When the Space Shuttle Atlantis made its final landing at the Kennedy Space Center in July 2011, NASA's future plans to launch astronauts were left up in the air. This, even as other countries, notably China, said they had concrete exploration plans and committed budgets.
In the original space race of the 1950s and 1960s, the Soviet Union launched the first human being, Yuri Gagarin, into orbit in 1961. The United States gradually caught up; Neil Armstrong was first to walk on the moon in 1969.
In the decades that followed, Russia concentrated on space stations while the U.S. tried to turn its space shuttle into an affordable way to launch astronauts and satellites. But after the loss of the shuttle Columbia in 2003, the U.S. decided to wind the program down.