Op-ed | Envisioning the next 50 years in space
Fifty years ago, the Apollo 11 moon landing changed how the world viewed space exploration. For the millions of people who watched Neil Armstrong take his first step on the moon’s surface, it inspired new horizons for the human spirit and imagination and even offered the possibility of life beyond our pale blue dot.
It’s that same imagination that has led experts in the space industry to create increasingly sophisticated innovations like the International Space Station and the Mars Curiosity rover, which have led to further research and exploration in the past half-century.
Even so, since the 1969 moon landing, space exploration has largely stagnated. Humans haven’t revisited the moon since Apollo 17 in 1972 and a mere 571 people have been in Earth’s orbit.
Fortunately, a new Space Age is upon us that will rocket us past the stagnation. New technologies, decreasing costs, foreign interests and the emergence of the private sector have heralded the forthcoming of the second space race and with it a hopeful future on the horizon.
Over the next 50 years, at least a few key developments will transform our idea of space more than ever before.
PRIVATE SPACE COMPANIES DEMOCRATIZE SPACE TOURISM
Without a thriving and entrepreneurial spaceflight sector, deep-space exploration with people won’t be sustainable. The private sector for now is focusing on how to reduce costs through assembly-line production techniques, which is critical to sustainable space tourism and exploration in the future.
While space exploration was popularized by the world’s government space programs, innovative events and breakthroughs won’t come through the incremental funding of government space agencies, but instead through pioneering private space companies.
According to Scott Hubbard, a Stanford University professor who ran NASA’s Ames Research Center, 75% of the global space enterprise is already commercial, including satellites belonging to the likes of SiriusXM radio and DirecTV. It’s the human component that will take precedence in the nearest decades — first, through the likes of space tourism and observation.
Similar to the economic forces that explored the American West, they will open up space to the many, even if they start with just the few.
Virgin Galactic and Blue Origin anticipate flying their first crewed suborbital space missions in 2020 with commercial flights to follow. Many would-be passengers are lining up to pay up to $250,000 to fly Virgin Galactic’s SpaceShipTwo or Blue Origin’s New Shepard to the edge of space for an out of this world view and several minutes of weightlessness.
As private companies seek to decrease the price of suborbital flight to as little as $50,000, it will provide increased access and interest in space tourism and observation. While the private sector adjusts for cost-efficiency, a 2019 USB report expects that high-speed travel via outer space will be fully functional in a decade and represent an annual market of at least $20 billion while competing with long-distance airline flights. Space tourism, in general, will be a $3 billion market by 2030.
SETTLEMENTS IN THE COSMOS
Space settlement has been a hot topic even before robotic rovers started exploring Mars’ surface. As more people feel comfortable flying to space, an increase in space tourism will lay the foundations for people who want to start building lives there as well. However, space settlement offers major barriers including dangerous radiation, energy supply and simply getting life-sustaining supplies to these alien worlds.
However, settlements on the moon and Mars are shaping up to be a reality and not just the stuff of science fiction. NASA’s Artemis program is pushing for humanity’s return to the moon in 2024 and has already awarded contracts to Northrop Grumman for a lunar habitat, to Maxar Technologies for the lunar Gateway’s cornerstone Power and Propulsion Module and is just accepted proposals from industry for an Artemis lander it intends to contract as a service.
The European Space Agency, under the leadership of Jan Woerner, continues to push the Moon Village concept of open, collaborative exploration and utilization of the moon, is looking to this month’s ministerial conference to firm up Europe’s contribution to Artemis and the lunar Gateway.
Meanwhile, architect and design firms like Foster + Partners have unveiled plans for lunar habitats. The structures consist of modules shrouded in lunar soil that are then molded into an exterior shell to protect the dwellings from radiation, asteroid strikes and extreme temperatures.
This space architecture is also envisioned for Mars colonies, too. Both lunar and Martian habitats could feature inflatable pods that will serve as the base of these settlement while robot-operated 3D printers cement together regolith — loose soil and rocks — to form a protective shield around the pods.
Peter Diamandis, the chairman of X Prize Foundation, says that human lunar research outposts, one-way missions to Mars and the first births in space are what we can expect in the next 50 years.
While the timeline depends on the progress of space manufacturing and the ability to preserve human life on extraterrestrial planets, some experts predict that by 2061, millions of humans will have gone to space and thousands may live there.
MINING SPACE RESOURCES
Industry leaders have become more serious about mining for space resources, partially because Earth’s own resources are facing dire depletion due to climate change. Over the past several years, the U.S. Geological Survey (USGS) has experimented with how to mine space for resources.
The space-resources community is actively working with the USGS to see how they can mine minerals, water and energy from the moon, Mars and asteroids. USGS’ expertise in mapping terrestrial resources should inform further research initiatives in the next several years so that space miners can rely on much needed geological maps for precise landing sites and resource-deposit selection.
According to Lazslo Kestay, a USGS research geologist, the organization has completed enough research to feel confident that the criteria they use to assess mineral, water and energy quality on Earth can be used to assess these same resources in space. Kestay says that nearby asteroids hold enough water and metal resources to support humans if they become completely spacefaring.
Lunar ice may be one of the last resources to be mined by humans because of its cost to mine and find it, but with NASA’s follow the water mentality on Mars, it could become a reality and already companies like Blue Origin and Japan’s ispace have plans to mine for resources there, meaning past 2024 it could become a reality.
While humans likely won’t become fully spacefaring in 50 years, the amount of activity in private and public sectors will force movement in utilizing space resources to benefit space settlements and even Earth’s population.
FROM THE MOON TO MARS
Although these plans are still developing, the next 50 years of space exploration will transform global societies as humans become more active between the Red Planet, the moon and Earth. While there are many political, economic and moral considerations to achieving these goals, innovations from the most forward-thinking private and commercial NewSpace companies are necessary to revolutionize how we learn about and explore space.
While the original moon landing gave humans a giant leap of hope toward space exploration, the next half century in advancements will allow us to more deeply consider our own place in the universe and the way we interact with each other and our environment inside and outside of our home planet.
Dylan Taylor is chairman & CEO of Voyager Space Holdings, founder of the global non-profit Space for Humanity and co-founding patron of the Commercial Spaceflight Federation.
This article originally appeared in the Nov. 11, 2019 issue of SpaceNews magazine.