The Space Race at 50
Less than two generations ago, space travel was the stuff of sci-fi pulp, comic books and B movies. But with the 1960s American-Soviet rivalry, earthlings launched themselves headfirst into the space age. Today, as funding runs out and life on Mars remains undiscovered, outer space is more up for grabs than ever. This map tracks the space race over the past five decades and looks at the future of life on the final frontier.
On April 12, 1961, Yuri Gagarin became the first human to be launched into space. At that time the United States and the Soviet Union were locked in the stagnant political brinkmanship known as the Cold War, which lasted nearly half a century. Not to be outdone by Gagarin’s orbit around Earth, newly inaugurated president John F. Kennedy laid out the goal, among several “urgent national needs,…of landing a man on the moon and returning him safely to Earth.”
Why the urgency? “The Russians owned space,” explains Navy captain Eugene Cernan of the early Apollo missions. “Sputnik had long since been launched, Yuri Gagarin went up the previous month.... The president of the United States says, ‘Okay, now we’re gonna go to the moon; I guess we know enough about space.’ We didn’t know tiddledywinks about going into space. And not only did he challenge us to go to the moon,...he challenged us to get to the moon before the end of the decade. He didn’t say it, but what he really meant was ‘We’re gonna get there before the other guy does.’ Before the Soviets did.”
The United States was off to the races.
In a May 1961 address, President John F. Kennedy challenged Congress “to send a man to the moon and bring him safely back again” by the end of the decade, adding, “No single space project in this period will be…more important for the long-range exploration of space; and none will be so difficult or expensive to accomplish.”
Kennedy didn’t know the half of it. The fledgling National Aeronautics and Space Administration (NASA) had been established only three years before Kennedy’s call to arms; it took NASA another eight years and 150 billion adjusted dollars to execute Apollo 11. Nevertheless, when Neil Armstrong and Edwin “Buzz” Aldrin planted an American flag on the moon, in 1969, it was on Kennedy’s timetable. NASA’s Apollo missions gave rise to Skylab (the first U.S. space station) and the development of the space shuttle—a reusable craft capable of multiple missions into orbit.
From the beginning NASA’s shuttle program exemplified the difficulty and expense of space travel foretold by Kennedy. NASA’s safety culture eventually broke under funding and time constraints, resulting in the Challenger (1986) and Columbia (2003) disasters. In 2011 President Barack Obama, seeking to trim budgets, asked Congress to dismantle the shuttle program.
In 1961, when cosmonaut Yuri Gagarin became the first human to orbit Earth, the space race served as a thinly veiled symbol for the Cold War. May the best superpower win. But by 1975 the United States and the Soviet Union had set aside their differences in the name of science, literally joining their crafts—Apollo and Soyuz, respectively—in outer space to collaborate on scientific research. In 1995 NASA astronauts began shuttling to Russia’s Mir space station to work alongside cosmonauts from Roscosmos, the Russian Federal Space Agency.
The Mir partnership paved the way for the International Space Station (ISS), a joint project of NASA, Roscosmos and governmental entities from Europe, Canada and Japan. The first component of the ISS—the Russian module Zarya—reached orbit in 1998. In the ensuing years, NASA recruited Roscosmos to taxi ISS crews home when no American shuttle was available. The ISS will likely continue to function as a low-orbit research facility until 2020—and possibly until 2028. But with the decommissioning of the U.S. shuttle program, the only rockets heading there—if any—will be built and launched by the Russians.
“I have decided today that the United States should proceed at once with the development of an entirely new type of space transportation system,” announced President Richard Nixon in 1972, effectively activating NASA’s space shuttle program (originally called the space transportation system, after Nixon’s term). With the launch of Columbia in 1981, the United States became the first nation to engineer a reusable spacecraft that could return to Earth’s atmosphere after long periods in orbit, allowing long-range space travel.
