A space systems designer should be aware of existing projects and programs in order to avoid duplication of effort, know the current state of the art, serve as a baseline technical level to improve upon, and as a comparison point to justify the need for new projects. Projects and programs can be categorized by type of funding - government, commercial, or not-for-profit sectors; time - past, current, and proposed future; and by type of project - science and exploration, communications, tourism, mining, etc. There is significant overlap and interaction between the various sectors and projects. For example, government programs procure equipment and services from commercial entities, and contribute funding to not-for-profit programs. Another overlap is that launch vehicle programs provide transportation for different payload projects.

Wikipedia has extensive article lists for Spaceflight in general (see also the Category, Portal, and WikiProject links on that page), more specific Lists and Timelines, and categorized Spaceflight Navigation Boxes (used in articles to link to related articles). These can be used to get general background on the various projects and programs. According to the UCS Satellite Database, as of August, 2015, there were an estimated 1305 operational spacecraft in Earth orbit. There are also approximately 20 active Solar System Probes beyond Earth orbit, and 6 spacecraft at Sun-Earth Lagrangian Points. The latter does not include the many natural object at various Lagrangian Points. In addition to active spacecraft, there is a large amount of human-made Space Debris, nearly all in Earth orbit. They can be considered either a hazard or a resource. Finally there are all the natural objects of the Solar System, which can be considered as destinations for exploration, resources to be used, or hazards to be dealt with, such as radiation belts and sources.

As of 2015, there are seventy civilian Government Space Agencies which pursue their own space projects and programs, or participate in some way. There are also a number of military programs and projects, but due to secrecy, their number and activities are less certain. The following sections cover some of the more important programs, but are not exhaustive. It mainly lists those that are directly related to space. Other fields, for example Materials Science, can develop new structural alloys that can be used in space, but that is not the field's main goal. For the many such fields, which are less directly related to space, we will not list them here. If you need information about these subjects, there are many online, library, and academic sources which can be used as starting points to research them. The other fields are important, however, in that general improvements in science and technology affect what you can do for space projects.

Government Programs - International


We will start with the major national and international agencies outside the United States, approximately in order of annual budgets. It is approximate because currency exchange rates fluctuate, and so do agency budgets in terms of their own currency.

The European Space Agency (ESA) is an intergovenmental organization of 22 member nations. It's budget in 2015 was 4.43 billion EUR, or $5.15 billion dollars. It was established in 1975, and operates a spaceport in French Guiana, designs launch vehicles, a number of independent spacecraft, and participates in international projects and programs. The spaceport is located outside Europe for safety and launch performance reasons. Member nations typically split their space program funding between ESA and domestic projects.



Roscosmos State Corporation is the current space science and aerospace agency for Russia. It's budget in 2015 was 186.5 billion RUB, or $2.4 to 3.7 billion in dollar terms. The dollar number is variable because of severe exchange rate fluctuations. Prior to the dissolution of the Soviet Union, the Soviet Space Program had a long history starting in the 1930's, with notable theoretical work starting before that. The program had many notable firsts and continues today in areas like participating in the International Space Station (ISS). During the Soviet era, military and civilian space activities were not separated, and were very secretive.



The Japan Aerospace Exploration Agency is the national aerospace agency for Japan. It's budget in 2013 was 211 billion JPY, or $2.0 billion dollars. It has built a number of space science missions, and participated in international projects like the ISS.

Government Programs - United States


The US government is a major funding source and operator of space projects. The funding ultimately originates from the nation as a whole through taxation. Funds are appropriated annually through the US Congress to several Executive branch agencies. Activities of the US government in general are covered through by the annual Aeronautics and Space Report of the President, issued annually. Budget figures in that document may not include classified military programs, so we can say the government total is $30 billion or more.



