For over 60 years, countries have endeavored to launch satellites and humans into space. While two superpowers take credit for initiating the process, in the intervening years smaller countries have made great strides in bursting free from Earth’s boundaries. Most entered the space race with communication or military satellites, while others have sought to study the Earth and its neighbors. We’ll take a look at just a few of the international agencies featured in this interactive infographic that have reached beyond our planet and into the vastness of space.
Where to begin? Select a space agency at the top! Credit: Now.Space
Screenshot from the page for ROSCOSMOS. Credit: Now.Space
In the 1950s and 1960s, Russia and the United States strenuously competed in the ‘space race.’ Russia cast the first blow with the launch of Sputnik, the first manmade satellite to orbit the Earth. They struck again with the launch of Yuri Gagarin, the first human to travel into outer space. However, the turbulent history of the country means that today’s space agency played no part of those historic adventures. The young Soviet space program relied on tiers of agencies rather than one central organization.
That changed in 1992, with the formation of the Russian Space Agency, which would later be renamed as Roscosmos. While the young agency staggered a bit under the nation’s economic strain, it managed to continue operating the space station Mir longer than anticipated and contribute to the building of the International Space Station (ISS), providing two core models. Today, Roscosmos provides the sole vehicle for launching humans into space.
In addition to human spaceflight, Roscosmos has sent a number of satellites to explore Earth’s planetary neighbors.
Screenshot from the page for JAXA. Credit: Now.Space
Formed when three independent organizations merged in 2003, the Japan Aerospace Exploration Agency (JAXA) has played an important scientific role in human spaceflight and the study of other worlds. The agency contributed a science model for the ISS, launching the components over 2008 and 2009. Japan has ten astronauts who have flown on NASA’s Space Shuttle and visited the ISS.
In addition to human flight, JAXA also maintains robust scientific goals. In 2005, the Hayabusa mission rendezvoused with an asteroid and brought samples back to Earth. The agency is planning a second asteroid sample return mission, Hayabusa 2.
As with all space agencies, not every mission has been successful. Although the Akatsuki spacecraft, launched in 2010, failed to enter orbit around Venus as planned, engineers managed a stunning recovery using the altitude control thrusters to redirect the craft’s trajectory during its trip around the sun, eventually allowing it to circle the hottest planet.
Screenshot from the page for ESA. Credit: Now.Space
While most space agencies are funded by a single country, the European Space Agency (ESA) is a cooperative effort of 22 different states. Founded in 1975 by the merger of two previous organizations, today the agency sends humans to the ISS, satellites to study Earth as well as the solar system’s other planets and moons, telecommunication, and launch vehicle design. The ESA maintains a spaceport in South America’s French Guiana.
Early in its life, the ESA focused primarily on scientific research. Working with NASA, the ESA helped launch the International Ultraviolet Explorer (IUE) in 1978, the world’s first high-orbit telescope. Missions to study the comets Halley and Girigg-Skjellerup launched in the 1980s, and the agency works with NASA on instruments like the Hubble Space Telescope and the Cassini-Huygens mission, in which it built the probe that landed on Saturn’s moon Titan. The ESA has also successfully operated the Mars Express and Venus Express, as well as Corot, which has made significant strides in studying planets beyond the solar system.
By the 1980s, the ESA’s mission had come to include human space flight. It sent its first astronaut, Ulf Merbold, into space in 1983, where he participated in the first use of the European-build Spacelab. Dozens of ESA astronauts flew with NASA in the following years. The agency developed the Automated Transfer Vehicle to resupply the ISS, with its first launch in 2008.
Screenshot from the page for CSA. Credit: Now.Space
In 1962, Canada became the third country to launch a satellite into space, an instrument that lasted well over a decade. In 1972, it became the first country in the world to establish its own network of geostationary communication satellites. The growing space presence led to the establishment of the Canadian Space Agency (CSA) in 1990.
Nine Canadian astronauts flew on 17 human missions to space, including trips to Mir, the ISS, and on NASA’s Space Shuttle. CSA also contributed technologically to space exploration, its most famous being the inclusion of the ISS’s robotic arms.
In addition to space flight, CSA has contributed a number of instruments to NASA and the ESA’s telescopes and missions to other planets. These include components of NASA’s Curiosity rover on Mars, OSIRIS-REx asteroid sample return mission, and the upcoming James Webb Space Telescope, as well as the ESA’s Herschel and Planck telescopes.
Screenshot from the page for CNSA. Credit: Now.Space
Like many space programs, China’s entry into space started out with military origins. Although technological developments began in the 1950s, the China National Space Administration (CNSA) didn’t form until 1983, splitting off from the Ministry of Aerospace Industry.
Launched from China, the first Chinese astronaut traveled to the space station in 2003, making China the third country to independently send humans into space. Since then, China has sent ten astronauts outside of Earth’s orbit.
Screenshot from the page for ISRO. Credit: Now.Space
Formed in 1969, the Indian Space Research Organization (ISRO) launched its first satellite from the Soviet Union in 1975. Since then, the agency has sent several Earth observation and communication satellites into space, operating from its own launch center.
In 2014, India’s satellite, the Mars Orbiter Mission (MOM), entered orbit around the red planet. Its success made it the first nation to launch a Martian mission on the first attempt successfully, and the fourth space agency in the world (the first in Asia) to enter the planet’s orbit. An ISRO orbiter also traveled to the moon in 2008.
The ISRO is currently working to secure funding for a human spaceflight program, which will follow astronaut-free test flights.
Screenshot from the page for BSA. Credit: Now.Space
Formed in 1994, the Brazilian Space Agency is the civilian authority responsible for the nation’s space exploration. Prior to its formation, the military controlled Brazil’s space program. BSA helped to develop six items for the ISS as part of its partnership with NASA. In return, the first Brazilian astronaut traveled to the space station in 2006. The agency has launched some Earth-observation and communication satellites over its history.