Since the Soviet Union launched the first artificial Earth-orbiting satellite, Sputnik 1, on 4 October 1957, nine additional countries (the United States, France, Australia, China, Japan, the United Kingdom, India, Israel, and Iran) and the European Space Agency have launched at least one satellite using their own launch vehicles. France, Australia, and the United Kingdom no longer operate their national launch systems, but other countries are developing independent launch capabilities. Twelve humans have walked on the surface of the moon; people have been in Earth orbit aboard a space station on a continuing basis since 2001; automated spacecraft have orbited and landed on Venus, Mars, and Saturn and its moon Titan; and other spacecraft have visited Jupiter and its moons, Uranus, and Neptune. A spacecraft is on its way to the dwarf planet Pluto. There have been a number of missions to comets and asteroids, and samples from both have been returned to Earth. Various satellite observatories, most particularly the Hubble Space Telescope, have provided spectacular images and unprecedented data regarding the universe beyond Earth's solar system. Earth-observation satellites have obtained data essential for national security purposes as well as for environmental management, resource location, and weather forecasting. Communication via satellite has become both a multibillion-dollar business and a vital link between military forces and their command structures. Satellites are providing precise position location and timing signals on a global basis, a capability with myriad applications.
Five international treaties have come into force to provide a framework for the conduct of activities in space; the most fundamental and influential of these is the Outer Space Treaty of 1967, which set forth the basic principles that outer space is the province of all mankind, that the moon and other celestial bodies are not subject to claims of national sovereignty, and that weapons of mass destruction should not be stationed in space. A number of international and regional organizations have been formed to operate space systems, particularly communication and meteorological satellites.
Underpinning the extension of humanity's sphere of activities to outer space (a sphere without clear legal definition) has been a variety of motivations. The particular mix of factors leading a nation to be active in space has varied across countries and over time, but from the beginning, the political-military and scientific foundations of space activities have been significant. For later government entrants into space activities, it has been the benefits on Earth from applying space capabilities that have motivated their space investments. Commercial motivations have also become an increasingly strong influence on space activities.
The United States, the former Soviet Union (now Russia), and China carry out comprehensive civilian and national-security space programs and are the only three countries to have developed the capability of launching humans into space. The United States and Russia have orbited not only their own citizens but also individuals from several other countries. Several private individuals have also paid Russia large amounts of money for a chance to be launched on a visit into Earth orbit. Current US-government space spending is more than twice the amount spent by all other countries combined; this is a result of both the strong US commitment to civilian space and the even stronger US dependence on using space for national-security purposes. After the United States, Russia, and China, the next tier of spacefaring countries includes Europe (including France, Germany, Italy, the United Kingdom, and the nineteen-member-state European Space Agency), Japan, and India. The twenty-seven-member European Union is gradually becoming involved in the funding and management of cooperative space efforts.
Neither the former Soviet Union/Russia nor the United States has so far deployed weapons in space. Space systems have become an essential part of planning for and fighting a modern war, however, because they are used for early warning of attack, target identification and location, damage assessment, strategic and tactical communications, position location, and weather forecasting. Space systems are also used for optical and electronic intelligence. Indeed, commercially obtained satellite imagery now approaches the spatial resolution previously available only to governments. Some US military planners see space as a major theater for future war fighting, and they are concerned about controlling access to, and activities in, orbit and about deterring possible attacks on US national-security space assets.
Other countries also use, or plan to use, space for military and intelligence purposes. For example, Britain has launched military communication satellites, and China, Japan, Germany, Italy, and France, among others, use observation satellites for national-security objectives. The very possession of a launch vehicle capable of putting a sizable payload into orbit is also an indication of the capability to launch a warhead (nuclear or nonnuclear) over significant distances in time of war, and, thus, the existing space powers are reluctant to assist other countries in developing indigenous space-launch capabilities.
Satellites being used for national security purposes are vulnerable to a variety of forms of attack, most dramatically including destruction by an impacting antisatellite weapon. There have been continuing proposals, including a new international treaty, for preventing an arms race in outer space, but to date, none of these arms-control proposals have been agreed to.
Controlling the spread of active warfare into space is one part of the larger issue of space sustainability, the continued ability of both governments and the private sector to use outer space for legitimate purposes without natural or man-made threats of interference. A major threat to the space environment is the growing amount of orbital debris. As of 2012, more than twenty-one thousand pieces of debris larger than about 10 centimeters were being tracked in orbit around Earth, and there were as many as five hundred thousand additional untracked pieces larger than 1 centimeter. Debris colliding with one of the nearly one thousand operational satellites could result in serious damage or complete destruction of the satellite. Other threats to continued use of the space environment include orbital crowding and the scarcity of frequencies for use by various satellites. The international community is becoming increasingly aware of such threats and is developing various nonbinding approaches to creating a sustainable global regime for space activities.
Scientists around the world have taken advantage of the opportunity to put their instruments into space; space science has become a major arena for international technical cooperation. Objects of scientific investigation include the origins, evolution, and current condition of Earth's moon, other planets, comets, asteroids, the universe, and the possibility of life in it; the physical character of space itself; and Earth's surface and atmosphere. Some suggest that a comprehensive scientific study of Earth from space can provide the information and insights required for understanding and effective management of global environmental changes.
Certainly, the single most visible space achievement to date was Project Apollo, carried out by the United States between 1961 and 1972. President John F. Kennedy, in response to Soviet successes in launching the first satellite and the first human, in May 1961 set a manned lunar landing as a high-priority US goal. The Soviet Union also attempted a lunar landing program in the 1960s, but several failures convinced it to withdraw from the moon race. Having won that race, the United States launched six more lunar landing missions, five successfully, but then chose not to continue human exploration beyond Earth orbit. Both the United States and the Soviet Union from the 1970s until today have confined their crewed space flights to the immediate vicinity of humanity's home planet. The experience to date of putting humans into space has not provided convincing evidence of tangible benefits from research involving human presence. The United States, with Russia, Europe, Japan, and Canada as partners, has led a sixteen-nation effort to develop an International Space Station (ISS), an orbiting laboratory aimed at providing such evidence. The ISS was completed in May 2011, and its six-person crew is expected to continue to carry out various forms of research until at least 2020.
There is no doubt that the utilization of space for various Earth-bound purposes—communication of voice, video, and data, Earth observation, and potentially new applications such as space manufacturing, navigation services, space tourism, and generating electrical power from solar energy, among others—will continue. Various entrepreneurs and larger firms continue to develop profitmaking enterprises based on launching payloads, and eventually people, into orbit and using satellites for established and new applications. The very high costs of both access to space and space operations mean that space utilization must produce high benefits or unique advantages leading to political, public good, or economic return. Only if access and operating costs are lowered dramatically are activities in space other than gathering and transmitting information likely to become economically much more significant. Military utilization of space will increase as additional countries recognize the security benefits of space capabilities.
The political competition that fueled humanity's first steps on another celestial body has dissipated, and four decades of experience with human operations in Earth orbit have so far demonstrated few advantages beyond the symbolic and the motivational of putting people into space, particularly given the high additional costs of life support for human crews. Yet, the idea of human travel to other planets and of eventual establishment of permanent outposts on the moon, Mars, and perhaps beyond remains potent. Whether space activities to date are the precursor to humanity becoming a multiplanet species in the twenty-first century remains to be determined.
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