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Space Organizations Part 2: U.S. Military, Foreign and Private - Private Space Organizations

society mars planetary project

Private space organizations advocate space travel, develop space technology, and/or engage in space-related commerce. These organizations are usually formed by scientists or hobbyists interested in particular aspects of space exploration. They have played a major role in space history by bringing together innovative people, researching and developing new technologies, and influencing government decisions on the future of spaceflight.

One of the first private space organizations was a German group called Verein für Raumschiffahrt (VfR), or Society for Spaceship Travel. The VfR was formed in July 1927 in Berlin by a group of scientists and authors interested in rocket research. In particular, they wanted to raise money to finance rocket experiments being conducted by Professor Hermann Oberth at the University of Munich. During the early 1930s the group sponsored rocket research projects around Germany. The VfR included many famous members, including Wernher von Braun. The group disbanded in 1933 as the Nazi Party gained power in Germany.

The 1930s witnessed the formation of private space organizations throughout western and eastern Europe. In the Soviet Union there was Gruppa Isutcheniya Reaktivnovo Dvisheniya (Group for Investigation of Reactive Motion). Sergei Korolëv was one of its founding members. He went on to become the chief designer of the Soviet space program. The British Interplanetary Society (BIS) was founded in October 1933. This group of scientists and intellectuals is credited with advancing many important theories used in space flight, including a design for a lunar landing vehicle that was incorporated into the Apollo Program. As of February 2004 the BIS is very active and publishes several influential journals.

American Institute of Aeronautics and Astronautics

In April 1930 a group of American scientists, engineers, and writers interested in space exploration formed the American Interplanetary Society. The founders included G. Edward Pendray (inventor of the time capsule), David Lasser (an engineer and technical writer who advocated space travel) and Laurence Manning (a science fiction writer). In 1934 the name of the group was changed to The American Rocket Society (ARS). By this time the members were predominantly rocket scientists who specialized in the research, design, and testing of liquid-fuelled rockets. The American Rocket Society featured many prominent members including Robert Goddard.

During World War II several ARS members started a company called Reaction Motors, Inc., to support the war effort. The company later developed rocket engines used in the famous X-series planes. Over the decades, the company evolved into ATK Thiokol Propulsion, the manufacturer of the space shuttle's rockets.

In 1932 a group of American aeronautical engineers and scientists formed the Institute of Aeronautical Sciences. The name was later changed to the Institute of Aerospace Sciences (IAS). Although originally focused on Earth-bound aviation, the IAS grew increasingly interested in space flight. In 1963 the IAS merged with the ARS to become the American Institute of Aeronautics and Astronautics (AIAA).

As of February 2004 the AIAA has more than 31,000 members and is the largest professional society in the world devoted to aviation and spaceflight. Its stated purpose is "to advance the arts, sciences, and technology of aeronautics and astronautics and to promote the professionalism of those engaged in these pursuits." The AIAA has published more than 350 books and 250,000 technical papers throughout its history.

The Planetary Society

The Planetary Society is a nonprofit space advocacy group based in Pasadena, California, that is funded by donations from its members. It was founded in 1980 by Carl Sagan, Bruce Murray, and Louis Friedman, all of whom had worked for the Jet Propulsion Laboratory.

Its stated purpose is to encourage solar system exploration and the search for extraterrestrial life. As of January 2004 the Society has more than 100,000 members in more than 140 countries and claims to be the largest space interest group on Earth. It operates an educational Web site at www.planetary.org.

The Planetary Society funds projects that support its goals and educate the public about space travel. It also encourages its members and the public to contact government leaders regarding space exploration projects. During the 1980s the Society waged a campaign to encourage the U.S. Congress to restore funding for NASA's Search for Extra-Terrestrial Intelligence (SETI) project. In the early 1990s the battle was over NASA's planned postponement of the Mars Observer mission. In late 2003 and early 2004 Planetary Society members sent more than 10,000 postcards to Congressional leaders to protest funding cuts for NASA's planned mission to Pluto. According to the Planetary Society, all three of these campaigns were successful in that government funding was restored to the projects.

