Space Programs Around The World

One of the defining characteristics of the modern space age is the way that more nations are taking part like never before. Here's a rundown of what the major space powers are doing.
Matthew S. Williams
A NASA astronaut outside the International Space Station. Credit: NASA

A defining characteristic of the modern space age is how more countries and the commercial space sector (aka. NewSpace) are taking part like never before. In addition to the two traditional superpowers (NASA and Roscosmos), China, India, and Europe have made some very impressive gains in recent years.


Beyond them, smaller space agencies are also making significant contributions to human space exploration. And in the coming decades, more are expected to enter the fray. Here's a rundown of all the five largest federal space agencies in the world today.

Chinese National Space Agency:

The China National Space Agency (CNSA) is arguably the fastest-rising space agency in the world. Concurrent with China's "economic miracle," the Chinese space program has grown considerably in the past two decades and has been mounting increasingly advanced and ambitious missions accordingly.

In the coming decades, China hopes to deploy a modular space station, conduct crewed missions to the Moon, robotic missions to Mars, and collaborate in some highly ambitious projects that will place them alongside NASA and Roscosmos.

Historical Overview:

Like Russia and the United States, China's space program is rooted in the development of nuclear weapons during the Cold War. This began in 1955, partly in response to the US threatening to use nuclear weapons during the Korean War (1950-53).

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Monument for the T-7M sounding rocket that was successfully launched in Nanhui, China. Credit: Fayhoo/Wikipedia Commons

By 1957, with the launch of the Sputnik-1 satellite, Mao declared that China needed to develop all the necessary technologies to send its own satellite to space. Codenamed Project 581, the goal was to launch a satellite by 1959 to coincide with the tenth anniversary of the communist revolution of 1949.

By 1958, the Chinese had built their own version of the Soviet R-2 rocket, which was provided as part of the technology transfer program during the 1950s. By 1960, the Chinese developed and successfully launched the T-7 sounding rocket, their first indigenously-developed Chinese launch vehicle.

The Sino-Soviet split in 1960 caused this cooperation to end, and China began to pursue the development of nuclear missiles and space launch vehicles independently. By the mid-1960s, the Chinese succeeded in developing intercontinental ballistic missiles (ICBMs) and nuclear warheads.

A crewed space program became a priority by 1967 in response to both the Soviet and American lunar programs. While these efforts did not bear fruit, China managed to develop their first heavy launch vehicles - the two-stage Feng Bao-1 and the three-stage Chang Zhen-1 (Long March-1). The latter succeeded in launching China's first communications satellite (Dong Fang Hong-I) in 1970.

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The Chinese first satellite, Dong Fang Hong I (1970), at the Space Technology Exhibition in Hohhot, China. Credit: Brücke-Osteuropa/Wikipedia Commons

With the death of Mao, progress slowed, and several projects were canceled. However, by the 1980s, several key developments took place. This included further developments of the Long March rocket family and creating a commercial launch program in 1985 (which allowed them to launch foreign satellites).

In 1986, China set some ambitious long-term goals, such as the development of crewed spacecraft and a space station. In 1993, China's space program was reformed by creating the China National Space Administration (CNSA) and the China Science and Industry Aerospace Corporation (CASIC).

The CNSA was thenceforth responsible for the planning and development of space activities related to China's national space program, while CASIC was responsible for the development of space-related technologies as well as those related to infrastructure. Several important milestones followed.

For instance, by 1999, the CNSA conducted the first launch of the Shenzhou spacecraft, a modified version of the Russian Soyuz spacecraft created to support China's crewed space program. By 2003, the first crewed mission to Earth orbit was successfully launched.

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The Long March 3B rocket carrying the Beidou-3 navigation satellites in March of 2018. Credit: Xinhua

That same year, the CNSA launched their Chinese Lunar Exploration Program (the Chang'e program, named after the Chinese Moon goddess), which envisioned sending a series of robotic missions to the Moon in preparation for an eventual crewed mission. This program paralleled the development of new rockets like the Long March 3B.

Between 1997 and 2008, ten successful launches were made with the 3B. This included the launch of the program's first lunar orbiter (Chang'e 1) in 2007, making China the fifth nation to successfully orbit the Moon and map its surface.

This was followed by Chang'e 2 in 2010, which mapped the Moon in greater detail. It then left lunar orbit and headed for the Earth-Sun L2 Lagrangian Point to test China's telemetry, tracking, and command (TT&C) network. This concluded Phase I of the Chang'e program.

This was followed by Phase II, which began with the Chang'e 3 lander in 2013. This mission deployed the Yutu (Jade Rabbit) rover on the lunar surface, which explored the lunar surface and conducted ultra-violet astronomy experiments and studies of Earth's plasmasphere.

The latest mission, the Chang'e 4 lander, reached the far side of the Moon in 2018. The Yutu 2 rover was then deployed to explore the South Pole-Aitken Basin. This impact basin, located in the southern polar region, contains abundant supplies of water ice and is considered an ideal location for a lunar outpost.

The lander also carries an experiment known as the Lunar Micro Ecosystem (LME), a metal cylinder containing seeds and insect eggs designed to test the effects of lunar gravity on living creatures. The orbiter component of the mission also tested the ability to relay communications from the far side of the Moon.

The third phase will entail a robotic lander (Chang'e 5) to conduct a lunar sample-return mission. The fourth phase, which is planned to run from 2023 to 2027, will consist of more research conducting in the South-Pole Aitken Basin and constructing a research outpost there.

For this phase, China will send three landers, orbiter, and rover missions to investigate the Basin's topography, resources and obtain samples for analysis. This phase will also include a 3D printing experiment that will use lunar regolith to build a structure and another sealed ecosystem experiment.

