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The International Space Station in earth orbit

Spaceflight is the use of space technology to fly a spacecraft into and through outer space.

Spaceflight is used in space exploration, and also in commercial activities like space tourism and satellite telecommunications. Additional non-commercial uses of spaceflight include space observatories, reconnaissance satellites and other earth observation satellites.

A spaceflight typically begins with a rocket launch, which provides the initial thrust to overcome the force of gravity and propels the spacecraft from the surface of the Earth. Once in space, the motion of a spacecraft -- both when unpropelled and when under propulsion -- is covered by the area of study called astrodynamics. Some spacecraft remain in space indefinitely, some disintegrate during atmospheric reentry, and others reach a planetary or lunar surface for landing or impact.


History of spaceflight

Tsiolkovsky, "the father of human space flight"
See also: Timeline of spaceflight

The realistic proposal of space travel goes back to Konstantin Tsiolkovsky. His most famous work, "Исследование мировых пространств реактивными приборами" (The Exploration of Cosmic Space by Means of Reaction Devices), was published in 1903, but this theoretical work was not widely influential outside of Russia.

Spaceflight became an engineering possibility with the work of Robert H. Goddard's publication in 1919 of his paper 'A Method of Reaching Extreme Altitudes'; where his application of the de Laval nozzle to liquid fuel rockets gave sufficient power that interplanetary travel became possible. This paper was highly influential on Hermann Oberth and Wernher Von Braun, later key players in spaceflight.

The first rocket to reach space was a prototype of the German V-2 Rocket, on a test flight on October 3, 1942. On October 4, 1957, the Soviet Union launched Sputnik 1, which became the first artificial satellite to orbit the Earth. The first human spaceflight was Vostok 1 on April 12, 1961, aboard which Soviet cosmonaut Yuri Gagarin made one orbit around the Earth.

Rockets remain the only currently practical means of reaching space. Other technologies such as scramjets still fall far short of orbital speed.

Earth-launched spaceflight

Reaching space

Proton Rocket heading for space

The most commonly used definition of outer space is everything beyond the Kármán line, which is 100 kilometers (62 mi) above the Earth's surface. (The United States sometimes defines outer space as everything beyond 50 miles (80 km) in altitude.)

In order for a projectile to reach outer space from the surface, it needs a minimum delta-v. This velocity is much lower than escape velocity.

It is possible, indeed routine, for a spacecraft to leave a celestial body without reaching the surface escape velocity of a body by propelling itself after take-off. However, it is more fuel-efficient for a craft to burn its fuel close to the ground as possible, keeping escape velocity a consideration.[1]

Sub-orbital spaceflight
Main article: Sub-orbital spaceflight

On a sub-orbital spaceflight the spacecraft reaches space, but does not achieve orbit. Instead, its trajectory brings it back to the surface of the Earth. Suborbital flights can last many hours. Pioneer 1 was NASA's first space probe intended to reach the Moon. A partial failure caused it to instead follow a suborbital trajectory to an altitude of 113,854 kilometers (70,746 mi) before reentering the Earth's atmosphere 43 hours after launch.

On May 17, 2004, Civilian Space eXploration Team launched the GoFast Rocket on a suborbital flight, the first amateur spaceflight. On June 21, 2004, SpaceShipOne was used for the first privately-funded human spaceflight.

Orbital spaceflight
Main article: Orbital spaceflight

A minimal orbital spaceflight requires much higher velocities than a minimal sub-orbital flight, and so it is technologically much more challenging to achieve. To achieve orbital spaceflight, the tangential velocity around the Earth is as important as altitude. In order to perform a stable and lasting flight in space, the spacecraft must reach the minimal orbital speed required for a closed orbit.

Direct ascent
Main article: Direct ascent

Achieving a closed orbit is not essential to interplanetary voyages, for which spacecraft need to reach escape velocity. Early Russian space vehicles successfully achieved very high altitudes without going into orbit. In its early Apollo mission planning NASA considered using a direct ascent to the moon, but abandoned that idea later due to weight considerations. Many robotic space probes to the outer planets use direct ascent -- they do not orbit the earth before departing.

However, plans for future human spaceflight often include final vehicle assembly in Earth orbit, such as the America's Project Orion and Russia's Kliper/Parom tandom.

