In the 50 years since the Apollo 11 Moon landing, humans have made extraordinary progress in space exploration. But what is the next giant leap for crewed spaceflight – and could ‘space tourism’ soon become a reality?
Right now, unmanned space probes are exploring the universe far beyond our solar system, communicating with Earth from over 11 billion miles away. We have also developed technologies that allow humans to survive in space for lengthy durations, with Russian cosmonaut Valeri Polyakov holding the record for the longest single stay in space – a remarkable 437 days aboard the Mir space station.
Human or robotic space exploration?
What is the future of space exploration? The Cold War ‘Space Race’ between the USA and the Soviet Union ended in the 1970s. Today the landscape is very different, with multiple countries engaged in current and future space missions.
Both space agencies and commercial companies have a number of different objectives for the next 50 years, including:
- Automated and robotic exploration of the Solar System and beyond
- Telescopic exploration of deep space
- Development of innovative spacecraft
- Crewed spaceflight and settlements on planets
- Space tourism
- Mining of other planets.
- Back to the Moon
As the closest celestial body to Earth, missions to the Moon are seen by many scientists and engineers as an essential starting point for voyages to more distant planets. The Moon may prove useful as a space station or testing ground for humans to learn how to replenish supplies, before looking to settle on distant planets such as Mars.
In September 2019 Elon Musk revealed a prototype of his Starship rocket, claiming it would be ready to take off in one to two months, reaching 19,800 meters before returning to Earth.
Organizations both public and private are looking to develop more sustainable ways of building and launching spacecraft for future missions, in order to overcome the major obstacle in space exploration: the astronomical costs involved.
One example of these innovations is the development of a new space capsule called Orion, managed by both NASA and the European Space Agency. The flexibility of the vehicle is designed to take astronauts to and from the International Space Station and also enable repeat landings on the Moon’s surface. The Orion spacecraft was first launched in an uncrewed flight in December 2014, and it is intended to be the craft used during the Artemis missions to the Moon scheduled from 2020.
As machines become severally capable of independently performing tasks, many organizations are looking to prioritize robotic over human spaceflight. These machines are designed for specific tasks and can withstand the extreme conditions of space.
NASA’s Mars Curiosity Rover is a prime example of this. Launched on 26 November 2011, the robotic vehicle landed on the surface of Mars on 5 August 2012 and has been exploring the Martian landscape ever since. It even has its own Twitter account, keeping millions of followers up to date with its latest scientific observations.
In the last decade, companies such as Virgin Galactic, Airbus, and Blue Origin have begun developing commercial spacecraft to send private customers into space. Currently, businesses are taking reservations for trips into the upper atmosphere, where patrons can experience zero-gravity and observe Earth’s curvature. NASA has also announced plans to allow private individuals to visit the International Space Station, with the first flights scheduled for 2020.