How Many Countries Have Space Programs?

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A Brief History

On February 24, 2007, Japan launched a spy satellite into orbit, presumably to help keep track of threats to Japan from their neighbors China and North Korea.  Maybe Russia, too.  Since the United States and the Soviet Union engaged in the “Space Race” in the late 1950’s and 1960’s, several other nations have joined the club of nations with the ability to launch rockets into outer space.  Used for weather monitoring, Earth mapping, Global Positioning Systems (GPS), research, communications (radio, telephone, television, digital), exploring other planets and even beyond, and spying on other countries, space programs have many applications.  The spying done by satellites comes in many forms, such as visual/optic, infrared, communications/signal gathering, and radiation detecting.

Digging Deeper

Of course, the sinister application is using space technology to deliver weapons against other countries or even the space craft of other countries.  Any country that can put a satellite in orbit also has the capability to drop a weapon anywhere on the Earth, with the implication that any country capable of manufacturing a nuclear weapon and that also has the ability to launch an object of the weight of that nuclear weapon can also drop a nuke anywhere in the world.  Most of the nations of the Earth have agreed to keep space weapon free, with such measures as the United Nations Committee on the Peaceful Uses of Outer Space and various treaties, but loopholes and willful ignoring of agreements threaten to make space a combat arena anyway.  President Trump has expressed his intention of establishing “Space Force” to militarize the American space program.  So what countries have developed a space program?

Having been born before any country had ever launched an object into space, it astounds this author that 72 nations today have a “space program,” and 14 countries have the ability to launch an object into space.  Only 6 of those countries have a truly substantial space program, capable of launching and recovering people and or satellites into and from space and operate spacecraft.

Soviet Union/Russia.

The Hall of Space Technology in the Tsiolkovsky State Museum of the History of Cosmonautics, Kaluga, Russia. The exhibition includes the models and replicas of the following Russian/Soviet inventions: the first satellite, Sputnik 1 (a ball under the ceiling); the first spacesuits (lower-left corner); the first human spaceflight module, the Vostok 3KA (center); the first Molniya-type satellite (upper right corner); the first space rover, Lunokhod 1 (lower right); the first space station, Salyut 1 (left); the first modular space station, Mir (upper left).  Photograph by Vladimir Birukov.

In 1957 the USSR humiliated the United States by becoming the first country to launch a satellite into outer space when they launched Sputnik 1 into orbit around the Earth, followed soon after by a dog, named Laika, which became the first live Earth animal to orbit the Earth in space.  The USSR continued its space dominance by fielding the very first Intercontinental Ballistic Missile (ICBM) in 1959, terrifying the Americans.  The next major coup for the Soviet space program in 1961, was the launching of a human being into space in orbit around the Earth and returning that person, Cosmonaut Yuri Gagarin, safely to Earth.  In 1963, the Soviets claimed another space first by rocketing a female cosmonaut, Valentina Tereshkova, into space to become the world’s first space woman.  The Soviets and then the Russians continued a vigorous space program, especially in regards to developing spy satellites and space stations, which continues today.

United States.

William H. Pickering, (center) JPL Director, President John F. Kennedy, (right). NASA Administrator James E. Webb (background) discussing the Mariner program, with a model presented.

After an embarrassing start to the Space Race, the US achieved the Grand Prize (so far) of space accomplishments by landing men on the Moon and safely returning them to the Earth, starting in 1969.  The US and Russia have joined in numerous cooperative efforts since, including the International Space Station.  The American Space Shuttle program was once a shining jewel in the American space program   but was marred by 2 infamous fatal accidents.  After a hiatus from actually launching our own payloads after the Space Shuttle program was retired, the US is set to start launching its own rockets once again.  The American national space program, called NASA, is being supplemented by private space exploration and adventure firms that promise civilian trips into space.  Working on plans to get humans to Mars is a major goal, while researching asteroids, other planets, and life in space aboard the International Space Station remain ongoing projects.  Probes sent beyond our solar system also remain on the agenda.


