Human Space Launch
Orbital Human Space Launch
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.
Russia has retained the ability to send cosmonauts into orbit since the launch of Yuri Gagarin, the first human in space, in 1961. Currently, Russia is the only nation ferrying people to and from the ISS. In addition to using its Soyuz spacecraft for ISS transportation, Russia also sells or barters transportation services to individuals and other ISS partner nations.
The United States, after the Soviet Union, was the second nation to send a human into space, but it will not have its own human spaceflight capability for the next several years, following the retirement of the Space Shuttle in 2012. The United States has several programs in development intended to restore its national human spaceflight capability.
Russia’s ambitious plans to develop a new human-rated rocket system to eventually replace the Soyuz came to an official halt in October when Roscosmos, the Russian space agency, announced its decision to cancel the development of the Rus-M rocket. Originally planned to have its first flight in 2015, the rocket was to launch primarily from the new Russian launch facility of Vostochny in eastern Siberia. Launching from Vostochny would have relieved Russia of the need to rely on its Baikonur spaceport, which is leased to Russia by Kazakhstan and currently provides the only launch facilities for crewed Soyuz rockets.
China is the only nation other than Russia to currently operate a human spaceflight system. In 2011, China placed its first modular space laboratory into orbit with the launch of the Tiangong-1 laboratory in September. The Tiangong module, whose name means “heavenly palace” in Mandarin, is about the size of a city bus. Following Tiangong-1, China launched an uncrewed Shenzhou-8 spacecraft. Following two days of maneuvers as Shenzhou-8 adjusted its orbit to meet up with Tiangong-1, the spacecraft conducted a successful, and technically challenging, automated docking procedure. This successful rendezvous and docking is a major milestone toward China’s long-term goal of establishing a permanent modular space station by the end of the decade.
The events of 2011 marked a transition in the U.S. human spaceflight program with the retirement of the Space Shuttle. In the near term, NASA will rely on Russia to transport its astronauts to the ISS. However, the United States is pursuing development of several human spaceflight systems that are expected to take over U.S. crew transportation duties to the ISS and allow U.S. astronauts to travel beyond Earth orbit to explore destinations throughout the Solar System.
Certain spaceflight systems, including both the launch vehicle and its spacecraft payload, can be used to carry humans into space. Such flights amount to a small portion of all space missions—in 2010 only ## of the year’s ## launches carried people.
In addition to government human spaceflight efforts, some companies are developing commercial systems for orbital human spaceflight. Several American companies have shown an interest in orbital human spaceflight to serve both government and commercial customers. SpaceX has designed its Falcon 9 launch vehicle and Dragon capsule to be able to support human missions, although that is not a requirement under the terms of the Commercial Orbital Transportation Services (COTS) program run by NASA. Orbital Sciences, the other U.S. company with a funded COTS agreement, has expressed interest in developing a crewed version of its Cygnus cargo spacecraft that would be able to carry three or four astronauts.
Russia increased in its human spaceflight operations significantly in 2009 by doubling the launch rate of its Soyuz spacecraft. Russia had been launching Soyuz missions twice a year, roughly six months apart, to support three-person crews on the ISS. In 2009, Russia launched four Soyuz missions, each carrying three people. This increased flight rate reflects the transition to six-person ISS crews now that the station can accommodate its full crew complement. Once the Space Shuttle is retired, Soyuz will be the sole provider of ISS crew transfers until an alternative system is in place. The four Soyuz flights in 2009 also carried two private spaceflight participants on trips arranged by U.S. company Space Adventures.
The Space Shuttle, also known as the Space Transportation System (STS), consists of an active fleet of three orbiters: Discovery, Atlantis, and Endeavour. The Shuttles are the United States’ primary method of transferring crew, supplies, and new modules to the ISS.