Other ways of reaching space
Main article: Non-rocket spacelaunch

Many ways other than rockets to reach space have been proposed. Ideas such as the Space Elevator, while elegant are currently infeasible; whereas electromagnetic launchers such as launch loops have no known show stoppers. Other ideas include rocket assisted jet planes such as Skylon or the trickier scramjets. Gun launch has been proposed for cargo.

Launch pads and spaceports, takeoff

Saturn V on the launch pad before the launch of Apollo 4
Main article: Launch pad

A launch pad is a fixed structure designed to dispatch airborne vehicles. It generally consists of a launch tower and flame trench. It is surrounded by equipment used to erect, fuel, and maintain launch vehicles. A spaceport, by way of contrast, is designed to facilitate winged launch vehicles and uses a long runway. Both spaceport and launch pads are situated well away from human habitation for noise and safety reasons.

A launch is often restricted to certain launch windows. These windows depend upon the position of celestial bodies and orbits relative to the launch site. The biggest influence is often the rotation of the Earth itself. Once launched, orbits are normally located within relatively constant flat planes at a fixed angle to the axis of the Earth, and the Earth rotates within this orbit.

Reentry and landing/splashdown

Main article: Atmospheric reentry

Vehicles in orbit have large amounts of kinetic energy. This energy must be discarded if the vehicle is to land safely without vaporizing in the atmosphere. Typically this process requires special methods to protect against aerodynamic heating. The theory behind reentry is due to Harry Julian Allen. Based on this theory, reentry vehicles present blunt shapes to the atmosphere for reentry. Blunt shapes mean that less than 1% of the kinetic energy ends up as heat that reaches the vehicle and the heat energy instead ends up in the atmosphere.

Recovery of Discoverer 14 return capsule
Main article: Splashdown (spacecraft landing)

The Mercury, Gemini, and Apollo capsules all landed in the sea. These capsules were designed to land at relatively slow speeds. Russian capsules for Soyuz make use of braking rockets as were designed to touch down on land. The Space Shuttle glides into a touchdown at high speed.


After a successful landing the spacecraft, its occupants, and cargo can be recovered. In some cases, recovery has occurred before landing: while a spacecraft is still descending on its parachute, it can be snagged by a specially designed aircraft. This was the technique used to recover the film canisters from the Corona spy satellites.

Expendable launch systems

Main article: Expendable launch system

All current spaceflight except NASA's Space Shuttle and the SpaceX Falcon 1 use multi-stage expendable launch systems to reach space.

Reusable launch systems

The Space Shuttle Columbia seconds after engine ignition
Main article: Reusable launch system

The first reusable spacecraft, the X-15, was air-launched on a suborbital trajectory on July 19, 1963. The first partially reusable orbital spacecraft, the Space Shuttle, was launched by the USA on the 20th anniversary of Yuri Gagarin's flight, on April 12, 1981. During the Shuttle era, six orbiters were built, all of which have flown in the atmosphere and five of which have flown in space. The Enterprise was used only for approach and landing tests, launching from the back of a Boeing 747 and gliding to deadstick landings at Edwards AFB, California. The first Space Shuttle to fly into space was the Columbia, followed by the Challenger, Discovery, Atlantis, and Endeavour. The Endeavour was built to replace the Challenger when it was lost in January 1986. The Columbia broke up during reentry in February 2003.

The first (and so far only) automatic partially reusable spacecraft was the Buran (Snowstorm), launched by the USSR on November 15, 1988, although it made only one flight. This spaceplane was designed for a crew and strongly resembled the U. S. Space Shuttle, although its drop-off boosters used liquid propellants and its main engines were located at the base of what would be the external tank in the American Shuttle. Lack of funding, complicated by the dissolution of the USSR, prevented any further flights of Buran.

Per the Vision for Space Exploration, the Space Shuttle is due to be retired in 2010 due mainly to its old age and high cost of the program reaching over a billion dollars per flight. The Shuttle's human transport role is to be replaced by the partially reusable Crew Exploration Vehicle (CEV) no later than 2014. The Shuttle's heavy cargo transport role is to be replaced by expendable rockets such as the Evolved Expendable Launch Vehicle (EELV) or a Shuttle Derived Launch Vehicle.