In 2016, China conducted the first launch of their Long March 5 rocket, a two-stage heavy launch vehicle that will play a vital role in China's plans in space. China has also made significant strides in the development of space stations in recent years.

In 2011, the Tiangong-1 station was launched as part of the program of the same name - which means "Celestial Palace" in Chinese. This prototype was designed to test technology and components that would eventually go into constructing a large space station. After spending six and a half years in orbit and being visited by a series of crews, Tiangong-1 was deorbited in 2018.

Two years prior, Tiangong-2 was launched into orbit. Building on the success of the first, this station was designed to test systems and processes for mid-term space stays and refueling. The lessons learned from these two stations will inform the creation of a large modular space station, which is scheduled to begin assembly in 2022.

Important Achievements:

Through its many accomplishments, China has established itself as the third-largest space power. And in the future, it has many bold plans which could put it on par with the United States and Russia. Foremost among these are plans to conduct crewed lunar missions and create a long-term space station in orbit.

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Artist's concept for the large modular space station - aka. the Chinese Space Station (CSS). Credit: CNSA

This station will be the third modular space station in Earth orbit, after Mir and the International Space Station. It will consist of three modules - the Core Cabin Module (CCM), the Laboratory Cabin Module I (LCM-1), and the Laboratory Cabin Module II (LCM-2) – and be supplied by the Shenzhou and the Tianzhou spacecraft.

As of 2019, China began reviewing preliminary studies for a crewed lunar landing mission (to take place in the 2030s) and cooperate with international partners to build an outpost near the lunar south pole (the proposed International Moon Village).

Space Exploration Firsts:

While China entered the space race behind the United States and Russia, it has achieved some impressive firsts in its time. In the past forty years, they were the first space agency to:

  • Launch the heaviest satellite to date (Dong Fang Hong-I, 1970)
  • Send a spacecraft to the L2 Lagrangian point directly from lunar orbit (Chang'e 2, 2011)
  • Send a spacecraft directly to an asteroid from a Sun-Earth Lagrangian point (Chang'e 2, 2012)
  • Explore both the Moon and an asteroid (Chang'e 2, 2012)
  • Conduct a soft landing on the far side of the Moon (Chang'e 4, 2019)

European Space Agency:

In 1975, members from ten European countries (Belgium, Denmark, France, West Germany, Italy, the Netherlands, Spain, Sweden, Switzerland, and the UK) convened to formally announce the creation of a space agency that would combine the space programs and infrastructure of their respective nations.

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Composite image of the ISS transiting in front of the Sun. Credit: ESA

According to the articles of the convention, the purpose of this agency was to:

"[P]rovide for and to promote, for exclusively peaceful purposes, cooperation among European States in space research and technology and their space applications, with a view to their being used for scientific purposes and for operational space applications systems."

While the ESA is a relative newcomer to space exploration, its history reaches back to post-WWII Europe, at a time when the US and its NATO allies were engaged in a competition for supremacy in space. But with the end of the Cold War and the formation of the EU, Europe has risen to become a major power in space.

Historical Overview:

After World War II, Western Europe experienced an exodus of some of its greatest scientific minds, especially those involved with rocketry and aerospace research. By the 1950s, the postwar boom led to renewed investment in the sciences, but it was clear that a cooperative agreement was needed to remain competitive in space.

In 1958, after the launch of Sputnik-1, scientists from Britain, France, Italy, Belgium, West Germany, the Netherlands, and Australia (as part of the British Commonwealth) came together to discuss creating a common Western European space agency.

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Europa at Euro Space Centre in Belgium. Credit: ESA

This led to the creation of the European Launch Development Organization (ELDO) and the European Space Research Organization (ESRO) in 1962 and 1964, respectively. These organizations were tasked with launching an artificial satellite on behalf of the Western European nations.

Between 1968 and 1972, the ESRO launched seven research satellites. However, limited funding complicated creating a European launch vehicle (the Europa rocket family), which led to the merging of the ESRO and ELDO in 1975 to form the European Space Agency.

Ten member states signed the convention establishing the ESA - Belgium, Denmark, France, West Germany, Italy, the Netherlands, Spain, Sweden, Switzerland, and the United Kingdom - which was then ratified by 1960. The ESA's first major scientific mission was also launched in 1975, the Cos-B gamma-ray monitoring space probe.

In 1978, the ESA collaborated with NASA to create the International Ultraviolet Explorer (IUE), the world's first high-orbit telescope. From 1979 onward, the ESA succeeded in developing multiple Ariane launch vehicles, leading to the multi-stage Ariane 4 (1988-2003) and heavy-launch Ariane 5 (1996-present) that gave Europe independent launch capability.

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The Ariane 5 rocket launching from the ESA's Spaceport in French Guiana, 2013. Credit: ESA/CNES/Arianespace

In 1986, the ESA launched its first deep-space mission (Giotto), which rendezvoused with and studied Halley's comet and Grigg–Skjellerup. In 1989-1990, several missions followed, including the star-mapping Hipparcos mission, the Solar and Heliospheric Observatory (SOHO), the Sun-orbiter Ulysses, and the Hubble Space Telescope.

Later scientific missions in cooperation with NASA included the Cassini–Huygens space probe that studied the Saturn system from 2004 to 2017. The ESA's contribution was the Huygens lander, which landed on the surface of Titan and returned images to Earth in 2005.

In 2003, the ESA launched two major missions: the SMART-1 probe and the Mars Express orbiter/lander. The former conducted a lunar flight to test cutting-edge ion propulsion technology, while the latter was the agency's first interplanetary mission. This was followed by the Venus Express probe in 2005, which studied Venus' atmosphere and searched for signs of possible life. 

