The recent loss of the Space Shuttle Columbia is forcing NASA to rethink its manned space program. Future government payloads and NASA missions could rely more on unmanned commercial launch vehicles.
It seems that successful launch vehicles never die, and they don't fade away either. Take the current Russian Soyuz rockets, for example. They're direct descendants of the Semyorka, which put Sputnik in orbit in 1957. By 1960, Semyorka had acquired a third stage for putting heavier payloads into orbit and a larger faring for carrying bulkier satellites and spacecraft. About that time, it was also renamed the Vostok. Adding yet another stage and more thrust to the Vostok created the Molnya in 1961, which the Soviets used for interplanetary launches. By 1963, Soviet engineers had optimized Molnya for lunar missions and putting objects in Earth orbit, and renamed it Soyuz.
Today, after more than 40 years, the Soyuz is still around. It has been used on more than 1,100 manned and unmanned flights, racking up a success rating of 98.2%. At their space-faring peak, Soviets were able to build more than 60 Soyuz launchers per year and send them into space from one of six launch pads -- two at Baikonur and four at Plesetsk. They've been used to put satellites in orbit, as well as servicing the Mir and International Space Stations.
Boeing's Delta family of launchers also has roots stretching back to the mid-1950s. The first Delta rocket was based on the Thor intermediate-range missile. The Delta's first mission was to carry the Echo 1A satellite into space in August 1960. The satellite, little more than a metal balloon, let NASA experiment with bouncing communication signals off objects in space, a precursor to today's satellite communication networks.
Over the years, the Delta spawned the Delta II, III, and IV, with capacities that range from putting 100-lb payloads into low-Earth orbits (LEO), to putting several payloads totaling 50,800 lb into different LEOs, or 28,900 lb into a geosynchronous transfer orbit (GTO). (LEO is between 230 and 1,240 miles above the Earth's surface; GTO is 22,236 miles high).
There was a slight hitch in the Delta's evolution between 1981 and 1989. During those years, NASA demanded that all its satellite launches would use the new Space Shuttle, thereby shutting down the Delta assembly line after 24 years. The line was restarted in 1986 when President Reagan decided the Shuttle would no longer carry commercial payloads.
The relative new kid on the block when it comes to building rockets is the Launch Vehicle Division of the European Aeronautic Defence and Space Co. (EADS). It got its start in 1973 when the 11 countries in the European Space Agency decided to develop their own space programs and industries. France provided 63% of the total funding.
The Ariane 1 first flew successfully from Kourou, French Guiana, in December 1979. Today, the Ariane 4 has captured about 60% of the commercial launch market. EADS is also the largest stakeholder in Starsem, a consortium of companies and Russian entities that manufacture, update, and commercialize Soyuz rocket launchers.
One successful launcher that never spawned any direct spin-offs was the Saturn V built by The Boeing Co. and Douglas Aircraft Co. When completed and loaded for an Apollo moon mission, it stood 364-ft tall, weighed 6.1 million lb, and generated 7.5 million lb of thrust. That was enough to take a 285,000-lb payload into orbit, or a 107,000-lb load all the way to the moon.
The first stage of the three-stage launcher used turbopumps to force 15 tons of fuel per second into its five rocket engines. The program to design the Saturn V began in 1961, its first flight was in 1967, and it took men to the moon by 1969.
However, NASA abandoned plans for manned interplanetary flight in 1973, dooming the Saturn V to an unnaturally short life. The Saturn V flew for the last time in 1973, ferrying Skylab into orbit. Fifteen Saturn Vs were built, and thirteen flew missions. The last two are now static displays at NASA museums in Cape Canaveral and Huntsville, Ala. A third was cobbled together from test components and placed on display at NASA's Houston facility.