As the Space Shuttle program draws to a close, media outlets and enthusiasts are mourning what some see as the decline of the National Aeronautics and Space Administration and America’s manned space exploration program. Thousands are being laid off at NASA and affiliate suppliers, and it seems destined that the USA will surrender its leading role at the cutting age of science and technology. Don’t be so sure.
The future of manned space travel hasn’t yet come into sharp focus – but activity in the private sector increasingly suggests that while NASA’s manned space program may be winding down for the foreseeable future, private visionaries may be ushering a new Space Age that will rapidly expand human presence in space beyond anything that might now seem plausible.
The most well-known commercial space program at the moment is Richard Branson’s Virgin Galactic. Within the next few years, Virgin ferry passengers into space for a short ($200,000) ride. True, it will be a plaything for the very wealthy – but the success of this program, and the pioneering technology that’s making it happen, will also serve as a proof-of-concept demonstration that could encourage a renaissance of interest and investment in the commercial development of space. Branson’s stated dream is to bring space to all.
Increasingly affordable access to space will finally make feasible the heady fantasy of Stanley Kubrick’s 1968 epic, 2001: A Space Odyssey – including the rotating space station and it’s Hilton Hotel and commercial airline access. What seemed like a silly fantasy just a few years ago may be closer to reality than we think. Even individual entrepreneurs will have the opportunity to travel into orbit to develop and test technologies that will further space-based technology.
Will science be shunted aside with the commercialization of space? Low cost access to space means that the cost of exploration will allow many more scientists and explorers to venture into space than was ever possible during the Space Shuttle era. Just as Earth-bound exploration is often funded by foundations, non-profits, commercial and government partnerships, the same will evolve beyond earth. NASA, and it’s affiliated Jet Propulsion Laboratory, will benefit from this ease of access, and enter an age when some of the grand dreams of the space program will finally become a reality.
As a small boy, I had to opportunity to see the Apollo 11 astronauts land on the moon. I watched the spectacular images of 2001 and saw them not simply as science fiction, but as a sacred prediction of our inevitable future.
While our dreams may have been delayed, they may very well become reality – sooner than we think.