SPACE FLIGHT 2004 - The Year in Review

For Space Flight, 2004 was a year of strong contrasts. On the one hand, human and robotic space activities set new marks in history with a lineup of unique, headline-grabbing accomplishments, preparing the stage for important new developments that will contribute greatly to human exploration ventures outside the Earth's boundaries. At the same time, ironically, the year 2004 saw a decline in the utilization of space, with number of launches to orbit plus the number of satellites reaching the lowest levels since 1961. While the United States space budget managed to stay its course on a relatively stable level, the continuing standdown of the U.S. Space Shuttle kept human flights limited to Russian launch services. Commercial flights dropped below previous-year level, and international space activities continued their trends of reduced public spending and modest launch services. A total of 53 successful launches worldwide carried 73 payloads (2003: 86), compared to 60 launches in 2003 (2002: 61; 2001: 57). There also were two rocket failures (down from three in 2003), a Tsyklon-3 (Russia) and a Shaviyt (Israel).

In its traditional leadership role among world space organizations, the U.S. National Aeronautics and Space Administration (NASA) started the year on an upbeat and positive note, when President George W. Bush announced the Vision for Space Exploration on January 14, charging the space agency with a robust space exploration program to advance U.S. scientific, security and economic interests. Also in January, NASA successfully landed the mobile geology labs Spirit and Opportunity on the Planet Mars. Other remarkable milestones of 2004 were the arrival of the Cassini-Huygens spacecraft at Saturn and its moon Titan; the Stardust deep-space probe's fly-by of Comet Wild 2 within 174 miles (235 km); the launch of the Swift satellite to look for the birth of Black Holes; strange cosmic sights unveiled by the Spitzer Space Telescope; the deepest portrait of the visible universe taken by the Hubble Space Telescope; and the crash landing of the returning Genesis solar-sample return mission in the Utah desert, still containing preserved and usable samples of the sun.

In 2004, the commercial space market continued its decline, begun in 2003 after a surprising recovery in 2002 from the dramatic slump of the previous years. Of the 53 successful launches worldwide, about 19 (36%) were commercial launches (carrying 27 commercial payloads), compared to 20 (33%) in 2003 (2002: 28 [43%]). In the civil science satellite area, worldwide launches totaled nine, down four from the preceding year. But in the same year, the dream of opening space to the general public was greatly advanced by SpaceShipOne's prize-winning suborbital flight and congressional legislation to help establish a space travel industry in the United States.

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 had become particularly important after the shuttle stand-down caused by the loss of Columbia on February 1, 2003. Europe's space activities in 2004 dropped below the previous year’s (of 4 missions), with only three missions of the Ariane 5 heavy-lift launch vehicle, which brought the number of successes of this vehicle to 16.

During 2004 a total of two crewed flights from the two major space-faring nations (down from three in 2003) carried six humans into space (2003: 12). This brought the total number of people launched into space since 1958 (counting repeaters) to 977, incl. 100 women, respectively 438 individuals (38 women). Some significant space events in 2004 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 ‘04 issues); Aerospace Daily (various ‘04 issues), SPACE NEWS (various ‘04 issues); AIAA AEROSPACE AMERICA, November 2004 issue; NASA Public Affairs Office News Releases ’04; ESA Press Releases '04; various Internet sites.