Scaled Composites SpaceShipOne was a reusable suborbital spaceplane that carried pilots Mike Melvill and Brian Binnie on consecutive flights in 2004 to win the Ansari X Prize. The Spaceship Company will build its successor SpaceShipTwo. A fleet of SpaceShipTwos operated by Virgin Galactic should begin reusable private spaceflight carrying paying passengers in 2008 .

Space disasters

Main article: Space disasters

All launch vehicles contain a huge amount of energy that is needed for some part of it to reach orbit. There is therefore some risk that this energy can be released prematurely and suddenly, with significant effects. When a Delta II rocket exploded 13 seconds after launch on January 17, 1997, there were reports of store windows 10 miles (16 km) away being broken by the blast.[2]

In addition, once in space, while space is a fairly predictable environment, there are risks of accidental depressurisation, and the potential for failure of equipment that is often very newly developed.

Space weather

Main article: Space weather

Space weather is the concept of changing environmental conditions in outer space. It is distinct from the concept of weather within a planetary atmosphere, and deals with phenomena involving ambient plasma, magnetic fields, radiation and other matter in space (generally close to Earth but also in interplanetary, and occasionally interstellar space). "Space weather describes the conditions in space that affect Earth and its technological systems. Our space weather is a consequence of the behavior of the sun, the nature of Earth's magnetic field, and our location in the solar system." [3]

Space weather exerts a profound influence in several areas related to space exploration and development. Changing geomagnetic conditions can induce changes in atmospheric density causing the rapid degradation of spacecraft altitude in Low Earth orbit. Geomagnetic storms due to increased solar activity can potentially blind sensors aboard spacecraft, or interfere with on-board electronics. An understanding of space environmental conditions is also important in designing shielding and life support systems for manned spacecraft.

Environmental considerations

Rockets as a class are not inherently grossly polluting. However, some rockets use toxic propellants, and most vehicles use propellants that are not carbon neutral. Many solid rockets have chlorine in the form of perchlorate or other chemicals, and this can cause temporary local holes in the ozone layer. Re-entering spacecraft generate nitrates which also can temporarily impact the ozone layer. Most rockets are made of metals that can have an environmental impact during their construction.

In addition to the atmospheric effects there are effects on the near-Earth space environment. There is the possibility that orbit could become inaccessible for generations due to exponentially increasing space debris caused by spalling of satellites and vehicles (Kessler syndrome). Many launched vehicles today are therefore designed to be re-entered after use.


The Apollo Lunar Module on the lunar surface
Main article: Spacecraft

Spacecraft are vehicles capable of controlling their trajectory through space.

The first 'true spacecraft' is sometimes said to be Apollo Lunar Module,[4] since this was the only manned vehicle to have been designed for, and operated only in space; and is notable for its non aerodynamic shape.

Human spaceflight

Main article: Human spaceflight

The first human spaceflight was Vostok 1 on April 12, 1961, on which cosmonaut Yuri Gagarin of the USSR made one orbit around the Earth. In official Soviet documents, there is no mention of the fact that Gagarin parachuted the final seven miles.[5] The international rules for aviation records stated that "The pilot remains in his craft from launch to landing". This rule, if applied, would have "disqualified" Gagarins space-flight. Currently the only spacecraft regularly used for human spaceflight are Russian Soyuz spacecraft and the U.S. Space Shuttle fleet. Each of those space programs have used other spacecraft in the past. Recently, the Shenzhou spacecraft has been used twice for human spaceflight, as has SpaceshipOne.


Astronauts on the ISS in weightless conditions. Michael Foale can be seen exercising in the foreground.
Main article: Weightlessness

Long term zero gravity exposure causes multiple health issues; most significantly bone loss, some of which is permanent, but also significant deconditioning of muscular and cardiovascular tissues.

Short term zero gravity causes space adaptation syndrome, a self-limiting nausea due to lack of gravity causing derangement of the vestibular system.


Once above the atmosphere, radiation due to the Van Allen belts, solar radiation and cosmic radiation issues occur and increase.

Life support

Main article: Life support system

In human spaceflight, the life support system is a group of devices that allow a human being to survive in outer space. NASA often uses the phrase Environmental Control and Life Support System or the acronym ECLSS when describing these systems for its human spaceflight missions.[6] The life support system may supply: air, water and food. It must also maintain the correct body temperature, an acceptable pressure on the body and deal with the body's waste products. Shielding against harmful external influences such as radiation and micro-meteorites may also be necessary. Components of the life support system are life-critical, and are designed and constructed using safety engineering techniques.

