World in 100 years // Analysis

20 april 2012

Space prospects: agenda for a hundred years

Alexei Fenenko PhD in History, RAS Institute of International Security Problems, RIAC expert
NASA handout photo of astronaut Dale
Gardner holding a For Sale sign aboard
the Space Shuttle Discovery

Deliberations on the future of space exploration are an indispensable attribute of the Cosmonautics Day. Every April mass media reports on the achievements of space powers and breakthrough space projects. However, there are problems hiding behind the jubilee reports. Space powers are losing ground step by step.

The last manned space mission to the Moon was in 1972. The USA is curtailing their Human Space Flight Program and the Solar System planetary research. After 1991, Russia has not carried out a single successful project on deep-space exploration and constantly postpones full commissioning of GLONASS. Other space powers (China, India, European Union, and Japan) only partially managed to repeat the Soviet and American achievements of 1960. The world is sort of back to 1957 – the starting point of space exploration.

Why explore space?

The failure of the space project is not accidental. Space exploration has never been the goal in itself either for the Soviet Union or for the United States. During the first bout of space race in the 1960ies, Moscow and Washington were pursuing a number of applied military political objectives. When those were fulfilled the need in big space projects started to decline.

Yuri Gagarin: April 12, 1961

The idea of the exit in the outer space got entrenched in the minds of the American and Soviet leaderships approximately in the late 1940ies. By that time both the USA and the Soviet Union started to deploy powerful air defense systems. To penetrate them with the help of combat jet aviation was impossible. The only way was to fly round the potential enemy’s air defense systems at a larger distance. This distance was constantly extending till it finally reached out to the near space.

Another reason for the space breakthrough was the fact that both superpowers were developing intercontinental ballistic missiles (ICBM). After the Korean War (1950-1953) Americans doubted the ability of their strategic bombers to penetrate the Soviet air defense system. This meant the demand in a weapon that would guarantee the delivery of nuclear warheads to American or Soviet territories. ICBM and later fractional orbital missiles was this weapon in question. Manned space flights were called upon to demonstrate the ability of the USSR and the USA to deliver nuclear weapon to any place on the earth.

After the launch of manmade earth satellites, another goal of the space policy started to loom large. After 1958 Soviet and American scientists got interested in the possibility of the use of manmade satellites for the monitoring of the enemy’s strategic objects. The USA and the USSR started to develop satellite navigation and communication systems including missile alert systems. This laid the foundation for modern space telecommunication infrastructure.

BBC Space Race - Race for Survival

The moon race of the 1960ies became the peak of the Soviet and American space programs. In their contest for the Moon the USSR and the USA were pursuing three military political objectives. The first one was to demonstrate the other party the supremacy in space exploration. The second one was, on the basis of lunar programs, to work out modifications of a space weapon for the neutralization of the opponent’s nuclear missile potential. The third one was to create a technological reserve for future space programs. It was during the moon race that Moscow developed the manned Soyuz spacecraft and Washington the Apollo Lunar Module that later became the basis for the system of Space Shuttle manned missions. Those were the main achievements of the space programs of the two superpowers.

Post-Lunar Prospects

In the USSR and USA, the end of the moon race triggered off the discussion on the prospects of space activities. In the first half of the 1970ies, a big amount of analytical surveys and reports on the future of space exploration appeared. The conclusions of Soviet and American scientists were rather disappointing.

First, manned missions to the outer space were recognized technologically unfeasible. Mathematical calculations by K. E. Tsialkovsky, the Russian scientist of the XIX century, were used for the design of modern spacecrafts; other, not yet discovered, mathematical solutions were needed.

Second, the lunar program was recognized to be the limit of the possibilities of both superpowers. The Apollo Lunar Modules and even more so the Soyuz spacecrafts were not technically ready to perform flights even to the nearest planets of the Solar System (Mars and Venus), not to speak about gas giant planets.

VGTRK Russia: Space Race - Soviet
Secret Moon Program

Third, it was fully recognized that the creation of a robust space weapon was technologically impossible. The USSR and USA could use information systems deployed in space for military purposes. However, with the existing level of technology it was impossible to build interceptors that would destroy space-based ballistic missiles or military orbital stations.

Fourth, most space projects were recognized uneconomical. In theory, the continuation of manned missions to the moon was possible; however, they would not be cost-effective. It was possible to launch probes into the deep space, thus testing the technologies of space objects destruction. But it was cheaper to develop an ABM system by upgrading land-based and sea-based systems – “the flak cannons are too high.” Hypothetically, the USSR and USA could mobilize resources and organize a manned mission to the Mars. But the economic and military dividends of the Mars project would be as small as from the flight to the Moon.