In 2006, the ESA's first exoplanet-hunting mission - the Convection, Rotation, and planetary Transits (CoRoT) space observatory - was launched. This was followed by the launch of the Gaia space observatory in 2013, which is measuring the positions, distances, and motions of 1 billion stars and astronomical objects to create the largest 3D catalog of the Milky Way to date.

In 2016, during the annual Council of Ministers, the ESA announced plans to build an International Moon Village, a lunar outpost that would act as a spiritual successor to the ISS and establish a permanent lunar presence on the Moon.

This goal was further detailed during the international "Moon 2020-2030" symposium in that same year. As with the ISS, international cooperation is intrinsic to the creation of this base, as are technologies that will allow for in-situ resource utilization (ISRU) and additive manufacturing (3D printing).

Today, the ESA is made up of 21 member and associate member states (including Canada). It also maintains a cooperation agreement with five others (Bulgaria, Latvia, Lithuania, Slovakia, Slovenia), with an additional four as signatories to the agreement (Croatia, Israel, Turkey, Ukraine). 

The ESA is a major contributor to the International Space Station (ISS) and is actively collaborating with NASA, Roscosmos, the ISRO, the CNSA, JAXA, and other space agencies on a number of long-term projects.

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Artist's concept of what the International Moon Village might look like. Credit: Foster + Partners

The ESA and its predecessors have presided over a period of 50 years of cooperation, not only between its member states but with other federal space agencies as well. This template will be handy moving forward, where international cooperation will be necessary for the sake of achieving several common goals (i.e., lunar exploration, a lunar base, Mars exploration, etc.).

Important Achievements:

From its relatively modest beginnings, the ESA has evolved to become a major contender in space. Thanks to cooperative efforts between its member states and with private industry, it managed to achieve independent launch capability for Europe by the 1980s.

Since that time, the ESA has sent multiple satellites into space, robotic probes to other planets and bodies, and helped conduct lucrative research aboard the ISS. Looking to the future, the ESA is poised to make some very significant contributions that will push the boundaries of astronomy, scientific research, human space exploration, and international cooperation.

These include the robotic exploration of the Moon using robotic rovers in preparation for eventual crewed missions, continuing their exploration of Mars (using the ExoMars rover), and the construction of a Lunar Gateway in orbit of the Moon and the International Moon Village on its surface.

Space Exploration Firsts:

While the ESA has not established a lot of first since its inception, those it has attained are quite impressive. They include the ESA being the first space agency to:

  • Send a robotic spacecraft to orbit a comet (Rosetta, 2014)
  • Make a soft landing on the surface of a comet (Philae lander, 2014)

Indian Space Research Organization:

Like China, India's space program has undergone a rapid expansion in recent decades, largely as a result of the country's growing economic power and influence. However, like their international peers, the history of India's foray into space can be traced back much farther.

And in the coming years, India plans to become the fourth power to send astronauts to space, explore other celestial bodies with orbiters, rovers, and landers, and eventually send humans to do the same.

Overview of History:

Modern space research in India can be traced to the 1920s with experiments in radio waves, the dispersal of light, and Earth's ionosphere. However, it was not until after 1945, when India gained its independence, that coordinated space research began in India.

This was spearheaded by Vikram Sarabhai and Homi Bhabha, who established the Physical Research Laboratory and the Tata Institute of Fundamental Research in 1945, respectively. With the founding of the Department of Atomic Energy (1950), research was conducted throughout the 1950s on Earth's magnetic field, cosmic radiation, meteorology.

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Vikram Sarabhai, the first chairperson of INCOSPAR and ISRO. Credit: NASA

In 1962, Prime Minister Jawaharlal Nehru ordered the creation of the Indian National Committee for Space Research (INCOSPAR), which was led by Dr. Vikram Sarabhai - the "founding father of Indian space program." INCOSPAR established the Thumba Equatorial Rocket Launching Station in southern India, where the first Indian sounding rocket (Argo B-13) was launched in 1963.

In 1969, INCOSPAR became the Indian Space Research Organization (ISRO) and began embarking on a space program. In 1975, it built India's first satellite (Aryabhata), which was launched by the Soviet Union. In 1980, India launched its first satellite (Rohini) using an Indian-made rocket (SLV-3).

In the 1990s, the ISRO unveiled the Polar Satellite Launch Vehicle (PSLV) for launching satellites into polar orbits and the Geosynchronous Satellite Launch Vehicle (GSLV) for placing satellites into geostationary orbits. These rockets launched many communications and Earth observation satellites in the following decades.

In Oct. 2008, the ISRO sent its first mission to the Moon (Chandrayaan-1) and its first mission to Mars - Mangalyaan, aka. the Mars Orbiter Mission (MOM) - in Nov. 2013. This probe entered Mars orbit on September 24th, 2014, making India the first nation to do so on the first attempt.

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Artist's impression of the Mangalyaan - aka. Mars Orbiter Missions (MOM) - in orbit around Mars. Credit: ISRO

In June of 2016, the ISRO set a personal record for the most satellites (20) launched in a single payload. In Feb. 2017, they set a world record when they launched 104 satellites in a single payload. In June 2017, India launched its heaviest rocket, the Geosynchronous Satellite Launch Vehicle-Mark III (GSLV-Mk III).

Important Achievements:

The fact that India began its national space program in the same year that it gained independence is an awe-inspiring feat. And while progress was initially incremental, the ISRO managed to build itself up to the point that it was set to become a global contender in space exploration.