The Planetary Society also funds space-related research, missions, and educational programs. In the early 2000s it launched an extensive project called Red Rover Goes to Mars, to coincide with NASA's Mars Exploration missions. The project included an essay contest for students that resulted in the names used for the Mars Rovers: Spirit and Opportunity. The contest was sponsored by the Planetary Society and the Lego toy company.

The two also funded creation of DVDs that were mounted to the Rovers for the missions. The DVDs were specially crafted out of silica glass (instead of plastic) and contain the names of nearly 4 million people who asked NASA to be listed. Each DVD surface features a drawing of an "astrobot" saying "Hello" to Mars. The spacecraft safely landed on Mars in January 2004. Photos transmitted to NASA by the rovers after landing showed that the DVDs survived the journey. The Rovers are designed to remain on Mars and not return to Earth.

Other components of the Red Rover Goes to Mars project included a contest in which the winning students visited mission control during the Mars missions and a classroom project in which students built models of the Mars Rover and the Martian landscape.

Other programs being funded by The Planetary Society as of January 2004 include:

  • Cosmos 1—A mission to test a solar sail in orbit around Earth. A solar sail is a novel technology that could power spaceflight in the future. It is composed of giant ultra-thin silvery blades that unfurl after launch to reflect sunlight. The electromagnetic radiation of sunlight exerts force on the objects upon which it shines. This force is fairly strong in outer space due to the absence of atmospheric friction, and it could potentially push a solar sail in much the same way that the wind pushes sailing ships on the Earth's oceans. Each blade of Cosmos 1 is 47 feet long. The sail was to be launched in 2004 by the Russian Navy. The mission is sponsored by The Planetary Society and the media company Cosmos Studios through a contract with the Russian Space Agency. It is the first space mission ever funded by a private space interest organization.
  • Mars Microphone—A project in which instruments are placed aboard spacecraft going to Mars. The first Mars Microphone traveled on NASA's Mars Polar Lander mission of 1999 and was the first privately funded instrument to fly on an American planetary mission. NASA lost contact with the spacecraft soon before it was to land on Mars. In the future the Society plans to send eight microphones aboard a European Mars mission.
  • [email protected]—A project in which private citizens can allow their home computers to be used to analyze data recorded by a giant radio telescope as part of the search for extraterrestrial intelligence (SETI). NASA operated a SETI program for a short time in the early 1990s, but it was cancelled due to lack of funding. The Planetary Society funds several SETI projects including this one conducted by the University of California at Berkeley. The data come from the Arecibo Observatory in Puerto Rico, the largest radio telescope on Earth. People can volunteer to run a special screen saver program on their personal computers that analyzes small chunks of the data and reports the results to the researchers.
  • Projects BETA and META II—These SETI projects rely on radio telescopes. Project BETA is based at Harvard University and scans the skies of the northern hemisphere. Project META II is based in Buenos Aires, Argentina, and scans the southern skies.
  • Optical SETI Projects—The Planetary Society supports four of these projects, two in Massachusetts and two in Berkeley, California. The projects rely on a specially built optical telescope that searches for brief pulses of light.
  • Gene Shoemaker Near Earth Objects Grants—These grants fund studies of natural space objects (such as asteroids) that could potentially threaten Earth with impact.

Off-Beat Space Organizations

Off-beat means eccentric or non-conventional. Off-beat space organizations are not focused on the traditional scientific and technological goals of rocket societies and professional groups, but rather on more imaginative pursuits. One of the most famous is the Artemis Society International (ASI). In Greek mythology Artemis was Apollo's twin sister. The ASI advocates private space-flights to the moon using the motto "12 men have walked on the Moon. When do you get to go?"

Under its Artemis Project the ASI plans to establish a permanent self-supporting community on the moon. This will be accomplished via a process called moon mining in which oxygen and other resources will be extracted from beneath the lunar surface. The ASI claims to have many commercial and industrial clients interested in their mining venture. Private citizens who want to join the Artemis Project pay to become members of the Moon Society. Membership benefits include a subscription to the ASI publication Moon Miners' Manifesto and the opportunity to invest in lunar mining companies.

The ASI works closely with two other space organizations called the National Space Society and the Lunar Reclamation Society (LRS). These groups also advocate private space travel and colonization of the Moon. The LRS plans to use resources mined from the Moon to solve some of Earth's environmental and energy problems. The National Space Society claims to have more than 25,000 members worldwide.

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