Six decades of human spaceflight. Past and future.


Sixty years after Gagarin’s launch into orbit, the question stays. What is making a space program successful? The Soviets have not constructed new spacecraft for almost 55 years. Their conservatism gained them undisturbed access to space, no human life lost for half a century, and enabled steady development of their human spaceflight domain capabilities. American commercial space companies like SpaceX now surpass them. What made Russians leaders of spaceflight, and why their position is fading away.

The article was written by Fryderyk Brun – thank you very much! 🙂

How can we distinguish money well spent on space from wasted? Outlandish objectives or steady development? Times when sending satellites or astronauts were seen as a propaganda tool and as efforts to consolidate national unity are over. Today, running a space program has more in common with planning infrastructure investments than demonstrating technological might. American Global Positioning System, also known as GPS, gathered in orbit in the 70s, is an excellent example of a successful space project. Today the third generation of those satellites are launched, with over one billion users and a giant chunk of the economy dependent on it. Hubble Space Telescope placed in orbit by NASA in 1990 gave the scientific community unmatched possibilities of studying the universe for almost 30 years. After five service missions, with the last happening in 2009, it will operate until 2030. Those are examples of space projects similar to highways and railroads, which will last longer and are easy to maintain and modernize. 

Hubble telescope
Hubble’s image taken during the STS-125 mission in May 2009 / Credits – NASA

One part of the space program in which Americans could not sustain stable development of their abilities is human space flight. NASA spent many resources on the moon landing, leaving flags and footprints on its surface, nothing more. Later, the partially reusable space shuttle was developed, which did not influence modern human space flight much. In the last 50 years, Americans started their human space flight programs three times from scratch to achieve a particular goal and later drop it. Russian legacy is still alive with International Space Station, planned Lunar Gateway station in moon orbit and profoundly shaped the Chinese space program. Its undaunted dependability and the steadily growing ability to conduct research gained Russia a position in space competition beyond its technological and economic weight.

In the initial period of the space race, both superpowers were trying to impress public opinion and the international community with their successes in this new competition domain. After launching Yuri Gagarin into space in 1961, Soviet success forced newly elected president J.F. Kennedy to raise the space race’s stakes with a moon speech that inaugurated the Apollo program. Although the Soviets had their lunar program, after four launch failures of their N1 moon rocket and the death of their chief designer Sergei Korolev, they dropped their plans and focused on sending cosmonauts to low earth orbit. Using Soyuz, previously intended as a moon spaceship, Russians trained orbital maneuvers. Operations such as docking one Soyuz with another were intended to prepare cosmonauts for the Salyut space station program. Beginnings were not easy. The first crewed Soyuz flight ended up with the death of cosmonaut Komarow. In a letter to leading engineers, his friend Yuri Gagarin listed 200 faulty hardware pieces in the spaceship before launch. Unfortunately, this action did not stop the premature launch of the first crewed Soyuz. After parachute failure, the capsule crashed like a meteor into the Earth with the cosmonaut inside.  

The crew of the Soyuz TM-6. From the left: Lachow, Mohmand and Polakow / Roskosmos

An even bigger tragedy happened in 1971. After breaking the record for the longest time spent in space on a successful mission (which lasted three weeks), three cosmonauts were departing from Salyut 1 space station. Everything was fine until ground control lost contact with the Soyuz crew when entering the Earth’s atmosphere. When the recovery team opened the valves of Soyuz, they discovered that the whole crew perished. A quick investigation revealed that all of them died because of the space capsule’s depressurization. Salyut 2 was also a failure. The space station exploded in orbit even before the first crew arrived. Stations Salyut 3, 4, and 5 were much more successful, avoiding explosions and dead cosmonauts. Still, however, 3 out of 8 expeditions could not reach those stations for various reasons. 