Since the turn of the century, India's economic growth has fueled growth in its space sector. Concordantly, the ISRO has made some huge strides and is reaching the point where it could rival China in space, not to mention Russia and the United States.

In the past two decades, India became the fourth space agency in the world to send a mission to the Moon and Mars, as well as the first space agency in Asia to reach Mars orbit. In the coming years, they hope to become the fourth space agency to send astronauts to orbit, which is planned for 2022.

Space Exploration Firsts:

Like the ESA, India has not established a lot of firsts in space, but they have accomplished a lot in a short period and are expected to do a lot more in the coming years. So far, the ISRO is the first to:

  • Asian space program to send a mission to Mars (Mangalyaan, 2014)
  • Achieve orbit around Mars on the first try (Mangalyaan, 2014)
  • Set the record for the most satellites (104) launched in a single payload (PSLV-C37, 2017)
 Space Programs Around The World
GSLV-MK3-D1 lifting off from its launch pad at the Satish Dhawan Space Center. Credit: ISRO

National Aeronautics and Space Administration:

The exploits of NASA are well-documented. From sending astronauts into orbit in the late 50s and 60s to sending the first human beings to the Moon and to the exploration of the inner and outer Solar System - no space agency has matched NASA's historic legacy.

But with other space agencies gaining ground, there is some concern as to whether or not NASA will maintain its leadership in space for much longer. To ensure this, NASA is looking to conduct renewed crewed missions to the Moon and the first crewed missions to Mars.

Overview of History:

The United States forays into space began in earnest in the 1940s, with research into rocketry and upper atmospheric sciences. These efforts were overseen by the National Advisory Committee for Aeronautics (NACA) and were designed to ensure that America was not outpaced by the Soviet Union in the post-WWII period.

Between the late 40s and late 50s, this research consisted of high-altitude flights with supersonic aircraft, like the Bell X-1 that was flown by Air Force test pilot Chuck Yeager. These experiments became the responsibility of NACA after the X-1 achieved speeds exceeding Mach 1 in previous tests.

It was also during this time that planners in the US and the Soviet Union began to consider launching artificial satellites. On May 27th, 1955, President Dwight D. Eisenhower approved a plan to launch an artificial scientific satellite into space as part of the International Geophysical Year (IGY) - July 1st, 1957 to Dec. 31st, 1958.

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The Soviet Sputnik-1 satellite, the first artificial satellite to orbit Earth. Credit: Smithsonian Air and Space Magazine

The goal of this collaborative effort was to gather scientific data about Earth that would benefit all humanity, in keeping with the principle of "freedom of space." The Soviets quickly followed suit, announcing their own plans to orbit a satellite as part of their Sputnik program (which is Russian for "fellow traveler").

In response to the launch of Sputnik-1, Eisenhower signed the National Aeronautics and Space Act on July 28th, 1958 - which called for the creation of NASA and the dissolution of NACA. In accordance with this Act, NASA was directed "[t]o provide for research into problems of flight within and outside the earth's atmosphere, and for other purposes."

In addition to NACA's research, projects and personnel, its scientific institutions would also be absorbed by NASA. These included the Langley Aeronautical Laboratory, the Ames Aeronautical Laboratory, and the Lewis Flight Propulsion Laboratory.

Other organizations were also incorporated into the new agency, like the space science group of the Naval Research Laboratory in Maryland, the Jet Propulsion Laboratory managed by the Caltech, and the Army Ballistic Missile Agency, where German rocket scientist Wernher von Braun and his team of engineers were engaged in the development of large rockets. 

Within months of its creation, NASA began conducting several major programs. Already, the first American satellite (Explorer 1) had been launched into space and documented the existence of radiation zones encircling the Earth (the Van Allen Belts).

NASA also continued experimenting with rocket aircraft, which culminated with the X-15 hypersonic aircraft. Between 1959 and 1968, the aircraft set speed and altitude records, flying to the very edge of outer space, which conforms to an altitude of 100 km (62 mi) above sea level - the Kármán Line.

Beyond launching satellites, NASA also began conducting multiple programs to send astronauts to space. The first of these, codenamed Project Mercury (1958-1963), was focused on using existing single-stage rockets and newly-created space capsules that would send a single astronaut to orbit.

The first seven astronauts, nicknamed the “Mercury Seven, “were selected from the Navy, Air Force, and Marine test pilot programs. Beginning with Alan Shepard and the Freedom 7 mission, six crewed flights were made to suborbital and orbital altitudes between 1961 and 1963, culminating in astronaut Gordon Cooper’s 22-orbit flight (Faith 7).

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The Mercury Seven astronauts (front row, left to right): Walter M. Schirra, Jr., Donald K. "Deke" Slayton, John H. Glenn, Jr., and M. Scott Carpenter; (back row) Alan B. Shepard, Jr., Virgil I. "Gus" Grissom, and L. Gordon Cooper, Jr. Credit: NASA

This was followed by Project Gemini (1961 - 1966), which saw the development of two-stage rockets and spacecraft that would be able to send two astronauts to space. These astronauts would then conduct operations like rendezvousing and docking with other spacecraft and extravehicular activity (EVA) that would help pave the way for eventual crewed missions to the Moon.

NASA also began developing robotic missions to survey celestial bodies beyond Earth. These included the Moon Ranger, Surveyor, and Lunar Orbiter programs, which would gather data on the surface of the Moon. These studies yielded valuable information that allowed NASA to select landing sites for its crewed lunar missions.

These were conducted as part of the Apollo Program, which began in 1960 and continued until the last Apollo mission (Apollo 17) was sent to the Moon in 1972. The missions entailed the use of the three-stage Saturn V rocket as a launch vehicle and a spacecraft that consisted of a command and service module (CSM) and a lunar landing module (LM).

