Orbital sciences

After the Lunar Landings, the space race began to cool. Though the construction of space stations was the next step in the race, political capital for such adventures had been drained by the incredible cost of the Apollo Program. Slowly but surely, Russia and the US began to cooperate in space. With the formation of the European Space Agency, the vast majority of the first world was active in the exploration of space. Today, with the rise of SpaceX and Virgin Galactic, the door for private space exploration has been opened. With an Asian space race picking up speed, space exploration is enjoying a Renaissance as people once again look to the stars for inspiration and innovation.

The Space Race slows

The first space station program was the Soviet Salyut program, launched in 1971. Designed for research into long term life support in space, it was also used as a cover for the launch of military reconnaissance satellites. However, in 1975 the USSR and the USA reached an uneasy truce. To reflect this the Apollo-Soyuz test project was launched.

The last of the Apollo missions and the last manned US mission until 1981, this was not only a symbol of the attempts bridge the gap between East and West. It was an opportunity to attempt operational cooperation between spacecraft. In this regard, the Apollo spacecraft was used to eclipse the Sun to allow Soyuz to photos of the solar corona. This and other complex manoeuvres developed valuable experience in untested waters.

This close association between the two powers revealed an interesting contrast between their attitudes toward space technology. While the Soviets valued automation, the USA’s Apollo craft was controlled by astronauts, requiring highly trained pilots to operate. Some have commented that this is a reflection of the values held by communism and capitalism respectively – space exploration forms an interesting limiting case of our values and capabilities.

In 1981 the USA launched its first of four Space Shuttles. Designed as a reusable craft that could be landed from orbit it was one of the first fully reusable spacecraft. One of its main features was a large engineering bay that allowed maintenance of satellites while in orbit. A few years later, the Russians further advanced Space station technology with their Mir station. Primarily a scientific research facility, once again aimed at long term life support.

The two projects culminated in the Shuttle-Mir program, another collaboration program that paved the way for cooperative space ventures. This allowed the Americans to learn from the Russians’ experience in long duration space flight. Both parties’ developed experience in the complex engineering issues faced in space architecture.

The International Space Station and the European Space Agency

Inhabited since November 2000, the International Space Station is the largest artificial body in orbit over the Earth. Visible to the naked eye, it appears as a fast moving star after sunset and before sunrise, contrasted against a dark sky, lit up by the sun.

With a modular assembly, shared between Russian and American spacecraft, the construction of the ISS was a major endeavour in space architecture. Its construction required over 1000 hours of EVA (Extra Vehicular Activities or Space Walks.) These EVAs are a testament to the remarkable talents of the astronauts who conduct them. Often as long as 8 hours, these awe-inspiring feats have been compared to a combination of ballet, rock-climbing and engine repair with the added distraction of the entire Universe:

“Nothing compares to being alone in the Universe; to that moment of opening the hatch and pulling yourself outside into the Universe. […] It is like coming around a corner and seeing the most magnificent sunset of your life, from one horizon to the other where it looks like the whole sky is on fire and there are all those colors, and the sun’s rays look like some great painting up over your head. You just want to open your eyes wide and try to look around at the image, and just try and soak it up. It’s like that all the time. Or maybe the most beautiful music just filling your soul. Or seeing an absolutely gorgeous person where you can’t just help but stare. It’s like that all the time.

So, it’s an extremely distracting place to work. But it also really puts yourself into perspective because this human creation is right next to you and its inherently, massively beautiful, like the prow of the Titanic or something, where you feel this great human achievement of building this great structure that takes us to a place we’ve never been. But then you notice that even though it is huge and capable, it’s just a speck between everything which is on your left and all the colors and textures of our planet that are just pouring next to you on the right. And you are this little peephole of a microcosm in between those two things, both physically and historically. And you’re very much aware of that the whole time.”

-Chris Hadfield

When not conducting space walks, the astronauts aboard the ISS still have plenty to be getting on with. A wide variety of scientific research requires their constant attention. Ranging from astrobiology and astronomy to microgravity research and space medicine each astronaut must be a highly competent scientist in their own right. One experiment of note is the Alpha Magnetic Spectrometer. Comparing readings to a similar instrument aboard the Hubble space telescope, the AMS searches for evidence of dark matter. This is a mysterious and fascinating facet of Physics that we will discuss in later articles.