The possibility for a permanent human presence in outer space became a reality in 1998, when NASA joined forces with space programs from several other nations to build the International Space Station (ISS), for the “development, operation and utilization of a permanently inhabited civil international Space Station…in low-earth orbit.” Participating programs included the European Space Agency (ESA), the Canadian Space Agency (CSA), the Japan Aerospace Exploration Agency (JAXA) and the Russian Federal Space Agency (Roscosmos).
Atlantis, the last of NASA’s shuttle fleet, made its final flight in 2011, leaving the U.S. no further means of transporting astronauts into space. Going forward, all astronauts—including Americans—will have to rely entirely on Russian-built Soyuz rockets to transport them to the ISS.
With today’s technology, scientists estimate a trip to Mars would take about 180 days—but that’s only one way. The prospect of so many hours in space requires reams of research on how astronauts might eat, sleep, keep clean, keep sane and generally survive “in the void,” to say nothing of how to approximate restroom use.
Science writer Mary Roach’s Packing for Mars archly chronicles the bizarre and often revolting research conducted in the name of human space habitation, much of it expressly for NASA’s 135 space shuttle missions. For example, NASA’s more recent shuttles Atlantis and Endeavour are equipped with suction toilets that risk “fecal popcorning” but nonetheless vastly improve upon the “fecal bags” of the Apollo era.
Incidentally, the record for the longest human spaceflight is held by a Russian, Valeriy Polyakov. Polyakov spent 438 days on Mir from 1994 to 1995 (the years of the NASA shuttle–Mir partnership) and lived to brag, “It is possible to preserve your physical and psychological health throughout a mission similar in length to a flight to Mars and back.” So aside from engineering a toilet approaching the comfort and sanitation of earthbound commodes, what are we waiting for?
In 2001 American Dennis Tito became the world’s first space tourist. A former NASA engineer who switched to investment management, Tito was an ideal candidate. After all, space tourism costs beaucoup bucks. Tito paid the Russian space agency Roscosmos a cool $20 million to train him, fit him with astronautical accoutrements and ferry him to the International Space Station (ISS). There he helped carry out mundane chores alongside the ISS crew, who, he later observed, spent fewer than 20 hours a week conducting scientific research.
Unlike government-run space programs, space tourism has the benefit of private funding. In 2001 Tito testified before the House Committee on Science alongside Cato Institute scholar Edward L. Hudgins, who argued the ISS could benefit by becoming a privately held facility. Hudgins suggested that NASA, Roscosmos and the other ISS agencies organize the station “like an airport authority or a multi-jurisdictional port authority,” providing infrastructure, safety and utilities until third parties from the private sector could take over. In 2011 NASA selected seven private firms, including Virgin Galactic, founded by English billionaire Sir Richard Branson, to carry technology payloads into orbit and to the ISS—duties once performed by space shuttles.
Since American Dennis Tito debuted as the world’s first space tourist in 2001, six more adventurers have followed suit. Most of them—like Anousheh Ansari, the world’s first female space tourist—spent their spacecraft tenures helping astronauts perform routine maintenance and housekeeping, as well as conduct studies on human habitation in space.
This unglamorous portrait of space tourism aligns with science writer Mary Roach’s hilarious and eye-opening Packing for Mars, which depicts space travel as altogether unlike the sci-fi fantasies that often inspire these tourists to take flight. While working astronauts struggle to eat without crumbs and bathe without water flow, Roach notes, dreamers like those at the Space Tourism Society advertise plans for “an orbiting ‘super yacht’ featuring ‘Snuggle Tunnels’ and a zero-gravity hot tub.” Hot tub space machines notwithstanding, only Virgin Galactic has completed space-worthy crafts—two of them. Unfortunately, both SpaceShipOne and SpaceShipTwo fall nearly 300 kilometers short of the altitude achieved by NASA shuttles. The industry has yet to take off, despite English billionaire Sir Richard Branson’s prediction that 2008 would be “the year of the spaceship.” Venture capitalists will have to spend a lot of money to turn space tourism into a pleasure cruise.