The project began with a terrible tragedy, which occurred on January 27th, 1967, when the Apollo 1 spacecraft experienced an electrical fire during a test run. The capsule was destroyed, and the crew of three (Virgil I. “Gus” Grissom, Edward H. White II, and Roger B. Chaffee) all died.

 Space Programs Around The World
NASA’s first test flight of the Saturn V rocket on Nov. 9, 1967, at the Kennedy Space Center in Florida. Credit: NASA

The next mission (Apollo 7) launched on Oct. 11th, 1968, and would be the first crewed mission of the Apollo space program. The mission consisted of the spacecraft conducting simulated rendezvous and docking procedures, which would be required to extract the Lunar Module (LM) for future Moon landings.

The second crewed mission, Apollo 8, was the first to send astronauts around the Moon in December of 1968. On the next two missions, docking maneuvers that were needed for the Moon Landing were practiced. And finally, the Moon Landing was made with the Apollo 11 mission on July 20th, 1969, and astronauts Neil Armstrong and Buzz Aldrin became the first men to walk on the Moon.

This was the culminating achievement of the US space program, established America's leadership in space, and signaled that America had effectively won the "Space Race." Five subsequent Apollo missions also landed astronauts on the Moon, the last one occurring in December of 1972, before the program ended.

From these six Apollo spaceflights, a total of twelve astronauts would walk on the Moon, conduct lunar science and even bring samples of Moon rocks back for study. With the conclusion of the Apollo Program, NASA began to focus on long-term and sustainable goals.

Beyond sending astronauts to space and to the Moon, NASA also dedicated itself to exploring the planets of the Solar System using robotic spacecraft. The earliest example is the Pioneer Program, which began in 1958 and remained in operation for 20 years.

While the earliest missions were dedicated to proving that escape velocity was possible and that the Moon could be studied from orbit, the later orbiters were dedicated to the study of space weather, Venus, and the planets of the outer Solar System.

This was followed by the Mariner Program (1962-1973), which launched ten interplanetary robotic spacecraft to explore Mercury, Venus, and Mars. The Viking 1 and 2 missions followed suit in 1975/76, both of which consisted of an orbiter and lander that studied the Martian surface and atmosphere for signs of life.

However, the most famous was arguably the Voyager Program, which launched two probes (Voyager 1 and 2) in 1977 to explore the outer Solar System. After conducting flybys of Jupiter, Saturn, Uranus, and Neptune, the two probes entered the interstellar medium in 2012 and 2018, respectively.

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Artist's impression of the Voyager probe at the edge of the Solar System. Credit: NASA, ESA, and G. Bacon (STScI)

In the post-Apollo era (1973 and after), NASA's priorities shifted towards the development of technologies that would enable a long-term human presence in space and reduce the costs of individual launches. In the case of the former, these efforts led to the creation of America's first orbital workshop and observatory, Skylab.

In the case of the latter, these efforts led to the creation of the Space Shuttle, a reusable spacecraft that was capable of traveling to and from Earth orbit. The first shuttle, Enterprise, was unveiled in 1976 and served as a testbed for the technology, though it never flew to orbit.

In total, five fully orbital shuttles were built between 1976 and 1991, which included the space shuttle Columbia, Challenger, Discovery, Atlantis, and Endeavour. Over the course of their three decades of service (1981-2011), these shuttles flew countless missions, delivering payloads into orbit and assisting with the construction of the ISS.

Before being retired in 2011, two shuttles would be lost - Challenger in 1986 and Columbia in 2003. NASA began setting new long-term goals, which prioritized the development of a new class of heavy launch vehicles and spacecraft that could once again send crews and payloads beyond LEO.

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Space shuttle Columbia lifting off from Launch Pad 39A on April 12th, 1981. Credits: NASA

NASA's robotic space programs also made significant accomplishments in the post-Apollo era, like the deployment of multiple landers and rovers to the Martian surface, the MESSENGER probe's study of Mercury, the Cassini probe's study of Saturn and its system of moons, and the New Horizons probe's flyby of Pluto and the Kuiper Belt Object Ultima Thule.

In terms of space telescopes and observatories, NASA broke new ground in recent decades with the deployment of Hubble (1990), the Chandra X-ray Observatory (1999), the Kepler, Wide-field Infrared Survey Explorer (WISE), and Spitzer (2009), and the Transitting Exoplanet Survey Satellite (TESS) in 2018.

Important Achievements:

NASA's list of achievements is long and varied and can't possibly be summed up in one article. However, some achievements stand out from the rest and can be summarized succinctly. For starters, NASA is responsible for some of the most important developments in the field of rocketry after World War II.

During the late 50s, they helped pioneer the first launch vehicles, which were initially adaptations of ballistic missiles. These included the Jupiter-C research and development vehicle, as well as the Mercury-Redstone, Titan and Atlas class of launch vehicles.

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Buzz Aldrin saluting the American flag he and Neil Armstrong planted in the Sea of Tranquility during the Apollo 11 mission. Credit: NASA

However, it was the development of the Saturn rocket family that was the crowning achievement of NASA's rocketry program. The development of this class of rocket began in 1957 and led to the creation of the Saturn I and IB in 1961 and 1966, respectively.

By 1967, the two and three-stage Saturn V rocket was debuted. In addition to sending the Apollo astronauts to the Moon, it remains the most powerful launch vehicle in the history of spaceflight. NASA also has the honor of launching more satellites than any national space program.

