YEARENDER: Mars in sight at the end of a turbulent year in space
By Wolfgang Jung, Andreas Landwehr and Marco Mierke Dec 27, 2011, 10:10 GMT
Moscow/Beijing/Washington - Fifty years after the flight of the first man into space, the three major space powers - the United States, Russia and China - have entered an era in which cooperation is more important than ever.
2011 saw the US space shuttle fleet retired after three decades, as well as successes and failures for Russia and the rise of China as a new star in the heavens. Europeans also took part in the spectacular simulation Mars 500 in Moscow.
Milestones looming in 2012 include a US next-generation rover scheduled to land in August on Mars, and China starting to build its own space station. Russia remains the sole transporter of astronauts to the International Space Station, while the US will move toward planned for commercial spaceflight with firm Space X expected to make its first unmanned test flight to the ISS.
2011 began for Moscow with celebrations of the 50th anniversary of Yuri Gagarin's pioneering 1961 flight, but went downhill as a satellite was lost and a cargo rocket unexpectedly crashed.
Finally, the Phobos-Grunt Mars mission ended in failure. After 15 years of planning, Russia had hoped to begin a new era in interplanetary exploration, but the 160.6-million-dollar satellite failed to make it out of Earth orbit.
The Russian space agency Roscosmos could take some consolation from its new, higher profile role as sole provider of rides for international astronauts to the ISS on Soyuz space capsules.
Since the US spacecraft Atlantis completed the final shuttle flight in July, the United States has had no vehicle of its own to transport astronauts. Charles Bolden, head of the US space agency NASA, tried to put the best face on it, saying a great future lay ahead.
'Contrary to popular belief, this has been an incredible year for NASA,' Bolden told the US Congress in November.
In addition to completing construction on the International Space Station, plans were laid for world-changing missions, he said, with a human mission to an asteroid by 2025 and to Mars 10 years later. Both projects are enthusiastically backed by US President Barack Obama.
The largest rocket in NASA history has started to take shape, as well as a new space capsule to carry six astronauts. Unmanned test flights are to start in 2014.
But it's not certain whether NASA will get the annual 3 billion dollars in development costs. And the missions are not uncontroversial. No one at NASA knows for sure how experts can develop the complicated technology to land on an asteroid in only 14 years, the Washington Post wrote.
Nor is it clear which asteroid is even the target. NASA faces a heavy workload in 2012.
China made decisive steps in 2011 toward building its own space station, with its first experimental docking test on the orbiting Tiangong 1 (Heavens' Palace). The space station is to be finished by 2020.
China's unmanned spaceship Shenzhou 8 (Magic Ship) docked twice at Tiangong 1 in November. China cooperated with Germany in space, using a German laboratory facility Simbox on Shenzhou 8, in which the side effects of weightlessness on organisms are to be studied.
With its successful docking experience, China has joined the large space-travelling nations United States and Russia, which have commanded the technology for four decades. The world's second-largest economy has ambitious plans: If the space station is built as planned, China will be the only nation with a steadily-occupied space presence by 2020.
The young space-faring nation is building a satellite-based global navigation system and plans to send spaceships to the moon and into deep space, for which powerful rockets are being developed. Experts say that China could harvest extensive political capital out of its space programme. Domestically, the communist leadership can bask in the success of its space programme while earning strategic merits on the foreign-policy front.
Forty-two years after the first moon landing, Mars has advanced as the next goal for human space travel. There is hope that the first flight to the red planet could occur as early as the 2030s, says Johann-Dietrich Woerner, head of Germany's space programme. But such an ambitious project is only imaginable with intense international cooperation, he says.