As you may be aware, the Shuttle has hung up its boots. The final flight has been completed and the venerable old thing has been retired. You could argue it’s done well for something designed in the 1970s (its roots go back to designs from the 50s and 60s), which had its maiden flight in 1981. Two catastrophic failures in 135 flights isn’t bad. The problem with the Shuttle was that it never really delivered the project goals. It wasn’t really reusable (the external tank wasn’t), it took a long time to turnaround and it was expensive to run. And so the US moves into the era of commercial space flight, where NASA will procure launch vehicles from private contractors. Probably not a bad thing. Certainly it was long overdue for a replacement, just look how far the rest of the world has moved on since it was introduced (the IBM PC, running DOS, was also launched in 1981).
The problem with spaceflight is price. Only governments have been able to afford it thus far, and only a few of those. The US was able to justify it when the cold war was in full swing, but science isn’t enough when you’re trillions of dollars in debt. The Chinese and the Indians are on the way though, so although the Russians no longer pose a threat and have largely fallen by the wayside (making a good business out of commercial spaceflight, ironically), the US still has some impetus to keep one foot in the heavens, even if the bold talk of a moon base and Mars has now been dropped.
Moving to the private sector isn’t a bad thing, more companies are entering the space market to provide cheaper launch vehicles for satellites and are starting to drive the cost down. Many of the rockets being developed to put something into orbit can be adapted to do the same for manned flights. It may even mean more nations are able to enter space and the International Space Station (ISS) may actually start to live up to its name. It’s still going to be massively expensive though. It’s also unlikely any of the private projects will be capable of a moon shot any time soon.
At the moment there are few benefits from going into space, outside science anyway, it doesn’t return revenue. For companies, the money comes from someone paying for a launch using your platform. To drive a space industry there needs to be a reason to develop reusable, reliable, cheap launch vehicles.
Space tourism (or personal spaceflight, as some prefer to call it) is already a sector making money. So far it has been limited to a few ultra-rich people, but the likes of Virgin Galactic have shown there is demand for more widespread space travel (over 400 people have put down $20,000 deposits for $200,000 seats on their planned sub-orbital flights). We’re still in the early-adopter phase and $200,000 is way out of most people’s price range, but it shows the desire is there. The flights are only sub-orbital, not really space travel, but the price is a vast improvement on the $20 million Mark Shuttleworth paid for his trip to the ISS.
The real change will come with spaceplanes, aircraft which can take off and land from a conventional runway, completely reusable, just need to be refuelled and relaunched. There are plenty of companies working on these, but none appear close to building a working plane any time soon even though there are potentially massive financial rewards for not only spaceflight, but also launching satellites and trans-global flights.
At the moment the options are for fleeting visits to near-space, but some companies have already started to plan (and some have even launched prototypes) for larger scale space tourism, with space habitats offering hotel accommodation in zero-gravity. The vehicles being developed to service the ISS for NASA could happily offer trips to such stations. Even existing spacecraft like the Soyuz and ATV could service this requirement. Longer-term these could even lead to lunar habits, although Mars is another huge step altogether. None of them were designed with mass manufacture in mind though, so I suspect we’ll be looking at a new wave of craft to turn these into proper commercial flights.
Another benefit of having more orbital habitats would be the option to put industry in space. Most spacecraft designed to travel outside low Earth orbit operate a multi-stage to orbit approach, with a vast rocket to get them into space, while the main craft is much smaller and relies on much smaller propulsion. Being able to build these in space would make the process must less risky and could mean much larger craft are possible (at the moment, any craft is limited by what the largest rocket can carry). It could also open up options for things like repair and recycling of existing satellites.
Another use is materials manufacturing. Space offers a unique environment which will lead to the development of unique materials that can only be produced in space as well as higher quality versions of existing chemicals and materials. Better quality crystals can be produced, for example, the vacuum also enables defect-free materials, the temperature means materials can be produced close to absolute zero.
Energy generation is another possibility, hosting vast solar arrays, gravity generators or some other method could generate massive amounts of power which could be transmitted back to Earth for use.
We’re currently in the middle of a resources land grab. The oil is going to run out and countries are making big plays to secure coal, gas, iron and other resources wherever they can. When we’re all squabbling over the scraps that remain, being able to mine an asteroid suddenly looks promising, with even a small one providing vast amounts of material. Even the moon may provide resources which could be harvested.
Capturing, extracting and returning them to Earth would be no mean feat, but much of it could be done remotely. A captured asteroid could serve many purposes as well, not just as a source of materials, but it could also be turned into a habitat or play host to a solar array.
We’re still at a very early stage of space exploration and development. The problem is, unless we’re careful, it may just stagnate and fail. Left alone we’ll simply send up the occasional mission, maybe the odd astronaut to check the ISS is still running, but even it has a shelf-life. Newer nations like the Chinese and Indians may reinvigorate the sector and the entrance of the private sector will hopefully be a good thing. In order to expand and grow the market though, we need to start thinking beyond what we currently do in space. Opening up to the masses is one option, but other economic factors will hopefully drive the changes in technology (not to mention the glamour of space).
We last went beyond local orbit in 1972 (the final Apollo mission that landed on the moon), the better part of 40 years ago. We’re not in a position to go back any time soon, but I hope it won’t be another 40 years before we do. It took 60 years to get from the first flight of an aeroplane to something approximating the air industry we currently have, I don’t think it will take as long for space travel to do the same, but even if it’s half as long we’re still looking at 30 years.