According to the UNOOSA's Index of Objects Launched into Outer Space, there are over 4,987 artificial satellites in orbit of Earth as of 2019. Of the approximately 1900 that are still operational, 859 were launched by the US.

Another major accomplishment is the number of astronauts NASA has sent to space. As of November 17th, 2016, a total of 567 people from 36 countries have traveled to space, of which 351 were American. Of these, only 24 people have traveled beyond LEO to the Moon, all of which were American.

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NASA Astronaut Bruce McCandless II using a Manned Maneuvering Unit outside Space Shuttle Challenger in 1984. Credit: NASA

NASA has also conducted 161 crewed flights, 148 of which were to orbit or beyond, whereas the second-place holder (Russia) has conducted 145 - 144 of which were to orbit and beyond. NASA has also launched the most flights (872 to date), which is over three times what Russia has conducted (259 to date).

Last, but certainly not least, NASA is the only nation that has sent astronauts to another celestial object (the Moon) and stands alone as the only space agency that has sent robotic missions to every planet in the Solar System.

Space Exploration Firsts:

The list of NASA's firsts is also long and varied. Listed chronologically, NASA was the first to:

  • Send living organisms into space (1947)
  • Launch a satellite that provided observations of Earth’s and interplanetary magnetic field (Pioneer 1, 1958)
  • Launch a communications satellite (SCORE, 1958)
  • Launch the world's first weather satellite (Tiros I, 1960)
  • Investigate solar winds, interplanetary magnetic fields, and energetic particles in space (Explorer 12, 1961)
  • Make a suborbital flight, pilot a spacecraft, land in a spacecraft, and land in water (Alan Shephard, Freedom 7, 1961)
  • Successfully conduct a planetary encounter (Venus) with a space probe (Mariner 2, 1962)
  • Impact a probe on the far side of the Moon (Mariner 2, 1962)
  • Make a suborbital flight with a winged spacecraft (Joe Walker, X-15 flight 90, 1963)
  • Conduct orbital maneuvers with a crewed spacecraft (Gemini 3, 1965)
  • Conduct a rendezvous in space (Gemini 6A and Gemini 7, 1965)
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The Agena Target Vehicle as seen from Gemini 8 during rendezvous. Credit: NASA

  • Conduct a docking maneuver in space (Gemini 8, 1965)
  • Send astronauts beyond Low Earth Orbit (Apollo 8, 1968)
  • Send astronauts to the Moon (Apollo 11, 1969)
  • Retrieve samples from the Moon (Apollo 11, 1969)
  • Use a wheeled vehicle on a celestial body other than Earth (Apollo 15, 1971)
  • Orbit another planet (Mars) with a robotic spacecraft (Mariner 9, 1971)
  • Send a nuclear-powered spacecraft through the Asteroid Belt to study Jupiter (Mariner 10, 1972)
  • Send a spacecraft to Saturn (Pioneer 11, 1973)
  • Send a robotic spacecraft of Mercury (Mariner 10, 1973)
  • Launch the largest habitable structure to orbit to date (Skylab, 1973)
  • Send a robotic spacecraft closer to the Sun than any previous mission (Helios 1, 1974)
  • Conduct a soft landing on Mars with a robotic mission (Viking 1, 1976)
  • Conduct a flyby of Jupiter and its moons, Saturn and its ring system, (Voyager 1, 1977)
  • Conduct a flyby of Uranus, Neptune and Neptune’s moons (Viking 2, 1977)
  • Conduct an orbital flight with a winged spacecraft (STS-1, 1981)
  • Conduct an untethered spacewalk (STS-41B, 1984)
  • Orbit Jupiter with a robotic spacecraft (Galileo, 1995)
  • Send an automated rover to Mars (Sojourner, 1997)
  • Orbit Saturn with a robotic spacecraft (Cassini, 2004)
  • Conduct a sample-return mission from a comet (Stardust, 2006)
  • Send a spacecraft beyond the heliopause and into the interstellar medium (Voyager 1, 2012)
  • Orbit a dwarf planet with a robotic spacecraft (Dawn, 2015)
  • Conduct a flyby of Pluto and a Kuiper Belt Object (New Horizons, 2015, 2019)
  • Conduct the closest approach to the Sun (Parker Solar Probe, 2018)

Soviet Space Program/Roscomos:

From the period immediately after the Second World War to 1991, the Soviet Space Program was NASA's chief rival in space. After taking an early lead in the "Space Race" and achieving many firsts, Russia eventually ceded leadership to NASA due to changing budget environments and political problems. 

With the fall of communism, Russia's space program experienced a period of a downturn as a result of economic issues. But after fifteen years, the Russian space program experienced a renaissance under the leadership of the State Corporation for Space Activities (Roscosmos).

Today, the spirit of competition continues to exist between Roscosmos and NASA but is largely defined by cooperation through programs like the International Space Station. And with a new era of renewed space exploration upon us, Roscosmos is poised to play a major role in a number of lucrative international ventures.

Overview of History:

Russia's space program began in earnest after World War II, at a time when the Soviet and American governments were relying on German rocket scientists and technologies developed during the war to get to space first. However, the roots of the Soviet space program go deeper, extending to the pre-war Soviet period and even the late Russian Empire.

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Tsiolkovsky’s drawing of the evolution of a rocket, which informed all future rocket designs. Credit: ESA/Museum of Flight, Seattle

During the 19th century, Russian scientist Konstantin Tsiolkovsky (1857-1933),  often referred to as the "Russian father of rocketry", wrote several pioneering papers on the theory of space exploration. Arguably his most important paper, titled "Exploration of Outer Space by Means of Reaction Devices" was published in 1903.