The National Aeronautics and Space Administration, or NASA, is the primary civilian space agency of the US government. It was originally created in 1958, and currently is authorized under Title 51--National and Commercial Space Programs (Public Law 111-314, 18 Dec 2010). Funding is appropriated annually by the US Congress to operate NASA. For 2016 it is contained in H.R. 2029 at pages 74-77. NASA is headquartered in Washington, D.C. and currently has 17,345 staff and a number of Centers and Facilities. A large part of its approximately $19.3 billion annual budget is spent on contracted work. Wikipedia has an extensive List of NASA Program Articles, and the NASA Missions Page lists past, current, and future missions.

Past Projects


When the United States decided to create NASA as a civilian agency in 1958, it inherited facilities and staff from the Department of Defense and the previously existing National Advisory Committee for Aeronautics, which dates back to 1915. The agency's History Office published a self-history covering 1915-1990. It was originally in paper form as NASA special publication SP-4406, then online as Orders of Magnitude, and also available as a PDF file. Numerous other history publications have been produced by this office. Care should be taken to recognize bias in any internally written history, but factual data is likely to be correct.

Current Projects


The Current and Recent Budgets page provides data on recent and current activities from a financial standpoint. The 2017 Complete Budget Estimates from that page, and similar ones for past years under the "Previous Years' Budgets" section, also provide detailed descriptions of on-going projects.

NASA operates under three main mission directorates. The Aeronautics Research Directorate operates a number test facilities and research projects. Some of these have application to space launch. The Science Mission Directorate manages numerous projects and missions related to Earth science, heliophysics (the Sun and space environment), planetary science, and astrophysics. Finally the Human Exploration and Operations Directorate develops and operates the very well known manned programs, and less well known science and technology projects related to human exploration. The division of funding (in US dollars/year) in 2016 and major projects include:

Scientific Research ($5.59 billion)

NASA Science programs include Earth Science, Planetary Science, Astrophysics, and Heliophysics project divisions, and also satellite work NASA performs for other government agencies (NOAA and USGS). The science and technical parameters of astronomy and planetary science projects funded by NASA are listed below under not-for-profit programs for several reasons. The scientists who are the end users of the data generated are often at universities and other not-for-profit institutions, the terrestrial projects often have multiple funding sources, and programs in the sciences are better understood as a whole rather than divided by funding agency. The budget and organizational details are noted in this section.

Earth Science - This division is directed at studying the Earth, but the spacecraft hardware and instruments are often similar to what is needed at other locations. In addition to the specific projects noted below, the division funds data archiving, organization, and delivery, advanced technology development, and application of the data to human needs.

  • Earth Science Research - Scientific research aimed at understanding the Earth, its components, interactions, changes, and how these affect life. It includes a substantial effort at high performance computing for modeling and analyzing the large volume of data generated by satellites and other instruments.
  • Earth Systematic Missions - This is a collection of Earth-observing research satellite missions which collect different types of data on the Earth as a whole. Some of the projects are jointly between NASA and other US agencies, or other national agencies. New satellites include Surface Water and Ocean Topography and NASA-ISRO Synthetic Aperture Radar. It also includes operating numerous current satellites and instruments, and scientific analysis of the collected data.
  • Earth System Science Pathfinder - These are small to medium projects and satellites aimed at collecting Earth data, using new and emerging priorities and technology.
  • Venture Class Missions - This includes suborbital, small missions, and instruments for earth science investigations.

Planetary Science - This division is directed at studying the content, origin, evolution, and potential for life of our Solar System and planetary systems beyond our Sun. To get better data than observing from a distance (i.e. astronomy) it has a progressive strategy of flyby, orbiting, landing, roving, and sample return for each object. Generally astronomy is how original detection of new objects occurs, although the Near Earth Object Program within this division is directed to find close and possibly hazardous objects down to 140 meters in size. It funds general science research and technology development projects, plus specific groups of spacecraft and missions noted below.

