SPACE FLIGHT 2003 - The Year in Review

While World Aviation in 2003 celebrated “the next century of flight”, observing Orville and Wilbur Wright’s pioneering and daring accomplishment 100 years earlier (on December 17, 1903) of 59 seconds of flight of a motor-driven machine, Space Flight, with the loss of the space shuttle Columbia and her crew of seven men and women, suffered a bitter tragedy that rivaled the loss of the Challenger in 1986 in depth and length of its ramifications. This devastating loss shocked the entire world and overshadowed a number of outstanding highlights, both in human space missions and in automated space exploration and commercial utilization.

While the United States space budget managed to stay its course on a relatively stable level, international space activities continued prior-year trends of reduced public spending and modest launch services. In general, after reaching their lowest point since 1963 in 2001, down from previously exhibited growth trends, launch activities in 2003 remained more or less on the prior-year level, without showing much promise of any sizable rebound in 2004. A total of 60 successful launches worldwide carried 86 payloads, compared to 61 flights in 2002 (57 in 2001). There also were three launch failures (down from four in 2002), including STS-107/Columbia.

In its traditional leadership role among world space organizations, the U.S. National Aeronautics and Space Administration (NASA) again accomplished a number of remarkable milestones, with the successful launches of planetary probes such as the two Mars Exploration Rovers MER-A Spirit and MER-B Opportunity, and science missions such as SORCE (Solar Radiation and Climate Experiment), GALEX (Galaxy Evolution Explorer) and the infrared space telescope SIRTF (Space Infrared Telescope Facility), as well as interplanetary milestones such as the two Voyager missions, Cassini-Huygens’ mission to Saturn and Titan and by the spacecraft Galileo before its final plunge into the giant planet on September 21, 2003.

In 2003, the commercial space market declined again after its surprising recovery in 2002 from the dramatic slump of the previous years. Out of the 60 successful launches worldwide, about 20 (33%) were commercial launches (carrying 37 commercial payloads), compared to 28 (43%) in 2002. In the civil science satellite area, worldwide launches totaled 14, up four from the preceding year.

Russia’s space program, despite chronic shortage of state funding, showed continued dependable participation in the build-up of the International Space Station (ISS). This partnership became particularly important after the shuttle stand-down caused by the loss of Columbia. Europe's space activities in 2003 dropped below the previous year’s, flying the last Ariane 4, followed by three successful missions of the Ariane 5 heavy-lift launch vehicle, which brought the number of successes of this vehicle to 13.

During 2003 a total of three crewed flights from the two major space-faring nations (down from seven in 2002) launched carried 12 humans into space (2002: 40), but seven of them were lost with the shuttle Columbia. An additional crewed flight was conducted by the People’s Republic of China, carrying the first Chinese into space on board the Shenzhou 5 spaceship. This brought the total number of people launched into space since 1958 (counting repeaters) to 971, incl. 100 women, respectively 435 individuals (38 female). Some significant space events in 2003 are listed in Table 1, and the launches and attempts are enumerated by country in Table 2.


Bibliography. Aviation Week & Space Technology (AW&ST, various '03 issues); Aerospace Daily (various '03 issues), SPACE NEWS (various '03 issues); AIAA AEROSPACE AMERICA, November 2003 issue; NASA Public Affairs Office News Releases '03; ESA Press Releases '03; various Internet sites.