As the United States revamps its space program by retiring the shuttle, here’s what other countries are doing or have planned.
Russia — or, to be exact, the Soviet Union — was the first country into space, and it doesn’t intend to forget that. Its Soyuz spacecraft will now be the only means for Russians, Americans or anyone else to reach the international space station.
The Russian space program, which suffered in the 1990s — remember the Mir space station, which was killed off in 2001 and allowed to fall into the sea? — is more robust today. But with a budget of about $3 billion, it still suffers from an aging workforce and struggles to hire talented staff. An ambitious plan to build a new launch center in eastern Siberia (Russia currently uses the Baikonur site, in Kazakhstan) and introduce a new line of rockets and a new spacecraft by 2018 looks as though it may be delayed.
Russia is also working on developing a reusable rocket, which it believes would make it the leader in space for the next 50 years. Some Russian scientists believe that spaceflight can’t advance much further without new means of propulsion, most likely from nuclear-powered engines.
Russia has always emphasized manned flight but is currently putting a satellite system in place to rival the GPS system. That effort has been hampered by the country’s failure to launch three satellites into orbit last year. After years of complaints about nepotism and inefficiency, the head of the Russian program, Anatoly Perminov, was recently pushed into retirement, just before the 50th anniversary of Yuri Gagarin’s flight as the first human in space.
— Will Englund
India’s 48-year-old space program reflects its growing global ambitions and is a source of enormous national prestige. India has a large number of remote-sensing satellites that predict the weather, collect data on natural disasters, track agricultural harvest patterns and run remote classrooms.
In 2008, India launched its first unmanned moon mission, Chandrayaan-1, which catapulted the country into the big league. Spurred by China’s growing space ambitions, India has focused on launching its first manned space mission in 2016.
India’s space program was dealt a setback in December, when a rocket carrying a communications satellite exploded soon after liftoff. This was India’s second launch failure in 2010.
In addition to its dream of a manned mission to the moon, India is planning an unmanned lunar mission, Chandrayaan-2, in 2013 with collaboration from the Russian space agency. This will pick up samples of soil and rocks for chemical analysis.
— Rama Lakshmi
Israel, whose space technology has traditionally focused on launching satellites for military purposes, is redirecting its space program toward developing sophisticated communications satellites and micro-satellites with civilian uses. These nonmilitary purposes include Earth observation and other scientific research that would measure such phenomena as air pollution, precipitation and atmospheric disturbances.
Israel is a leading country in the number of orbiting satellites (13), and it is the smallest country with its own launch capabilities. Israeli space program officials say they want to increasingly make technologies used for military purposes available for the civilian market. Israel is involved in several joint projects with other nations, among them a partnership with the French space agency to launch a mini-satellite carrying a multi-spectral camera for Earth observations.
— Joel Greenberg
In December, China broke ground on what will be a 3,000-acre space launch center and theme park on southern Hainan Island, directly modeled on the Kennedy Space Center in Florida. When the center opens in 2014, members of the public will be able to watch launches live from a viewing platform.
After struggling in space for several years, experts said China this year appears poised for several significant breakthroughs that could cement its place as a leader in space exploration.
Last October, China launched a robotic probe, the Chang’e 2 lunar orbiter, which completed its six months’ worth of tasks this spring. Because it still had fuel in reserve, the craft left its moon orbit last month for further exploration in space.
This summer, China is scheduled to launch an unmanned space module, called Tiangong 1, or Heavenly Palace, and later this year will send up another unmanned vehicle, Shenzhou, which will try to dock with it. These will be crucial first steps in China’s goal to develop a manned space station.
The Obama administration has often expressed a desire to cooperate with China in space, but the idea has found little traction. Much of China’s space program falls under the control of the military; details — including its funding — are kept secret, and China has shown little sign of wanting to open up. Also, U.S. restrictions on some sensitive high-technology exports to China make space cooperation difficult.
— Keith Richburg
Japan’s space agency has one-tenth the budget of NASA, curtailing the program’s broadest ambitions. It has no manned missions in its plans.
But Japan has carved a niche by exploring the less heralded frontiers of space, sometimes with great results. Last year, the Hayabusa spacecraft, parachuting into the Australian outback, returned from a seven-year mission in which it collected surface samples from an asteroid. A series of technical problems nearly derailed the mission, but Hayabusa returned with particles that were several billion years old and potentially capable of providing clues about the formation of the solar system.
That success has prompted Japan to plan to launch Hayabusa-2 in 2014. This time, the spacecraft would take a subsurface sample from an asteroid. There are also plans for satellites to monitor greenhouse gases.
But Japan, attempting to recover from a triple disaster — an earthquake, a tsunami and a nuclear crisis — also faces major debt problems that create pressure to cut back spending, and the space program could face a further squeeze.
— Chico Harlan
Europe’s space efforts focus on commerce, and its programs — run by the European Space Agency, to which 18 countries contribute — are somewhat less romantic than those of the space superpowers.
The agency just quashed the idea of pursuing manned space missions on its own, and one of its biggest projects focuses on developing a reusable, unmanned vehicle that could be used for cargo. It looks a little like a wedge of cheese. Budget cuts have reined in some of Europe’s more ambitious programs.
But the agency also funds major scientific projects, including an orbiter circling Mars. Its launches are helped along by having a pad very close to the equator, in French Guiana. The location takes advantage of the momentum created by Earth’s rotation; this force, which diminishes as one approaches the poles, helps push rockets into space.
— Michael Birnbaum