  • Discovery Program - This includes relatively smaller missions with shorter development times. It includes the Dawn spacecraft studying Ceres, InSight Mars lander, and Lunar Reconnaissance Orbiter mission.
  • New Frontiers - This includes medium size, high priority science missions, including the New Horizons Pluto flyby, Juno Jupiter orbiter, and OSIRIS-REx NEO sample return missions.
  • Mars Exploration - This program seeks to understand the past, present, and future habitability of Mars through a series of incremental missions. It includes continuing operation of the Mars Odyssey and Mars Reconnaissance orbiters, MAVEN atmosphere sampler, and Opportunity and Curiosity surface rovers. In development is the Mars 2020 Rover.
  • Outer Planets and Ocean Worlds - This program is aimed at understanding the origin and evolution of the outer solar system. It includes the current Cassini mission to Saturn, development of the Europa Mission to study that moon of Jupiter, scientific research, and planning for future missions.
  • Technology - This program develops improved technology for future planetary missions. It currently includes projects in electric propulsion, radioisotope generators, and mission management software.

Astrophysics - The areas of research for this division include the Universe as a whole, the evolution of galaxies, stars, and planets, and the characteristics, habitability, and presence of life on extrasolar planets. It funds general research and data analysis from NASA missions, as well as specific programs as follows:

  • Cosmic Origins - This program investigates the evolution of the Universe and its components. Major projects include the Hubble Space Telescope, SOFIA airborne telescope, and Spitzer infrared telescope.
  • Physics of the Cosmos - Investigates how the universe behaves under extreme conditions. It supports two operating missions: the Fermi gamma ray telescope and Chandra X-ray observatory, along with supporting science and technology work.
  • Exoplanet Exploration - Searches for and tries to characterize planets outside our solar system. Much of this research happens with ground-based telescopes such as Keck and LBT, but this program includes the Kepler space telescope, which is a dedicated planet finding mission. Work on the WFIRST large space telescope is in the early stages. The program includes science and technology development for future instruments and missions.
  • Astrophysics Explorer - This program funds smaller, dedicated science missions. Current projects include the TESS exoplanet survey telescope, participation in international projects, and continued operation of some previous missions.

James Webb Space Telescope - This is a 6.5 meter diameter red to infrared space telescope, the largest of its kind to date. It is currently planned to launch in October 2021. The extreme cost of this project ($10 billion total) has generated congressional scrutiny and separate budget tracking from the rest of the Astrophysics science budget.

Heliophysics - This division studies the Sun, the space environment between bodies, and that surrounding planets. Like the other science divisions, it funds topical science research, data analysis and archiving, and more specific programs noted below. Sub-orbital launches and continuing operation of previously launched satellites are also funded by this division. This includes the two Voyager spacecraft, which have completed their planetary science work and are now primarily collecting data on the space environment.

  • Living with a Star - Studies the interaction of the Sun and Earth and its effects on life and society. Current projects include the Solar Probe Plus which will fly very close to the Sun, and the joint Solar Orbiter mission with ESA.
  • Solar Terrestrial Probes - Studies the plasma environment between the Sun, Earth, and solar system. Projects include the four Magnetospheric MultiScale spacecraft, and continuing operation of other missions.
  • Heliophysics Explorers - Includes small to medium targeted science missions. It includes the ICON ionospheric explorer, and operation of a number of previous missions.

Aeronautics Research ($640 million)

The NASA Aeronautics Research Directorate works to improve aviation and high speed flight. Entry, descent, and landing through an atmosphere from space is studied elsewhere under Space Technology. In addition to general management, innovation, and education activity, specific programs include:

  • Airspace Operations and Safety - Performs research and development to increase the throughput, efficiency, and safety of the National Airspace System.
  • Advanced Air Vehicles - Performs research for new generations of civil aircraft, including supersonic and hypersonic technology. Note that the US Department of Defense does similar work for military purposes.
  • Integrated Aviation Systems - Focuses on experimental flight research using integrated systems, flight test ranges, and aircraft. This complements high performance computing for analysis and simulation, and physical testing in wind tunnels and propulsion test facilities. Testing is coordinated with the DOD, who have similar facilities and test needs.
  • Transformative Aero Concepts - Solicits and works on multi-disciplinary and revolutionary ideas, from original concepts through small scale ground and flight testing. It also advances computational and experimental tools and technologies.

