Space prospects: agenda for a hundred years

Russian robot differs from Western developments in that it is able to transmit to the human operator not just a picture and sound but the whole range of sensations, including tactile ones. Source: Press Photo

Russian robot differs from Western developments in that it is able to transmit to the human operator not just a picture and sound but the whole range of sensations, including tactile ones. Source: Press Photo

The great space powers of nowadays 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.

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.

The moon race of the 1960ies became the peak of the Soviet and American 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. The conclusions of the numerous surveys conducted at the time were disappointing.

Firstly, manned missions to the outer space were recognized technologically unfeasible. Secondly, the lunar program was deemed to be the limit of the possibilities of both superpowers. Thirdly, it was fully recognized that the creation of a robust space weapon was technologically impossible. And the last but not the least, most space projects were deemed uneconomical. In theory, the continuation of manned missions to the moon was possible; however, they would not be cost-effective.

In the 1980ies the discussions went into the second round. 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. Neither the USA nor the Soviet Union had technological capacities to achieve the implementable supremacy in space.

Cost-effectiveness without breakthroughs

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. The Internet made it possible to develop the market of data and maps obtained via ERS technology.

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.

Second Bout of Space Race

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.

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. 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

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. 

There are serious problems hiding behind 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.

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?

Alexei Fenenko is PhD in History, RAS Institute of International Security Problems 

The article is abridged. First published in RIAC

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