space Policy 19:163–175CrossRefGoogle Scholar
  12. Launius RD (2004) After Columbia: the space shuttle program and the crisis in space access. Astropolitics 2:277–322CrossRefGoogle Scholar
  13. Launius RD (2013) The strange career of the American spaceplane: the long history of wings and wheels in human space operations. Centaurus 55(4):412–442CrossRefGoogle Scholar
  14. Launius RD, Jenkins DR (2006) Is it finally time for space tourism? Astropolitics 4:253–280CrossRefGoogle Scholar
  15. Launius RD, Logsdon JM, Smith RW (eds) (2000) Reconsidering sputnik: forty years since the soviet satellite. Harwood Academic, AmsterdamGoogle Scholar
  16. Logsdon JM (2010) John F. Kennedy and the race to the moon. Palgrave Macmillan, New YorkCrossRefGoogle Scholar
  17. Mack PE (ed) (1998) From engineering science to big science: the NACA and NASA collier trophy research project winners. NASA, WashingtonGoogle Scholar
  18. McCurdy HE (1997) Space and the American imagination. Smithsonian Institution Press, WashingtonGoogle Scholar
  19. McDougall WA (1985) …the heavens and the earth: a political history of the space age. Basic Books, New YorkGoogle Scholar
  20. Murray CA, Cox CB (1989) Apollo: the race to the moon. Simon and Schuster, New YorkGoogle Scholar
  21. Reed CR (1998) Factors affecting U.S. commercial space launch industry competitiveness. Bus Econ Hist 27:222–236Google Scholar
  22. Swenson LS, Grimwood JM, Alexander CA (1966) This new ocean: a history of project mercury. NASA, WashingtonGoogle Scholar
  23. Vaughan D (1996) The challenger launch decision: risky technology, culture, and deviance at NASA. University of Chicago Press, ChicagoGoogle Scholar
  24. Zimmerman R (1998) Genesis: the story of Apollo 8. Four Walls Eight Windows, New YorkGoogle Scholar

Copyright information

© This is a U.S. Government work and not under copyright protection in the US; foreign copyright protection may apply 2018

Authors and Affiliations

  1. 1.Launius Historical ServicesAuburnUSA

Section editors and affiliations

  • Rupert Gerzer
    • 1
  1. 1.Space CenterSkoltech UniversityMoscowRussia