In the 1980ies the discussions went into the second round. The launch in 1981 of a Space Shuttle reusable system gave Washington hope to achieve military space supremacy. In 1983 the Reagan’s Administration declared the concept of Strategic Defense Initiative (SDI.) This was a full scale space based ABM system for the destruction of Soviet intercontinental ballistic missile. The SDI main emphasis was planned to be on breakthrough technologies – military lasers and electromagnetic particle accelerators.

However, the implementation of SDI program turned out to be impossible. And this was not only because of the lack of capacities for breakthrough technologies. In 1984 NASA declared about the intention to create the first Space Station Freedom. In two years it became obvious that the USA could not cope with this task even together with the European Space Agency (ESA) and Japan. Against this background, the launch of Mir orbital station and the testing of Buran Energy system (1988) looked like the success of Soviet cosmonautics. Neither the USA nor the Soviet Union had technological capacities to achieve the implementable supremacy in space.

Cost-effectiveness without breakthroughs

Future Space Technologies

It is in this context that the space powers started restructuring their space programs. Cost-effectiveness became the priority of space projects.

The NASA made the first step in this direction. The Communications Satellite Act of 1962 established that all the communications satellites remained the control of the US Federal Communications Commission; however, it insured that all commercial companies shall an access to the services provided by the satellite constellation. The USA and the European Community launched the Early Bird, the world first commercial satellite. In 1970 the market of space services emerged, first of all, the markets of data digitization and communications systems. In 1991 leading American and Western European telecommunications companies created the Globalstar, an international space communications consortium. It has its own satellite constellation and sells its services to other commercial users.

Another area of commercial space activity is the Earth Remote Sensing (ERS). This means the monitoring of the Earth surface by air and spacecrafts equipped with different types of camera devices. At first, ERS caused resistance of some countries including the Soviet Union. However, in 1986 after the UN General Assembly had worked out a compromise, space powers could exploit the ERS freely in exchange for the unrestricted access of non-space countries to the sensing products at reasonable prices. The Internet made it possible to develop the market of data and maps obtained via ERS technology.

Satellite communications commercialization required the reconstruction of space programs. As early as 1975, ESA started to create a new generation of light launch vehicles Ariane for commercial satellites. NASA carried out the commercialization of satellite launch in the framework of the National Space Policy of the United States (1992.) In the early 1990ies Roskosmos carried out privatization and created a series of joint ventures with partners from the EU and USA. The signing of the Soviet-American START treaty (1991) turned out to be a promising area. It was START that allowed converting the Soviet ICBM SS 19 into Strela and Rokot launchers.

American Navstar–GPS system, satellite TV and the Space Internet created the global information space. However, the telecommunication breakthrough of the 1990ies was not of a revolutionary nature. Its technological potential was already formed in the 1950ies. Further development of telecommunications does not require a technological breakthrough either. It is enough to upgrade the existing satellites and put them into orbit.

Second Bout of Space Race

NASA's next generation spacecraft:
Orion Multi Purpose Crew Vehicle

The impetus to a new space competition was given by the achievements of the People’s Republic of China – the only space power, which did not participate in the International Space Station (ISS) project. In 2003 Beijing launched an automated cargo spaceship into the orbit and then carried out the first manned space flight. The latter demonstrated China’s ability to deliver a nuclear warhead to the intercontinental range. China’s achievements served the catalyst for space programs of other countries – from India and Brazil to New Zealand and Iran.

Washington’s response to China’s success was nervous. On January 14, 2004 George Bush Jr. Administration proclaimed a new program of space research – the accelerated research of the Solar System planets and the organization of manned missions to the Moon and Mars. Russia, ESA, China and Japan followed the US’s suit and developed their major space programs. Experts started to speak about the beginning of a new race similar to the Soviet-American competition of the 1960ies.

During several years the space powers tried to act in the spirit of the 1960ies. It was a tough competition for the exploration of the surface of the Moon, Mars, Venus, Mercury, gas planets and even the Sun. In the near space Russia renewed the GLONASS deployment stopped in 1995. Other countries developed their own projects such as Galileo (ESA), BeiDou (China), Quazi-Zenith (Japan), IRNSS (India.) Military programs from George Bush Jr. Administration projects on the space tier of the ABM defense to American and Chinese testing of anti-satellite weapon added to the competition.

