Foust Forward | The perils of prediction in spaceflight
The end of the year, and especially the end of a decade, prompts reflections on what’s taken place over the last 12 or 120 months. But it’s also an opportunity to look ahead and try to predict what will happen in the year or decade to come.
Such predictions are fraught with uncertainty, though, especially in space. Ten years ago one might have foreseen SpaceX’s Falcon 9 — which at the time had yet to launch — becoming one of the world’s leading launch vehicles, although few people outside the company would have imagined that the company would have made the landing and reuse of the rocket’s first stage routine by the end of the 2010s.
On the other hand, at the beginning of the decade space tourism appeared to be on the cusp of becoming routine, thanks to the regular series of the tourists flying to the International Space Station and Virgin Galactic getting close to flying SpaceShipTwo. By the end of the decade, though, no tourists flew in space, on either suborbital or orbital missions, as some companies struggled and others went out of business.
While specific predictions are difficult, it’s more feasible to examine what some of the key spaceflight issues will be in the coming decade, regardless of how they develop. First and foremost is NASA’s plan to return humans to the moon by 2024. The agency has made the Artemis program its top priority to not just get humans back to the moon but to also establish a sustainable exploration infrastructure to enable missions there through the 2020s and beyond.
However, Artemis is almost certain to experience technical and financial challenges, as it has already: SLS, after all, is already more than two years behind schedule, and the final fiscal year 2020 appropriations bill fell short of the funding NASA sought for lunar landers. If Artemis does founder on those challenges, or is simply canceled by a new administration with new priorities, it seems unlikely humans will walk on the moon in the 2020s unless their spacesuits have Blue Origin or SpaceX patches, or a Chinese flag.
Commercial space will also be at the forefront of spaceflight in the 2020s. Nearly a quarter century after Peter Diamandis announced the X Prize to foster the development of suborbital vehicles to carry tourists, we will see once and for all if there is a market for suborbital space tourism. Both Blue Origin and Virgin Galactic are close to flying tourists, but even if their vehicles enter service, it’s unclear if the business case can close. An early accident could force companies out of the market, or Blue Origin in particular could simply decide to focus on other programs.
The next decade will also see whether companies can establish a firm foothold in low Earth orbit. The likely extension of the International Space Station through 2030 will give companies more time to raise money and develop commercial modules for the station or standalone commercial space stations, as well as see what the markets really are for such facilities. NASA has committed to being a customer for commercial stations, but has made clear it has no desire to be the only customer. Will there be enough interest from other countries, companies doing research, or even tourists to make such stations work?
A best-case scenario could see an expansive presence for humans in space by the end of the 2020s, from humans on the moon to commercial space stations in low Earth orbit. A worst-case scenario could lead to questions about whether human spaceflight has any future, if NASA’s lunar ambitions are thwarted and companies can’t figure out how to make money flying people to orbit or on suborbital flights. The future may be uncertain, but it’s clear the next decade will be pivotal.
Jeff Foust writes about space policy, commercial space, and related topics for SpaceNews. His Foust Forward column appears in every issue of the magazine.
This column ran in the Dec. 23, 2019 issue.