The Soviet Union's launch in May of a powerful new unmanned rocket stunned the American space community, which is still reeling from the loss of the space shuttle Challenger in the 1986 catastrophe that has all but grounded U.S. space exploration.
Press reports touted the ability of the Soviet rocket, Energia—the world's most powerful—to lift cargoes four times the weight the American shuttle could carry. The Soviets announced that the rocket will be able to lift into orbit a manned space shuttle they have developed—previously considered a uniquely American achievement. The rocket might also permit them to send crews to Mars or to place a manned space station into orbit, piece by piece, for a potential steppingstone to Mars.
Meanwhile, U.S. scientists and communications companies are chafing at the dim prospects for launching any satellites at home for several years. In the aftermath of the Challenger explosion. U.S. space advocates and experts have been forced into an era of introspection. The accident halted America's primary civilian space vehicle, the space shuttle, until June 1988 at the earliest, when a severely limited number of flights is tentatively scheduled to resume. Now, as America contemplates the next leg of its space program—construction of a manned space station—the shortcomings of the shuttle program and recent Soviet advances are looming large.