SPACE FLIGHT 2006 - The Year in Review

Space Flight in 2006 continued its recent trend of slow but steady growth in human and robotic activities, moving forward in its two dominant themes: commercial utilization of low and geosynchronous orbits, and expansion of human presence in space toward exploration further outward from Earth's boundaries. Based on number of launches to orbit plus the number of launched satellite payloads, the utilization of space, which had reached its lowest level since 1961 in 2004 and remained on that level in 2005, in 2006 showed signs of reversing this trend. After staying two consecutive years at 55 total space launch attempts worldwide, in 2006 the number climbed to 66 (including four failed). The number of large commercial satellites (21) launched to geostationary orbit (GEO) continued to rise for the second year (2005: 19, 2004: 12), after a stagnant period during 2002-2004. The increase was paralleled by the second consecutive year of growth in number of GEO satellites ordered from suppliers like Alcatel Alenia Space, EADS Astrium, Boeing Satellite Development Center, Space Systems/Loral, Lockheed Martin, and Orbital Sciences Corp.

As the United States space budget continued to stay its course on a relatively stable level with some upward adjustment for inflation, a major focus was the renewed flight operations of the space shuttle in support of the International Space Station (ISS). But Russian launch services continued to dominate human flights as in the previous year. International space activities extended their trends of reduced public spending and modest launch services. The 62 successful launches worldwide (2005: 52; 2004: 53; 2003: 60; 2002: 61; 2001: 57) carried 99 payloads (2005: 72; 2004: 73), including some of the new class of small nanosats and picosats. Of the four failed launches (up from three in 2005, two in 2004) two were Russian (a Proton-M and a Dnepr), one Indian (GSLV), and one US-commercial (Falcon-1). By end-2006, the National Aeronautics and Space Administration (NASA) rounded out a successful year of milestones and discoveries as the agency went into the second year after implementing the Vision for Space Exploration, mandated by President George W. Bush on January 14, 2004, America's long-term plan for returning astronauts to the moon to prepare for voyages to Mars and other destinations in the solar system. The year included three space shuttle flights, progress in preliminary design and procurement for America's next generation spacecraft, and a number of scientific milestones. The second Shuttle mission to the ISS since the Columbia loss in 2003 was followed by two more, which picked up again the continuing assembly of the space station with delivery of large components and supporting spacewalks by crewmembers. Launched in January 2006, the New Horizons spacecraft set out on a long voyage to study Pluto, the last unvisited planet in the solar system (although now a dwarf planet, according to the International Astronomical Union). Also in January, NASA's Stardust sample return capsule returned successfully to Earth, carrying interstellar dust specimens and comet particles from an encounter with comet Wild-2. The Mars Reconnaissance Orbiter (MRO) reached the Red Planet in March, initiating science operations in October. On the Mars surface, the twin rovers Spirit and Opportunity continued their exploration after exceeding their expected design life, amazing scientists with their findings. The Cassini spacecraft made more history at Saturn, discovering potential liquid water on the moon Enceladus, the Spitzer Space Telescope took the first temperature measurements on a planet outside the solar system, and the Hubble Space Telescope found evidence for dark energy in the Universe already at its beginning.

The commercial space launch market was slightly below the 2005 level, which had shown improvement after a 2004 decline, begun in 2003. Of the 62 (2005: 52) successful launches worldwide, about 21 (34% [2005: 23/44%]) were commercial launches, carrying 33 commercial payloads, compared to 36 in 2005, 19 (36%) in 2004 (2003: 20 [33%]). In the civil science satellite area, worldwide launches totaled 12, double the number of the preceding year. Among several private-owned companies entering into the commercial space transportation enterprise, public attention was particularly paid to Virgin Galactic, headed by British entrepreneur Sir Richard Branson, who in 2005 entered into a partnership with Scaled Composites and renown aerospace engineer Burt Rutan to develop private-market suborbital and eventual orbital transportation for commercial customers, after the first privately funded human spaceflight on June 21, 2004, by the experimental air-launched suborbital SpaceShipOne. On its next flight, on October 4, SpaceShipOne won the $10-million Ansari X-Prize by reaching 100 km in altitude twice in a two-week period with the equivalent of three people on board, with no more than ten percent of the non-fuel weight of the spacecraft replaced between flights. Early pioneers of future space tourism in 2006 already spent 7-10 days on the ISS, flying under contract with the Russian Federal Space Agency on Soyuz spacecraft,- Dennis Tito (USA, 2001), Mark Shuttleworth (South Africa, 2002), Gregory Olsen (USA, 2005), and Anousheh Ansari (Iran-USA, 2006, the first woman space tourist).

Russia's space program, despite chronic shortage of state funding, showed continued dependable participation in the build-up of the ISS. This partnership had become particularly important after delays in the shuttle launch schedule following the Return-to-Flight (RTF) mission of STS-114/Discovery on July 26, 2005, after the stand-down caused by the loss of Columbia on February 1, 2003. Europe's space activities in 2006 remained at the level of the previous year's total of five flights of the Ariane 5 heavy-lift launch vehicle, bringing the number of successes of this vehicle to 30. China launched six Long March rockets, one more than in 2005, and Japan also reached a launch rate of six, four more than in the preceding year.

The total number of people launched into space since 1958 (counting repeaters) in 2006 rose to 1015, incl. 108 women, respectively 453 individuals (44 women), in a total of 254 missions. Some significant space events in 2006 are listed in Table 1, and the launches and attempts are enumerated by country in Table 2.

Dr. Jesco von Puttkamer
July 10, 2007

Bibliography. Aviation Week & Space Technology (AW&ST, various 06 issues); Aerospace Daily (various 06 issues), SPACE NEWS (various 06 issues); AIAA AEROSPACE AMERICA, December 2006 issue; NASA Public Affairs Office News Releases 06; ESA Press Releases '06; various Internet sites.