Space Technology ($686 million)

This category funds space technology development from very early concepts to flight demonstration, after which it would be incorporated into operational programs. It is managed by the Office of Chief Technologist (OCT). The actual work is done within NASA centers, and the commercial and not-for-profit sectors. The OCT develops roadmaps to plan their work, which were reviewed in a 2012 Report by the independent National Academies, and guides funding plans. In addition to fostering technology transfer across NASA programs, and externally across other agencies and society in general, specific programs include:

  • Small Business and Technology Transfer Program - These are competitively awarded contracts to small (<500 employee) business for innovative technology. They progress from initial merit and feasibility through commercialization.
  • Early Stage Portfolio - Invests in about 400 basic and applied research and early technology development activities. This includes external research grants and innovative concepts, internal innovation at NASA centers, and Centennial Challenge prize competitions.
  • Game Changing Development - Matures technologies from early stages to flight demonstration. It includes hardware topics like robotics, manufacturing, and materials. It also includes mission topics like entry, descent and landing; future propulsion and power, and destination systems and instruments.
  • Technology Demonstration Missions - Demonstrate readiness for operational use using prototypes and demonstration units in the relevant space environments. Current examples include satellite servicing, deep space optical communications and atomic clock, non-toxic propellants for small thrusters, solar-electric propulsion, supersonic decelerators, composite materials, long-term cryogenics, in-space robotic manufacturing and assembly, and small spacecraft technology.

Human Exploration ($4.03 billion)

This budget account is focused on human exploration beyond low Earth orbit and transport to the existing International Space Station (ISS). The program is based on goals in the NASA Authorization Act of 2010.

Exploration Systems Development - About three quarters of exploration funding goes to three major programs under this heading:

  • Orion Multi Purpose Crew Vehicle - This is a modular launch abort system, crew capsule, and service module designed for long duration deep space missions. It is currently in development by Lockheed Martin Corporation for NASA, and had an early flight test in 2014. and uncrewed launch on the SLS in Nov 2018.
  • Space Launch System (SLS) - This is a heavy-lift rocket for launching payloads beyond low Earth orbit. The initial design uses used Space Shuttle program SSME (RS-25) engines and modified Shuttle Solid Rocket Boosters for the lower stage, and RL10 second stage engines. Contractors include Boeing, Aerojet Rocketdyne, and Orbital ATK. First launch is planned for Nov 2018.
  • Exploration Ground Systems - Provides funding for the SLS specific parts of the launch site at the Kennedy Space Center. This work is in parallel with SLS development.

Human Research Program - Conducts research and develops technologies that allow humans to travel safely and productively in the environment of space. It was allocated $142 million funding in 2015.

Advanced Exploration Systems - Funds high priority projects for future human missions. Areas of work include life support, deep space habitation, advanced propulsion, landing systems, and resource prospecting and processing. They were allocated $189 million funding in 2015, but this is expected to significantly increase in coming years.

Space Operations ($5.03 billion)

This part of the budget includes operating the International Space Station, the space communications network, and launch and test operations on Earth.

International Space Station (ISS) - As the name indicates, this is an international program. This program covers the NASA funded portion, which amounted to $1.52 billion in 2015. The program is expected to continue through fiscal year 2022. One domestic purpose of the ISS is to promote commercial research and transportation in Earth orbit. Tasks within the program include:

  • ISS Systems Operations and Maintenance - Responsible for assembling, operating, and maintaining the ISS with an onboard crew of 6. This includes mission planning, ground monitoring and communications, spares and logistics, crew training, mission integration (allocating all orbital resources), handling system failures, and safety and mission assurance.
  • ISS Research - Funds biological and physical research which benefits from the orbital environment. Major areas of research include human microgravity effects, plant and microbiology, fluid, thermal, and particle physics, combustion, and materials processing. It is also a platform for Earth and space observation, although not unique in this aspect. The ISS is also being used as a demonstration platform for robotics, life support, and fire safety technology. The US portion of the Station has been designated the ISS National Laboratory.

