Back in the day staying up to speed with the space powers wasn’t too hard. Afterall, there were only two of them. But today, that is far from the case. Unfortunately, many are not familiar with any space agency other than NASA – and that’s not just in the United States either! So for those of you planning to fly into the future, here’s a primer on the major space agencies of the world.
The National Aeronautics and Space Administration was founded in 1958, taking over from The National Advisory Committee for Aeronautics. NASA handles civilian space exploration, utilization, and research in the United States. It is the agency responsible for the Apollo program that put the first human on the Moon, although it lost the Cold War race to many other firsts such as the first man in space and the first man in orbit. NASA put the first American woman, Sally Ride, into space but that was 20 years after the Soviets put the first woman in space. Although NASA’s budget has shrunk in recent years, the agency has played a big role in exploring the solar system, launching missions to each of the planets, many of the moons, and the Sun. NASA’s Voyager missions are close to becoming the first manmade objects to leave the solar system for interstellar space. NASA is currently working to transition near Earth activities to commercial partners to free up resources for more exploratory work, such as the high profile Curiosity rover that landed on Mars in August 2012. NASA is a founding member of the International Space Station partnership.
The Russian Federal Space Agency was formed in 1992 following the collapse of the Soviet Union and its Soviet Space Program CCCP. Roscosmos inherited all of the technology, personnel, and history from its Soviet predecessor. The CCCP was founded in 1955 to carry the Cold War efforts that pitted Soviet space advances against those of the United States. Along with launching the first manmade satellite, Sputnik-1, the first man into space, Yuri Gagarin, and the first woman into space, Valentina Tereshkova, the Soviet program developed key expertise in space station technology. Roscosmos is responsible for a large percentage of global launches and is currently the only agency capable of sending crews to and from the International Space Station of which it is a founding member. Russia made great progress in exploring Venus, on which it landed the Venera series rovers, specially designed to withstand the crushing pressures and extreme temperatures long enough to take key measurements from the surface. Russia has had less luck exploring Mars, losing 18 of its 21 missions to that planet. The Russian Soyuz has been made available to several nations and is the basis for China’s launchers. Russian spaceflyers are known as cosmonauts.
The Japan Aerospace Exploration Agency was founded in 2003 as a reorganization of three previous ministries. The Japanese version of the agency’s name translates as Independent Administrative Institution on Aerospace Research and Development. JAXA is a minority partner in the International Space Station collaboration. It specializes in robotic sample return missions which it pioneered with the 2010 Hayabusa mission to the asteroid Itokawa. JAXA is also advancing solar sail technology with the IKAROS prototype.
The European Space Agency is a coalition of twenty European nations, although the strongest three nations – France, Germany, and Italy – contribute disproportionately to the agency’s activities. ESA was formed in 1975 and receives funding from the European Union but is not part of the EU. In fact, the EU has discussed launching its own space agency, a move that ESA decries. ESA is party to the International Space Station collaboration, although most of its activities focus on satellite services for the European region.
Centre National d’Etudes Spatiales is the French space agency. CNES specializes in launcher technology as the purveyor of the Ariane 5 vehicle which carries about half of all spacecraft. Although not directly associated with CNES, the company that manages Russian Soyuz launches, Starsem, is also French. CNES acts both independently and in collaboration with ESA.
Deutsches Zentrum für Luft- und Raumfahrt e.V. is the German space agency, more commonly known as DLR. DLR collaborates closely with ESA and supplies payload instruments in cooperation with US, Russian, and Chinese missions. DLR has active research areas in space debris detection and solar sail development.
The Indian Space Research Organization recently made headlines when it passed the 100 missions mark. ISRO was founded in and worked assiduously to establish its own launch capability. ISRO now works mainly on communication satellites but aims to develop crewed spaceflight capabilities. The United States opposed India’s launch capability development since that country possesses nuclear capabilities and has not agreed to non-proliferation.
The Chinese National Space Agency and the Chinese Manned Space Engineering are two arms of China’s space program. They work with CASC, the China Aerospace Corporation which is a governmental ministry that oversees commercial space actors. CNSA and CASC were created in 1993 from the Ministry of Aerospace Industry. Although their progress has seen some starts and stops, China is making rapid strides in launch capabilities with its Long March vehicles, lunar exploration under the Chinese Lunar Exploration Program that has sent Chang’e 1 to lunar orbit and plans to send a rover and a crewed mission in the near future. The CMSE division focuses on manned flight in which Chinese has had recent high profile successes using its Shenzhou vessel. In early 2012, China sent its first woman to space and performed its first docking and inhabited its first space station Tiangong-1. Chinese space flyers are known as taikonauts. Much of China’s technology is based on Russian predecessors. Although China would be interested in becoming an International Space Station partner, they have been blocked by the United States under that country’s unpopular ITAR legislation. China is actively collaborating on space activities with Russia, several European partners, as well as Asian and African partners.
The Canadian Space Agency/Agence Spatiale Canadienne was founded in 1989. Canada is a member of the International Space Station partnership and has developed niche expertise in space robotics. CSA has provided multiple robotic arms, including the ubiquitous Canadarm2 used to snag docking supply vessels. Canada collaborates heavily with ESA of which is it an associate member since 1979.
Are these all the space agencies? Certainly not! But these are the players you can expect to see most in day to day space activities. These are also the agencies with acknowledged manned exploration abilities or goals, so you’ll be hearing more from them in the future. Ad astra – to the stars!