Human Space Launch
Since 2011, the year the Space Shuttle was retired, the United States has not been able to launch astronauts aboard U.S. vehicles. To send U.S. astronauts to the International Space Station (ISS), NASA has relied on contracts with the Russian Federal Space Agency, Roscosmos, buying seats every year on Russian Soyuz spacecraft. Rising seat prices and political developments in Ukraine increased pressure on NASA to provide indigenously manufactured spacecraft quickly.
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It is relatively simple to place a satellite into orbit when compared with launching humans to space. Humans have more complex needs, such as breathable air, food, staying warm, staying cool, and protection from the space environment. Humans must also be able to return safely to Earth from their trip to space. Over the years, a variety of spacecraft were specifically designed to fulfill these requirements. Rockets, originally designed to return to selected points of the Earth quickly and destructively, began to incorporate changes for human needs and requirements as well. Two nations, the United States and Russia, pioneered the development of space systems to launch humans into space more than half a century ago.
Several crewed, reusable suborbital vehicles have been under development during the past decade. These vehicles are being designed and built by commercial companies to carry paying passengers to the edge of space, enabling them to experience microgravity for minutes at a time. When operational, these vehicles will provide the most affordable access to space for passengers. Although ticket prices of $## to $## are certainly not within most people’s personal budgets, they represent a drastic discount from the $## to $## million paid by the most recent private visitors to the ISS.
China continued steady development of its crewed space program in 2013 with the launch of the Shenzhou 10 mission. Shenzhou 10 carried three taikonauts into LEO and docked with the Tiangong-1 space station prototype, where taikonauts spent two weeks conducting experiments and practicing docking maneuvers between the two craft. This was the longest Chinese space mission, and it also featured the second female taikonaut. At this stage in its space program, China is developing the techniques and technologies necessary for a more permanent presence in space, and hopes to begin construction of a multi-module space station by the end of the decade.
Russia operates the only crewed vehicle currently serving the ISS, and is expected to retain that monopoly through 2018, when the first flights of the new NASA-supported commercially developed vehicles are slated to begin. Russia’s current crewed spacecraft is the Soyuz, a vehicle that made its first flight in 1967 and has been upgraded several times in the ensuing 45 years. Advances in construction techniques and computer technology have resulted in a craft that is more maneuverable, lighter, and has a greater carrying capacity than earlier versions.
In 1962, the United States became the second nation after the Soviet Union to successfully orbit a crewed spacecraft. For thirty years, from 1981 to 2011, the crewed orbital vehicle of the United States was the Space Shuttle. However, following the Shuttle’s retirement and its subsequent final flight in July 2011, the United States has been without a crewed orbital launch capacity. This space transportation gap is expected to last until 2018.
A new aspect of space infrastructure is the development of suborbital reusable launch vehicles (RLVs). Unlike sounding rockets, these vehicles are designed to land intact and be flown again. Stimulated by the $## million Ansari X PRIZE, won in 2004 by Scaled Composites’ SpaceShipOne vehicle, several companies are actively developing such vehicles to serve space tourism, research, and other applications. The technical approaches of the companies vary, from vehicles that take off and land horizontally on runways to vehicles that launch and land vertically.
Although Japan and India have both expressed interest in developing human spaceflight capabilities, neither has yet demonstrated strong commitment toward that goal. Japan is in early stage feasibility studies for its own crewed spacecraft, which would not be expected to fly before 2022. India identifies development of a human spaceflight program as an objective within its Five-Year Plan. However, specific details are sparse; India just states that it will focus on development of the technologies and systems necessary to support a human spaceflight program at some point.
In 2003, China became the third nation capable of human spaceflight, with the launch of the Shenzhou 5 mission. Since then, it has flown three additional missions, each one advancing Chinese spaceflight capabilities. So far, all Chinese crewed missions have used the Shenzhou spacecraft, which resembles a larger Russian Soyuz, although the Chinese space program has described the similarity as mostly cosmetic. The Shenzhou spacecraft have entered mass production, moving beyond the status of one-off experimental machines, after the design of Shenzhou 8 was finalized.