Interplanetary spaceflight

An artist's imaginative impression of a vehicle entering a wormhole for interstellar travel
Main article: Space probe
See also: Interplanetary travel

Interplanetary travel is travel between planets within a single planetary system. In practice, the use of the term is confined to travel between the planets of the Solar System.

Interstellar spaceflight

Main article: Interstellar travel

Five spacecraft are currently leaving the Solar System on escape trajectories. The one farthest from the Sun is Voyager 1, which is more than 100 AU distant and is moving at 3.6 AU per year.[7] In comparison Proxima Centauri, the closest star other than the Sun, is 267,000 AU distant. It will take Voyager 1 over 74,000 years to reach this distance. Vehicle designs using nuclear pulse propulsion might be able to reach the nearest star in a few decades however.[citation needed]

Intergalactic spaceflight

Main article: Intergalactic travel

Intergalactic travel involves spaceflight between galaxies, and is considered much more technologically demanding than even interstellar travel and, by modern engineering terms, is considered pure science fiction.


Main article: Astrodynamics

Astrodynamics is the study of spacecraft trajectories, particularly as they relate to gravitational and propulsion effects. Astrodynamics allows for a spacecraft to arrive at its destination at the correct time without excessive propellant use.

Spacecraft propulsion

Main article: Spacecraft propulsion

Spacecraft today predominantly use rockets for propulsion, but other propulsion techniques such as ion drives are becoming more common, particularly for unmanned vehicles, and this can significantly reduce the vehicle's mass and increase its delta-v.

Costs, market and uses of spaceflight

Current spaceflights are frequently, but not invariably paid for by governments; but there are strong launch markets such as satellite television that is purely commercial, although the launchers themselves are often at least partly funded by governments.

Uses for spaceflight include:

There is growing interest in spacecraft and flights paid for by commercial companies and even private individuals. It is thought that some of the high cost of access to space is due to governmental inefficiencies; and certainly the costs of the governmental paperwork surrounding NASA is legendary. If a commercial company were able to be more efficient, costs could come down significantly. Space launch vehicles such as Falcon I have been wholly developed with private finance, and the quoted costs for launch are lower.

Lists of spaceflights

v • d • eSpaceflight lists and timelines General spaceflight All spaceflights(records) · Space exploration(milestones 1957–1969) · Rocket and missile technology · Human spaceflightGeneral Crewed spacecraft · Spaceflights(by program · Soviet/Russian) · Mercury · Gemini · ApolloMirExpeditions · Visiting spacecraft and crews · SpacewalksISSExpeditions · Spaceflights (manned · unmanned) · Visitors · SpacewalksShuttleMissions(timeline) · CrewsPeople By name · By nationality(timeline) · Astronauts (by name · by selection · Apollo)EVASpacewalks and moonwalks · Cumulative spacewalk records Solar System exploration Timeline · Probes (by status · timeline) · Interplanetary flights · Landings on other planets (objects left) · Objects at Lagrangian points Earth-orbiting satellites Earth observation satellites (timeline) · Communications satellite firsts · Cosmos · Geosynchronous · Magnetospheric Vehicles Spacecraft (uncrewed · crewed) · Launch vehicles · Rockets Launches by rocket type Atlas V · Delta II · Delta IV · Long March · Proton · R-7 · V-2 tests Agencies, companies, facilities Space agencies · Private spaceflight companies · Largest fixed satellite operators · Spacecraft manufacturers · Spaceports Other mission lists and timelines NASA missions · Constellation missions · Cosmos satellites · Space Race · First orbital launches

See also

External links


  1. ^ Escape Velocity of Earth
  2. ^ Unmanned rocket explodes after liftoff. CNN.
  3. ^ Space Weather: A Research Perspective, National Academy of Science, 1997
  4. ^ Apollo Expeditions to the Moon: Chapter 10
  5. ^ Vostok 1
  6. ^ Breathing Easy on the Space Station. NASA.
  7. ^ Spacecraft escaping the Solar System. Heavens-Above GmbH.
Categories: SpaceflightHidden categories: All articles with unsourced statements | Articles with unsourced statements since May 2007

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