Finally, the Salyut program matured after introducing the two docking port stations and uncrewed spaceships called Progress, transporting additional cargo for crews staying on the station. Second-generation space station Salyut 6 was home to 26 cosmonauts and was inhabited for 676 days. The new space station was a massive success in astronautics and gained international prestige for the Soviet Union. Not only cosmonauts from communist countries like Czechoslovakia, Poland, East Germany, Vietnam, and Cuba lived onboard Salyut 6 and later Salyut 7 stations, but also neutral countries like India and France participated in the Soviet human space flight program in the late 70s till mid-80s. To summarize, in comparison to Americans who could afford the ambitious and costly Apollo program, after initial failures of their moon program, the Soviets were forced to limit themselves to Low Earth Orbit. After years of failures and many iterations of their Salyut stations, the Soviets achieved an almost constant human presence in space. The situation of the American space program developed in the opposite direction. 

After Apollo 11 landing, the Nixon administration had doubts if maintaining a costly program was justifiable and started to limit its size. In 1971 all lunar missions after Apollo 17 were canceled, and already produced hardware was hanged over for the new program named Skylab. Skylab was a single module space station made from the adapted third stage of the Saturn V rocket, which was normally used to launch Apollo spaceship from low earth orbit into lunar orbit. There was no need for lunar landers and giant Saturn V rockets with all crewed spaceflight activities focused on low earth orbit. Moreover, in 1972, NASA stopped producing Apollo hardware entirely and started researching and developing a new reusable spaceship. As it was called, the Space Shuttle was seen by NASA and decision-makers in Washington as an enabler of cheap and quick space launch.  

Undoubtedly, the remaining Apollo command modules were put to good use. Three Skylab expeditions were highly successful, with crews staying in orbit much longer than their Soviet counterparts. Apollo-derived hardware’s last mission was the Apollo-Soyuz expedition, where both spaceships docked together in orbit, enabling the first international handshake in space. NASA planned to raise the Skylab station’s deteriorating orbit with the Space shuttle’s help. However, the Space Shuttle program had constant delays that caused the Skylab station’s loss in Earth’s atmosphere. 

As a result, when the space shuttle was launched for the first time, there was no place to send astronauts. Although it was a very capable spaceship, taking a seven-person crew and 27 tons of cargo on board, it also had huge limitations. For various reasons, the space shuttle was limited to low earth orbit, which was a step back in possibilities compared to the Apollo program. An even more significant limitation was the space shuttle source of power. Hydrogen-oxygen fuel cells were able to provide electricity for only two weeks compared to Skylab and Salyut stations’ solar arrays, which were able to work indefinitely.

Furthermore, after five years of service, one of the spaceships, the space shuttle Challenger, exploded while ascending to space. Challenger disaster put an end to cheap and quick space launch mirage. Additional safety measures imposed after the disaster made maintaining the space shuttle fleet extraordinarily costly and time-consuming.

28 stycznia 1986 roku - chwilę po katastrofie promu Challenger / Credits - NASA

In the same year as the Challenger disaster happened, 1986, the Soviets started to assemble the first modular space station in orbit with additional module launches in 1987,1989, 1990, and later after the collapse of the Soviet Union in 1995 and 1996. It was the second-largest construction ever made in space, only surpassed later by International Space Station. Mir station enabled an uninterrupted stay of a rotating cosmonaut crew for continuous human presence in space for 3,644 days. Cosmonauts conducted various experiments in biology, human biology, physics, astronomy, and meteorology at the station. It was also proving ground for new spacecraft systems and, first of all, a polygon of future long-duration space expeditions into Mars and other far destinations. After the Berlin Wall collapsed, NASA saw an opportunity to use Mir station as a previously not available desired goal for their space shuttle fleet. American astronauts joined Russian crews in Mir station, and the expertise of Russian engineers was used in constructing a new station – the International Space Station. It is essential to know that funds gained by cooperation with Americans were crucial to the Russian space program’s survival. The risk of the total collapse of the space industry in post-Soviet republics was genuine. The vision of Russian rocket scientists working for various rogue regimes was scary for the whole world.

