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2001 brought world's first space tourist

By
FRANK SIETZEN, UPI Science News

WASHINGTON, Dec. 28 (UPI) -- The year 2001 saw both successes and failures in the space programs of the world, with some events on Earth -- particularly project cancellations -- as significant as events in space.

Perhaps the most historic happening in 2001 was the April launch of space tourist Dennis Tito to the International Space Station. Tito, an American multimillionaire, became the first person in history to pay for a trip into space, writing a check to Russian space officials for a reported $20 million.

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Tito made his journey to the station against the strong objections of NASA administrator Daniel S. Goldin and many of the project's 16 international partners. But in the end Russia ignored the complaints and launched Tito safely to the orbiting outpost and brought him back to Earth, using a space capsule and converted ballistic missile originally created more than four decades ago in the heat of the U.S.-Soviet Cold War. At year's end a second space tourist, 28-year-old Mark Shuttleworth was in negotiations with Russia for another tourist space trip in the spring of 2002.

While NASA argued in vain against sending tourists to the space station, assembly of the orbiting base continued. Six space shuttle missions added equipment and components to the station, including the U.S. Destiny space laboratory and an airlock to support spacewalks. But the space station's most public attention came from the ground, as a $4.8 billion cost overrun on the project was revealed to the incoming Bush administration.

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To address the problem Goldin assembled an outside panel of experts to review the station's management. The group's report, released in the fall, blasted agency management of the project and called for sweeping changes -- including limiting the initial station size to three astronauts. The U.S. came under fire from Canada and the European Space Agency, who claimed the U.S. was defaulting on a pledge for a full-size seven-person station assembly.

The White House response to the report and the budget woes was to replace Goldin with former Navy Secretary and NASA budget expert Sean O'Keefe.

Fixing the space station's problems will be only one of the tasks new administrator O'Keefe will face in 2002. The space agency also canceled the X-33 and X-34 programs -- projects that were supposed to lay the scientific groundwork to build replacement vehicles for the aging space shuttles. The X-33 and X-34 were dropped in the spring of 2001 as their costs and schedules fell behind original plans. A new project to design an advanced reusable launcher, the Space Launch Initiative, got a budget boost this year from the Bush administration. But with budgets growing tighter following the September 11th attacks, it remains unclear if the advanced launcher project will be able to maintain its funding in the year ahead.

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NASA returned to success in the exploration of Mars, with the orbiting of the Mars Odyssey spacecraft. Two previous Mars flights had ended in failures.

While the civil space program saw more explorations in 2001, commercial space continued a decline that began last year.

Commercial cargo rockets flew only 59 times during the year, as compared with 86 in 2000. Three of the launches failed, including a European Ariane 5, and two U.S. failures of the small Taurus and Pegasus boosters. Commercial space satellite contracts also declined, with the U.S. share of commercial space off of its 1998 level by 75 percent, according to the Aerospace Industries Association. A cooling market for satellite services and tougher export requirements were blamed for the losses. The trend is expected to continue in 2002.

Experts say the rocket industry contains excess capacity, but that fact didn't stop two new countries from entering the commercial space race in 2001. India successfully launched its new GSLV space booster in April, followed by Japan's H-IIA commercial rocket, which made its successful maiden blastoff in August.

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