In this paper, he calculated the minimum horizontal speed to maintain orbit (aka. "the Tsiolkovsky equation" or "the rocket equation") but also introduced the design on which all modern rockets are based. In 1929, he introduced the concept of the multistaged rocket as a means of exploring beyond Earth, which he dreamed would one day include the exploration of Mars.

Another major figure was Russian aircraft designer Sergei Korolev (1907-1966), who was inspired by Tsiolkovsky and also dreamed of a crewed mission to Mars. In 1931, Korolev and German-Russian engineer Freidrich Zander helped found the Group for the Study of Reactive Motion (GIRD), which began conducting research into practical rocketry applications and conducted launches of liquid-fueled rockets.

Between 1938 and 1946, Korolev was imprisoned as part of Stalin's "Great Purge". After his release, he became a leading figure in the OKB-1 design bureau, which oversaw the development of intercontinental ballistic missiles and rockets. Much of their work was based on German rocket designs, which had been seized towards the end of the Second World War.

With the assistance of German rocket scientist Helmut Gröttrup, the Korolev and OKB-1 began building their own versions of the V-2 rocket, which resulted in the R-1 in 1951 and the R-7 Semyorka by 1957. That same year, the Soviets achieved two milestones with the launch of the first artificial satellite (Sputnik-1) and the first animal (Laika the dog) to space (Sputnik 2). 

The success of the Sputnik program led the Soviet government to demand that plans for a crewed mission be accelerated. This resulted in the Vostok program, which succeeded in sending the first man (Yuri Gagarin) to space on April 12th, 1961 (Vostok-1) and the first woman (Valentina Tereshkova) on June 16th, 1963.

After Vostok, the Soviets began to refocus their efforts towards larger spacecraft, long-duration spaceflights, and extra-vehicular activity (EVA). This resulted in the Voskhod program, which involved a redesigned Vostok spacecraft (capable of carrying 2 to three astronauts) and the more powerful Molinya rocket.

However, this program mounted only two crewed flights before being canceled. The Soviet Soyuz program, which aimed to develop spacecraft and launch vehicles for a crewed mission to the Moon, did not fare much better. Initiated in 1963, it led to the development of the three-stage N1 rocket and the Soyuz spacecraft.

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The first launch of the N1 Moon rocket on Feb. 21st, 1969. Credit:

Unfortunately, the development of the N1 was complicated by the death of Korolev in 1966, as well as underfunding and a rush to develop the rocket to compete with NASA's Saturn V rocket. Coupled with the success of the Apollo program, the Soviets abandoned their plans for a crew lunar mission in 1974 and once again shifted their priorities.

The Soviet space program was also instrumental in the exploration of other planetary bodies using robotic spacecraft. Between 1961 and 1999, the Soviets and Russian Academy of Sciences (after 1978) sent multiple probes to Venus as part of their Venera and Vega programs.

The most notable among these was arguably the Venera 4 and Venera 7 missions. While the former provided the first on-site analysis of another planet, the latter conducted the first soft landing on another planet and transmission of info back to Earth.

Between 1960 and 1969, the Soviet space program also sent robotic probes to explore Mars. The most notable of these was the Mars 3 orbiter and lander, which was the first mission to achieve a soft landing on Mars in 1971. Several missions were sent to conduct sample return missions to Mars' largest satellite Phobos (none of which were successful).

However, it was the Soviet/Russian efforts to explore the Moon with robotic missions (as part of their Luna, Zond and Lunakohd programs) that really stands out from the rest. Between 1958 and 1976, these programs sent several orbiters, landers and even rovers to the Moon.

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The Soviet Lunakhod lunar rover. Credit: NASA/GSFC/Arizona State University

The most notable were Luna 3, 9, and 16, which were the first missions to photograph the far side of the Moon, make a soft landing on the Moon, and conduct the first robotic sample-return mission from the Moon, and Lunokhod 1, which was the first rover to land on the Moon or any other celestial body.

From the early 1970s onward, the Soviet space program focused its efforts on developing expertise in long-duration space flight and in the deployment of space stations. The first space station (Salyut 1) was deployed in 1971, which led to the first rendezvous and docking between a spacecraft and space station later that same year (Soyuz 10).

Technical failures caused the next three attempts to fail or result in the station’s orbits decaying after a short period. By 1974, the Soviets managed to successfully deploy Salyut 4, followed by three more stations that would remain in orbit for periods of between one and nine years - some of which were covers for the deployment of Almaz military reconnaissance stations.

In 1986, the Soviets took the lead in the creation of space stations with the deployment of Mir. Originally intended to be an improved model of the Salyut space stations, the design evolved to incorporate several modules and ports for Soyuz spacecraft and Progress cargo spaceships.

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Russia's Mir space station, taken from the Space Shuttle Atlantis following undocking from the station in July of 1995. Credit: NASA

Between 1987 and 1996, all the additional modules that would go into the station were launched and integrated. Over the next 15 years before the station was deorbited (on March 23rd, 2001), Mir would be visited by a total of 28 long-duration crews, some of which were from other Eastern Bloc nations, the European Space Agency (ESA), and NASA.

Russian attempts to build a reusable spacecraft also yielded the Buran ("Snowstorm") space shuttle and Energia heavy launch rocket. Unfortunately, the program ran out of funds after a single flight in 1988, and the program was canceled after 1991.

With the fall of the Soviet Union in 1991, the Soviet space program was officially disbanded and reformed as Roscosmos. During the 1990s, the Russian financial crisis saw the organization turn towards private ventures to keep its space programs running - which included space tourism and commercial satellite launches.