Each of the astronauts must be trained in a wide variety of fields, even basic surgery as there are no medical doctors aboard the ISS. Many of the astronauts present are members of the European Space Agency, the multinational team of astronauts makes for an interesting environment, with many different languages and cultures interacting in a very small space, orbiting above the Earth.

With 20 member states and headquartered in Paris, the European Space Agency is Europe’s equivalent to NASA and Roscosmos (Russian Federal Space Agency.) It’s main launch vehicle is built and operated by the French company Arianespace, the first commercial launch service provider.

The ESA recently had great success in landing its Philae spacecraft upon a comet’s nucleus, the first time this has been achieved. Although it now has insufficient power to continue transmitting data to Earth, it revealed a great deal of information about the surface of the comet and has been hailed a successful mission. There are hopes that, as the comet moves closer to the sun, more solar light will enable Philae to reawaken and conduct further experiments.

Asian Space Race and Private Exploration

After the first Space race, many countries in Asia have been seeking to replicate the achievements of America and Russia. China was the first to send a manned spacecraft into orbit in October 2003. Not to be outdone, India  launched a Mars orbiter on 5 November 2013 which made a successful orbit a year later. This makes India the first Asian country to succeed in a Mars orbit and the first country worldwide to succeed at at the first attempt. They also hope to achieve independent human spaceflight by 2015. Meanwhile, Iran and Japan aim to achieve this milestone by 2020. Many believe that Asia will soon dominate governmental space exploration.

However, governmental exploration no longer holds a monopoly on space flight. Founded in 2002 by the creator of PayPal and Tesla, Elon Musk is leading space exploration from the front with his company SpaceX. Their goal is to reduce space transportation costs in order to facilitate the colonization of Mars. In aid of this herculean task, the company is currently focusing upon developing fully reusable rocket systems.

Their most recent rocket, the Falcon 9, is a 2 stage rocket system that is now capable of recovery of the first stage and is used to launch the Dragon spacecraft. The Dragon is the first commercially built and operated spacecraft to be successfully recovered from orbit. Musk’s newest ship, the Falcon Heavy, is planned for launch on January 6th and is apparently capable of lifting a payload at a third of the cost of the Russian Zenit rocket.

Elon Musk isn’t the only entrepreneur with his eye on the skies. Virgin Galactic, as subsidiary of the Virgin group, aims to develop commercial spaceflight with a focus upon space tourism. The company aims to offer short flights into space as luxury trips for the super-rich. Its current vehicle, SpaceShipTwo is launched from its aeroplane carrier, WhiteKnightTwo. Despite hopes of commercial flights by 2009, there have been many setbacks including the loss of a SpaceShipTwo in October 2014 which resulted in the death of test pilot Michael Alsbury and severe injury of co-pilot Peter Siebold.

Not all organisations involved are run for profit. MarsOne is a not-for-profit organisation aimed at beginning the colonisation of Mars within the next 10 years. One of the few programs to be almost entirely crowdfunded, they have a highly ambitious plan to have 4 crew members on the ground in 2025 with an additional 4 crew members every year going forward. Although the Dutch owners have received criticism for their business model and depth of technical expertise, their enthusiasm and scope of vision brings a great deal of optimism and public support for their endeavour.

Formed in November 2010, Planetary Resources is a company that seeks to expand Earth’s natural resource base by mining asteroids within the solar system. Although their goals remain somewhat distant, they have hopes of launching preliminary scouting probes soon with the objective of using low-weight laser communications devices in order to reduce payload weight and allow a greater number of probes to be sent out.

Since the space race, objectives for space exploration have changed and diversified. Where once only superpowers could launch satellites and people into space, other countries and even private companies are planning and executing strategies to make their mark in the history of space exploration. The boundaries have changed. Instead of acts of prestige to display economic and technical might there is a stronger focus upon scientific research, off-world colonisation and the mining of valuable resources in modern space exploration.


This is the second in a three part series.  To go back to the first, click here.

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  1. […] This is the first in a three part series. To continue with part two, click here. […]


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