The Chang’e 5-T1 test vehicle service module took this photo of Earth and the Moon together on November 9, 2014

China was interested in developing ICBM’s as early as the 1950’s, but did not keep pace with the US and USSR in the Space Race.  By 2003, China had made tremendous strides in closing the space technology gap and joined the club for launching humans into space.  Their space agency, the China National Space Administration (CNSA), plans on sending manned missions to the Moon and establishing their own space stations within the next few years.  They have also landed an unmanned probe on the “dark side” of the moon.  The Chinese plan to carry out manned missions to Mars between 2040 and 2060.

European Space Agency.

ESA Headquarters in Paris, France.  Photograph by ESA, M. Trovatello.

The ESA is a consortium of 22 European countries, headquartered in Paris, France, and united to pool their resources to conduct the exploration and exploitation of space.  The ESA has no overtly military aspects, as do the other national space programs, and claims to seek the development of space technology for peaceful and commercial goals.  Included among their activities (according to the ESA) are: Observing the Earth, Human Spaceflight, Launchers, Navigation, Space Science,  Space Engineering & Technology, Operations, Telecommunications & Integrated Applications,  Preparing for the Future and Space for Climate.  Not surprisingly they are also closely involved in the International Space Station.  France is the largest financial contributor (28% of the budget) and Germany is the second largest contributor (22% of the budget).  Canada and Slovenia are sort of junior members of the organization as well.


Comparison of Indian carrier rockets by GW_Simulations.  Left to right: SLV, ASLV, PSLV, GSLV, GSLV Mk.III

The Indian Space Research Organisation (ISRO) is the replacement (1969) for the Indian National Committee for Space Research (INCOSPAR) that was formed in 1962.  India launched their first satellite in 1975, but only by having a Soviet launch vehicle (rocket) do the lifting.  By 1980, India had developed their own launch system capability and performed their first domestic space launch.  India now has a thriving space program that includes communication and navigation satellites, research missions to Mars and in 2017 made space flight history by launching a rocket that delivered a staggering 100 satellites into space on one single launch!  In fact, they have developed the ability to launch a 4 ton heavy satellite, making them a serious contender in the world of lifting heavy objects into space.  On their agenda is developing a manned space program and developing reusable rockets and systems.


JAXA Kibo, the largest module of the ISS.  Image by Penyulap.

Like many other countries, Japan became interested in the science of rocketry and the possibility of going into outer space during the 1950’s.  By the 1960’s, Japan had a pair of space agencies, the Institute of Space and Astronautical Science (ISAS) and the National Space Development Agency of Japan (NASDA), working on the technology of exploring and exploiting space.  A third Japanese space agency was formed, called National Aerospace Laboratory of Japan (NAL), but between the 3 success remained elusive until all the agencies were combined into a single Japanese space agency called the Japan Aerospace Exploration Agency (JAXA) in 2003.  Finally experiencing consistent success in the 21st Century, the Japanese space program is aimed at developing commercial applications and a strong emphasis on military security (spy) satellites due to their proximity to North Korea, China, and Russia.

Questions for Students (and others): Do you believe people should spend billions of dollars to explore space?  Should people try to travel to Mars?  Do you believe other countries will respect the peaceful use of space?

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Historical Evidence

For more information, please see…

Davenport, Christian. The Space Barons: Elon Musk, Jeff Bezos, and the Quest to Colonize the Cosmos. PublicAffairs, 2018.

[AMAZONPRODUCTS asin=”1610398297″]

Launius, Roger. The Smithsonian History of Space Exploration: From the Ancient World to the Extraterrestrial Future. Smithsonian Books, 2018.

[AMAZONPRODUCTS asin=”1588346374″]

Motes, Andrew. Space Flight for Beginners.  AM Photonics, 2015.


Neufeld, Michael. Spaceflight: A Concise History.  The MIT Press, 2018.

[AMAZONPRODUCTS asin=”0262536331″]

The featured image in this article, the complete list of U.S. Reconeissance Satellite from 1960 to current days by Giuseppe De Chiara 1968, is licensed under the Creative Commons Attribution-Share Alike 3.0 Unported license.


About Author

Major Dan

Major Dan is a retired veteran of the United States Marine Corps. He served during the Cold War and has traveled to many countries around the world. Prior to his military service, he graduated from Cleveland State University, having majored in sociology. Following his military service, he worked as a police officer eventually earning the rank of captain prior to his retirement.