From 2005 onward, as Russia's economy began to experience considerable growth, Roscosmos saw an increase in funding for its programs. This led to an ensured Russia's commitment to the ISS, as well as renewed interest in the deployment of research satellites and crewed missions to space.

This new budget environment allowed Roscosmos to finally build the Angara rocket after 22 years of development. This rocket family was conceived in the post-Soviet period to replace older rockets and those that were built in former Soviet Bloc countries that had since become independent. The first test launches took place in July and December of 2014, with the first launched into suborbital and the second achieving a geosynchronous orbit.

Beginning in 1993, Roscosmos, NASA, the ESA, JAXA, and the Canadian Space Agency (CSA) began collaborating to create the International Space Station (ISS). This project brought together the Russian plans for the Mir-2 station with NASA’s Space Station Freedom project. Between 1998 and 2011, several modules would be assembled in orbit, eventually leading to its overall architecture.

With the retiring of the Space Shuttle in 2011, Roscosmos became the sole means through which NASA was able to send astronauts to the ISS. Despite the downturn in US-Russia relations after the Russian annexation of Crimea in 2014, cooperation between NASA and Roscosmos continues.

In 2013, the Russian space sector was consolidated and renationalized due to issues of reliability. However, this was undone in 2015 by presidential decree and Roscosmos was switched from being a federal space agency to a "state corporation".

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Artist's impression of the Lunar Orbital Platform-Gateway. Credit: NASA

Important Achievements:

Russia's contributions to rocketry and human spaceflight are as undeniable as they are numerous. From Tsiolkovsky's advocacy, calculations, and designs, Russia quickly established a lead in the space race, sending the first satellite, animal, man, and woman to space.

Russia would also make several advances as part of its rocketry program with the development of the R-2, R-7, Proton, N-1, Energia, and Soyuz rockets. Today, the Soyuz rocket remains the workhorse of Rocosmos and has repeatedly been used to transport astronauts from other nations to the ISS.

Russia has also been instrumental in the development of space stations and other technologies that are allowing for a sustained human presence in space. And with the resurgence of the Russian economy after 2005, Roscosmos has set its sights on some ambitious long-term goals.

In the coming decades, they hope to mount robotic missions to the Moon, which will culminate with the first Russian cosmonauts being sent to the lunar surface after 2030. Beyond that, Roscosmos has also announced plans for sending crewed missions to Mars.

They have also expressed interest in collaborating with NASA, China and the ESA on lunar ventures such as the Lunar Orbital Platform-Gateway and International Moon Village.

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Cosmonaut Yuri Gagarin, the first man to go to space, preparing for his flight aboard Vostok 1 in 1961. Credit: Roscosmos

Space Exploration Firsts:

Russia's history of space exploration includes many impressive firsts. In addition to getting to space ahead of NASA, Russia has also maintained a greater degree of proficiency in several areas. Between the Soviet space program and Roscosmos, Russia was the first to:

  • Test an intercontinental ballistic missile (R-7 Semyorka, 1957)
  • Launch the first satellite (Sputnik 1, 1957)
  • Launch the first animal to Earth orbit (Laika on Sputnik 2, 1957)
  • Launch the first artificial object to escape Earth's gravity, communicate and data to and from outer space, and pass near the moon (Luna 1, 1959)
  • Impact a probe on the Moon (Luna 2, 1959)
  • Take pictures of the far side of the Moon (Luna 3, 1959)
  • First animals (Belka and Strelka) sent to orbit and safely returned (Sputnik 5, 1960)
  • Send a probe to Venus (Venera 1, 1961)
  • Send a man to space and Earth orbit (Yuri Gagarin, Vostok 1, 1961)
  • Send a probe to Mars (Mars 1, 1962)
  • Send a woman to space (Valentine Tereshkova, Vostok 6, 1963)
  • Send a multi-person crew to orbit (Voskhod 1, 1964)
  • First extra-vehicular activity (EVA) in orbit (Voskhod 2, 1965)
  • Impact another planet (Venus) in the Solar System (Venera 3, 1965)
  • Make a soft landing and transmit from the Moon (Luna 9, 1966)
  • Send a probe to lunar orbit (Luna 10, 1966)
  • Send the first living beings (tortoises) on a trans-lunar flight (Zond 5, 1968)
  • Dock two crewed spacecraft in orbit and exchange crews (Soyuz 4 and 5, 1969)
  • Return lunar soil samples to Earth with a robotic mission (Luna 16, 1970)
  • Send data from the surface of another planet (Venus) to Earth (Venera 7, 1970)
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Cosmonaut Valentina Tereshkova preparing for her historic flight, Vostok 6, in 1963. Credit: Roscosmos
  • Launch a space station (Salyut 1, 1971)
  • Impact a probe on the surface of Mars (Mars 2, 1971)
  • Land a probe on Mars (Mars 3, 1971)
  • Conduct a soft landing on Venus and send photos to Earth (Venera 9, 1975)
  • Have a female cosmonaut (Svetlana Savitskaya) conduct a spacewalk (Salyut 7, 1984)
  • Deploy robotic balloons into Venus' atmosphere (Vega 1 and Vega 2, 1986)
  • Deploy a space station with a permanent crew (Mir, 1986)
  • Send a crew to space for over one year (1987)
  • Establish the record for longest time spent in space - Valeri Polyakov, 437.7 days (1995)
  • Launch the first space tourist (Denis Tito, 2001)

Taken together, the efforts of these five space agencies add up to an exciting future for humanity in space. When the days come that permanent human outposts exist on the Moon, Mars, and maybe even on the moons of Jupiter, Saturn, and beyond, it's not farfetched to think that they will bear the standards of many nations and agencies.