History - Shuttle, Mir, Space Station

After landing on the Moon, what do you do for an encore? NASA does not choose its own goals - they are set by the President and funded by Congress. After Apollo, The USA moved on to the Space Shuttle and Space Station. The Soviet Union began a series of space station flights culminating in its own large space station, 'Mir', and post-Soviet Russia joined the US to create the International Space Station.


During Apollo, US proposals for future exploration included Mars missions, lunar bases, and orbiting space stations. None were funded except a scaled-back space station test project called Skylab. Skylab itself was an Apollo/Saturn upper stage rocket fitted out as a laboratory, with a telescope attached to it in a modified Lunar Module left over from Apollo. During launch in 1973 it was damaged, losing a solar panel and meteorite shield. The first crew saved the mission by repairing the station. Two more crews also visited Skylab, setting up a US long duration record in space (84 days) and performing medical and other experiments. Skylab eventually burned up over Australia in 1979.
Skylab flights - click on 'Skylab' link.


The Soviet Union abandoned its plans to put people on the Moon when Apollo succeeded, and turned its attention to Earth-orbiting space stations. The lunar Zond spacecraft was modified for Earth orbit use under the name Soyuz ('Union'), and has been used ever since. It is now one of the main transportation systems for the International Space Station, especially important when the Shuttle was grounded after the Challenger accident. An early, experimental military station program was adopted for civilian use and named 'Salyut' (= salute). It had become obvious that there was no military advantage to having people in space. Seven Salyut stations with increasing capabilities were flown between 1971 and 1986. Long duration flights explored the effects of weightlessness on the body, with possible applications to flights to Mars. Experience was gained with space walks, life support, large spacecraft construction and maintenance, science experiments, emergency repairs, psychological effects of long missions etc. Four cosmonauts died in flight accidents, all during re-entry.
Salyut missions
all human space flights (US, Russian and Chinese) (the only list I have found of all Soyuz flights)
Soyuz 1 accident
Soyuz 11 accident


The long experience with Salyut, including world record long stays in space, culminated with the Mir space station. It was built up, module by module, over 10 years, into a complex orbital laboratory. Mir was supplied by Progress vehicles which made automated approach and docking maneuvers. It was visited by 28 crews made up of 104 people including citizens of many different countries (including Canada). Its longest crew stay was 438 days. It survived a collision with a Progress, and an on-board fire. Near the end of its life it was touted as a goal for space tourists or a reality TV show. It was intentionally deorbited in 2001, falling into the South Pacific Ocean.
Mir assembly and support missions (click 'missions' at left, then link to Mir near bottom of page)
Mir de-orbit


The Space Shuttle program was initiated by President Richard Nixon in 1972. The goal was a resuseable transportation system which would greatly reduce the costs of reaching orbit. The shuttle is an engineering marvel, but it has always been fragile and costly. It never achieved its cost reduction goals - each launch costs about $500 million. On over 125 flights, two have been lost, one at launch (Challenger in 1986), one at re-entry (Columbia in 2003). Seven crew died in each of those acidents. Despite these problems the results are impressive: the shuttle has launched many satellites including two planetary probes (Magellan to Venus, Galileo to Jupiter) and the Hubble Space Telescope. It has retrieved satellites for repair, including the Hubble Space Telescope. It is the main vehicle for Space Station construction. On one flight a large radar antenna produced the most detailed topographic map ever made of most of our planet's land surface. It was out of commission for over two years awaiting recertification to fly after the Columbia accident, but now it is flying again. The Shuttle will be phased out in 2010.
current Shuttle news
Shuttle description
Shuttle missions
astronaut photos of Earth
Shuttle missions (link to Shuttle from right-hand column)
Shuttle Challenger accident, 1986
Shuttle Columbia accident, 2003
first US space tragedy - Apollo 1 accident, 1967

Buran - the Russian shuttle

The US Shuttle was a great engineering accomplishment. The Soviet Union decided it needed to learn this new technology despite having no clear need for such a vehicle. They designed a shuttle called 'Buran' (= snowstorm), similar in appearance to the US Shuttle but different in important ways. For instance, its main engines were on the attached rocket booster rather than on the Orbiter, and the return flight was powered by jet engines (the US Shuttle lands like a glider without any power). Buran flew only once, in 1988, and orbited the Earth without a crew (another difference from the US version). The technology was proved but no further flights were ever made.

International Space Station

President Reagan initiated the Space Station in 1984, as the next step after the Shuttle. In effect it gave the Shuttle somewhere to go. The station went through many redesigns and cost over-runs. Its final version was international in scope, involving Europe, Canada and Japan, and in a final change, Russia as well after the fall of the Soviet Union. Construction began with the launch of the Russian Zarya (= dawn) module in 2000, and is still in progress. The Station is seen as a science laboratory for earth observation and scientific experiments. It is now only about half built, lacking its European and Japanese components and other US parts. While the Shuttle is grounded, the only vehicles capable of servicing it are the Russian Progress cargo ships and their Soyuz crew transports. The Station is widely criticised for being too expensive for the meagre scientific results it offers, and for holding back other science missions.
ISS construction
ISS news

China in space

China has developed its own launch vehicles despite small budgets and international technology transfer limitations. It designs and launches its own communications, weather, remote sensing and scientific satellites. A moon orbiter is planned for 2007. The most ambitious recent development has been human space flight. China is only the third nation in the world with its own capability for human space flight. Its Shenzhou spacecraft is an extensively redesigned version of the Russian Soyuz. Its first flight was in 2003 with astronaut ('taikonaut', or 'yuhangyuan') Yang Liwei. The second flight was in 2005, with two people. Future plans include spacewalks and a small space station. Talk of human lunar missions is premature, but that may happen eventually.
Go Taikonauts!
Chinese space program

Japan in space

Japan has developed its own satellite launchers, though small budgets and technical problems have limited the number of successful launches. Numerous satellites have been launched, including communications, weather, remote sensing and space science satellites. Japan has also conducted planetary exploration missions, though with mixed success. Japanese spacecraft have flown past Comet Halley (1986) and Mars (2003, though the spacecraft 'Nozomi' failed before it arrived). A Japanese spacecraft called Hiten orbited and impacted on the Moon in 1993. The most successful Japanese planetary mission was Hayabusa, an asteroid sample return mission with its encounter in 2005. More ambitious plans for the Moon include a large scientific orbiter in 2006 and a rover later. Plans for a mini-shuttle and indigenous human spaceflight were cancelled several years ago.
Japanese space agency
Hayabusa asteroid mission

A new direction?

After the Columbia acident in 2003 NASA's goals were scrutinized carefully. A new 'Vision for Space Exploration' was proposed by President George Bush... but we will cover that more at the end of this term.