By the beginning of 2010 the situation had changed. Already on June 1, 2009 B. the Obama Administration created Human Space Flight Plan Committee headed by the former Lockheed Martin CEO Norman Augustine. In October 2009 Augustine Committee came to the following conclusions: 1) flights beyond the earth orbit will require extended funds; 2) the temporary gap between the completion of the Space Shuttle program and the beginning of the launch of new spaceships of Orion type will take seven years as a minimum. In 2011 the Obama Administration curtailed the Space Shuttle program and freezed the Constellation Program on the basis of Augustine Committee recommendations.

Russia also experienced a series of space failures. On December 5, 2010 at the start of Proton-M launcher the GLONASS satellites perished. On August 18, 2011 the unsuccessful start of GLONASS Express-AM4 satellite took place. On August 24, during the launch of the transport spaceship Progress M-12M there was an accident. The situation aggravated after the catastrophe of the automated Mars station Fobos-Grunt on November 9, the same year. In December 2011 President D.A. Medvedev assigned Vice-Premier D.O. Rogozin to make an inspection of Roscosmos.

Against this background, the successes of space beginners looked in a different light. China carried out space flight and launched a probe to explore the surface of the Moon. India put the constellation of satellites into the Polar orbits and launched its Moon probe. ESA developed small apparatuses for the Moon, Mars and Venus mapping. But all this was the duplication of the Soviet and American achievements of approximately 1966 or 1970. None of these countries has yet achieved even the second stage of Soviet-American research program: the creation of space stations and/or the organization of shuttle manned space missions.

Gloomy Prospects

The Space Odyssey 1957–2050.
FOM Project.

In reality the second bout of space race was rather a political imitation then a real fight. The leading space powers failed even to repeat their success of fifty years ago. The USA could not reproduce the Apollo Lunar Module and send another human mission to the Moon. Russia did not build the analogue of the Soviet lunokhod and the apparatuses of Mars and Venus type that had mapped both planets in the early 1970ies. Americans have never built by themselves a manned orbital station. Russia has not completed the building of the GLONASS system developed long ago in the Soviet time; neither has it created the analogue of the Mir station. The achievements of both countries were limited by financial constraints. Russia continues manned space flights on Soyuz type spacecrafts, and the USA explores deep space with the help of improved automated stations of Pioneer and Voyager type that were developed in the 1970ies. Moreover, Russia and the USA are the only countries having the full range of space research tools.


There are serious problems hiding behind all that. Two factors made the space breakthrough of the 1960ies possible. The first one was the proliferation of natural and exact sciences. The second one was governmental funding of major projects that were not giving immediate results. In spite of all the difference between the two countries, the USSR and USA used this model till the mid 1970ies.

Today these mechanisms do not work. Modern democratic states are less and less capable of mobilizing their resources. Gigantic bureaucratic systems that inevitably split into influential interest groups predominate. The main goal of such groups’ activities is to gain immediate profit. High dependence of the electorate on the level of consumption is not unimportant. The present-day voter unlike the voters of the 1930-1940ies is not ready to put up with difficulties for the sake of some abstract space projects.

Another problem is the change of the quality of education. Scientists argue that over the last thirty years in the USA, Russia and especially the EU countries the quality of teaching of natural sciences has significantly declined. Instead of traditional lectures and seminars teachers more and more rely on playing techniques and teaching of skills. The result was immediate. Physicists are concerned about the fact that over the last fifty years no big scientific discoveries have been made.

In the modern world mysticism is taking a real revenge. Currently omnipresent mystic or religious mystic approaches are replacing rational cognition of the New Times. In 1960s mass reading was science fiction. Nowadays, in public transport more and more people read the works by the church fathers or novels about the return of the mankind to the medieval times. American scientists might be right when they bitterly joke that in a couple of generations the perception that the Earth is flat might return to mass consciousness.

Here the dual problem arises. The space powers do not have clear goals regarding the outer space development. Science, capable of a new space breakthrough, is losing the potential to generate new ideas. Space is becoming more and more confined to the unmanned flights into the near space. Will the mankind be able to uphold at least this achievement reached in the previous century?

P.S. In the first century B.C. ancient sailors travelled around Africa, reached Iceland, Greenland and India. In the third century sailing was limited to coastal waters. And in another three or four centuries’ time the Vikings’ boats could reach as far as Iceland or the British Isles at best. However, the parchments illustrated knights sailing to the isles inhabited by “the saints” and the lands with monsters…

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Alexei Fenenko, “Space prospects: agenda for a hundred years,” Russian International Affairs Council, 20 April 2012,

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