Indeed, Russian excellence in constructing multi-modular space stations and operating them helped their space program survive after the collapse of the Soviet Union and made them irreplaceable for NASA in modern times. After the space shuttle program’s ending, caused by the Columbia disaster, Russians gained a monopoly over human space flight. For nine years, only Soyuz could transport people to ISS. After the Columbia disaster, the whole US crewed space flight program was analyzed for cheaper and more reliable ways of launching astronauts and cargo to space. NASA learned a lot from cooperation with Russians in MIR program and while constructing and operating ISS. The most important lesson was probably the idea that simplicity and reliability fixed with reasonable price has much more value than immense possibilities of mega projects like the space shuttle fleet or apollo rockets and landers. The idea of passing on mundane jobs like transporting astronaut’s supplies and experiments by private companies was born. 

In 2006 NASA started the Commercial Orbital Transportation Services program where companies SpaceX and Rocketplane Kisler were selected to provide such service with their spaceships. Although not without problems like the bankruptcy of Rocketplane Kisler, later replaced by Orbital ATK, which is now part of Northop Grumman, the program achieved something remarkable. The Cygnus, built by Northop Grumman, doubled its usable cargo in less than a decade with various iterations, and now its design is used in constructing the Lunar Gateway station. The Dragon spaceship built by SpaceX is probably one of the best-known such vehicles in modern times. Experience gained by SpaceX while making its uncrewed cargo version enabled them to design a human-rated capsule now in use in launching astronauts. Besides paying for services, NASA was investing in a vibrant space economy. This investment is now paying off with a cheaper launch cost and growing space capabilities of those companies.

While serving contracts with NASA, SpaceX started to develop its ideas. Landing and reusing the first stages of their rockets, building heavy-lift rocket Falcon Heavy dwarfing any other available rocket, and launching a mega-constellation of communication satellites providing internet worldwide, all of those endeavors initiated and realized by SpaceX on their own. Now we can see the construction of Starship, a fully reusable space launch system, first of its kind, the holy grail of space rocketry. All of those projects wouldn’t be possible without NASA’s know-how and money earned from ISS delivery contracts. Still, the essential ingredient of those projects was the SpaceX initiative founded by company surplus and willing investors. Many corporations and startups are now developing their reusable space launchers, mega-constellations, or even planing exploratory missions like Rocketlab’s Venus probe without government funding.

What made Russians leaders of spaceflight, and why is their position fading away? The Soviet space program was cheaper, safer, and laid the foundations for modern astronautics. The USSR’s successor, Russia, successfully used the soviet space heritage in their favor. Construction of the International Space Station with NASA and establishing a monopoly on human spaceflight for almost a decade gained prestige and funding for the Russian space program. With the aging station and without NASA forced to pay for flying their astronauts, a grim future appeared before Kremlin. While American space activities will expand quickly, their Russian program will shrink in size. Not because of NASA’s bigger budget, but because American companies like SpaceX constructing their rockets and even sending private astronauts like we will see this year with the Inspiration 4 mission will enable America to be a dominant force in outer space. 

There is one global power quite aware of that fact. In 2014 Bejing government opened up the Chinese commercial space sector to private capital. Rocket startup companies quickly emerged: Landspace, iSpace, OneSpace, Galactic Energy, Deep Blue Aerospace, Linkspace, Spacetrek, Space Transportation, even in name inspired by SpaceX sometimes. The Chinese government is also providing business opportunities to those companies. China Manned Space Agency requested proposals for low-cost cargo transportation to assist space station operations mirroring NASA’s Commercial Orbital Transportation Services from 2006. Both superpowers see the future of human spaceflight as a private enterprise, not a government endeavor. Does Russia share this belief? With the economic size of Italy, ubiquitous corruption, and the dominant role of the state in the economy, such reforms in Russia seems impossible.  

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