Space Transportation - This program provides current and future transportation to Earth orbit of astronauts, science experiments, supplies, maintenance hardware, propellants, and return of wastes. The current destination is the ISS. Funding was $2.25 billion in 2015.

  • ISS Crew and Cargo Transportation - Purchases commercial transportation to the ISS from Orbital ATK, SpaceX, Sierra Nevada, Boeing, and Roscosmos. Note that other ISS partners provide their own transportation and payloads.
  • Commercial Crew Program - Supports development of commercial US crew transport by Boeing and SpaceX. Flights are expected to start in 2017.

Space and Flight Support - This includes other operational activities, including the communications network, launch services, propulsion testing, and human space flight.

  • Space Communications and Navigation - Operates the communications network and navigation services for all NASA spacecraft. It includes the Deep Space Network for long range communication, NASA-owned Tracking and Data Relay Satellites in synchronous orbit, and development of future laser communications for higher data rates.
  • Human Space Flight Operations - Provides astronaut crew training, and health and safety monitoring.
  • Launch Services - Manages the Expendable Launch Vehicle program. Actual cost of individual rockets is included under the project or mission that requires them, while contracting, and launch site operations are funded here.
  • Rocket Propulsion Test - Operates four rocket engine test facilities.

Support Activities ($2.87 billion)

This portion of the NASA budget covers general staff and support not tied to a particular program or project. It includes public education activities, agency staff, facilities construction and maintenance, and inspector general.

Education - Interacts with all levels of education institutions, museums, and science centers to promote interest and programs in science, technology, engineering, and mathematics.

Safety, Security, and Mission Services - Operates NASA centers and headquarters, including 17,300 agency staff and IT.

Construction - Includes new construction, demolition, environmental compliance, and repair of existing buildings and other facilities.

Future Projects


The 2014 NASA Strategic Plan provides a general description of their planned future objectives. These include:

Expand the frontiers of knowledge, capability, and opportunity in space:

  • Expand human presence into the Solar System, and to the surface of Mars.
  • Conduct research on the International Space Station.
  • Employ U.S. commercial capabilities to deliver cargo and crew to space.
  • Understand the Sun and its interactions with Earth and the Solar System.
  • Ascertain the content, origin, and evolution of the Solar System, and the potential for life elsewhere.
  • Discover how the universe works, explore how it began and evolved, and search for life on planets around other stars.
  • Mature crosscutting and innovative space technologies.

Understand the Earth, and develop technologies to improve life on our home planet

  • Advance aeronautics research for safe and sustainable aviation.
  • Advance knowledge of Earth as a system.
  • Optimize technology investments, open innovation, and infuse technology for national benefit.
  • Advance STEM education and workforce pipeline.

Manage the agency's people, technical capabilities, and infrastructure.

This includes attracting a skilled workforce, innovative work environment, and necessary facilities, tools, IT, services, and capabilities. It also includes maintaining safety

A general set of objectives is not the same as what will actually or likely get funded and built. Better detail for the next five years can be found in annual budget requests, such as the one for Fiscal Year 2017. The duration of current and upcoming projects often runs longer than the 5 year budgeting horizon. So individual agency offices and projects usually have plans and schedules which run somewhat longer. NASA's funding is on an annual basis, and therefore unpredictable to some degree. The nature of research and technology development, which involves finding out new things, is also unpredictable. Therefore detailed long range planning does not make sense. Instead, long range goals and directions are set, with detailed plans made approximately 5 years ahead. Additionally, concrete plans for future projects would immediately raise funding issues with the US Congress, who would have to approve the money for those projects.