Happy Fourth of July, everyone! I have a special post for y’all, in the patriotic spirit of this great holiday. Right now, we’re at a critical juncture in space history—any month now, we’re supposed to see SLS and Starship take flight, after many years of waiting—and it’s clear that there’s a different energy in the air. NASA acts with renewed strength. The private space sector delivers tangible accomplishments. Things are happening again, and they seem to be accelerating at a rapid pace. My goal in this post, then, is to lay out my predictions for the future of human spaceflight in the United States. I’ll discuss the doldrums of the 2010s, and how we’re now escaping them; I’ll assess prospects for manned flights to the Moon and Mars; I’ll conclude by demonstrating that public opinion, and the international situation, bode well for continued US leadership beyond our planet. Now, I am well aware that these sorts of predictions usually age like milk. But if speculation about the future was good enough for Arthur C. Clarke, it’s good enough for me—so bear with me, then, as I gaze into the crystal ball, and make the case for an imminent renaissance in American space travel.
The Dark Age
I was twelve years old when the last Space Shuttle flew. I vaguely remember watching the orbiter Atlantis skid down the runway at KSC, bringing an end to thirty years and one hundred thirty-five missions, but the overall significance escaped me at the time. I knew the Space Shuttle had no immediate replacement; I had no way of knowing, though, that the next flight of American astronauts from American soil would take place in May 2020, while I was a junior in college. For just shy of nine years, the United States could not place its citizens in orbit without paying the Russians1 for a ride.
What happened during the interlude? Well, there were some considerable triumphs in robotic exploration—the groundbreaking Curiosity rover landed in 2012, and New Horizons captivated the world with images of Pluto in summer 2015—but crewed spaceflight was pretty much stuck in the doldrums. One of President Obama’s first moves in space policy was to terminate the struggling Constellation program, which had been the Bush-era initiative to return astronauts to the Moon; of the key pieces of Constellation hardware, the Orion crew capsule actually survived the cancellation, and the heavy-lift Ares V rocket morphed into the Space Launch System, but for the time being, NASA had no clear purpose.
What gradually emerged in the 2010s was a plan for NASA to prepare for a human Mars mission, to be undertaken sometime in the 2030s. If that sounds vague and noncommittal, that’s because it was. With Mars far in the future, beyond any near-term capabilities, and with a Moon landing off the table, NASA was left with the unenviable task of finding random busywork to do in Earth orbit. The pinnacle of this listlessness was the Asteroid Redirect Mission; contrary to the name, this mission would have seen NASA redirect not an asteroid, but a twenty-ton boulder plucked from an asteroid, to be delivered by solar-electric tug to a high lunar orbit. A crewed visit was to follow in the late 2020s. Astronauts would have flown out aboard SLS/Orion, docked with the tug vehicle, and then poked around for a bit.
Frankly, the whole scheme was a gigantic farce. It combined Rube Goldbergian complexity with almost nonexistent scientific value. Even at the time2, I considered it a singularly uninspiring goal. For the first deep-space expedition since Apollo, the showpiece mission for an entire decade, our astronauts were going to explore… a boulder. But there was little else NASA could do; they couldn’t cancel SLS and Orion—there were too many jobs at stake—but they didn’t have the funds or the impetus to really utilize them, either, so we got a wheel-spinning, manifestly lackluster program that checked the minimum number of boxes.
That was the state of the American space program, for most of the past decade. But the late 2010s saw two key changes that propelled the nation into its current renaissance. The first was a major realignment in NASA’s priorities, announced by President Trump in December 2017; the administration scrapped the Obama-era plan, including the Asteroid Redirect Mission, and created a new initiative, called Artemis, which targeted a return of astronauts to the lunar surface as early as 2024. You can check out a previous post of mine for an in-depth look at Artemis; its importance, in terms of providing an inspiring near-term goal towards which tangible progress is possible, cannot be understated.
The second change was the growth of the private spaceflight sector. While it hasn’t been without false starts—a certain wildly unrealistic Mars mission springs to mind—the American space industry, led by Elon Musk’s SpaceX, has made spectacular strides since the end of the Space Shuttle era, bringing us reusable rockets, space tourism, and the surreal sight of a mannequin hurtling away from Earth in a Tesla Roadster. Most of this success is due to the companies’ own initiative and efforts; some, however, is the result of astute government investment, with NASA’s Commercial Crew Program—the best thing President Obama did for manned spaceflight—promoting the development of private vehicles to ferry astronauts to the International Space Station. The idea was that commercial spacecraft could perform the low-orbit role faster and at considerably lower cost, while NASA concentrated on deep-space exploration.
Two companies won bids for Commercial Crew funding. One was the insurgent upstart SpaceX, with the revolutionary Crew Dragon capsule, and the other was Boeing, with the more conventional Starliner. While the plan was for regular ISS flights to start in 2017, their road to the stars did not prove so easy; both companies suffered serious delays over the years, caused in part by serious mishaps during testing, and success has come only in the early 2020s. Boeing docked an uncrewed Starliner capsule to the ISS this past May, with a crewed mission expected before the end of the year. As for SpaceX…
SpaceX has been absolutely killing it. In May 2020, NASA astronauts Douglas Hurley and Robert Behnken rocketed into orbit atop a Falcon 9 booster, in a wildly successful mission that saw Crew Dragon cleared for routine piloted flights; at the time of writing, there have been six more Crew Dragon launches. The latest, SpaceX Crew-4, carrying NASA astronauts Kjell Lingren, Bob Hines, and Jessica Watkins, and ESA astronaut Samantha Cristoforetti, is docked to the ISS at this very moment.
Just in the last two years, we went from having no ability to put American astronauts in space, to frequent and inexpensive flights aboard reusable SpaceX rockets. Boeing will soon join SpaceX with its own capsule, able to carry a whopping seven crewmembers. Simultaneously, the Orion capsule is about to make its first flight aboard SLS, and NASA is ramping up for a return to the Moon—things are, indeed, more exciting than they’ve been in a long while.
I’ve discussed the recent past, and the present. I’ll now turn my attention to the future—where are we headed? Within, say, the next two decades—looking out to 2042—what is achievable? Quite a lot, I would argue. Let’s start with our cosmic backyard, and take a peek at developments in Earth’s orbit.
When I was a kid, I read about how space travel would one day be as cheap as buying a plane ticket on Earth. There were to be hotels in orbit, and tours to Moon bases, and even people living full-time beyond our planet. The illustration reproduced above promised this glorious future as soon as 2020; surprisingly, I don’t think it was all that far off. We’ve already begun a boom in space tourism. For just one example, see the Inspiration4 mission last year, which was funded by billionaire Jared Isaacman and carried a crew of private citizens on a three-day orbital flight. There is a plan for an honest-to-God space hotel by 2025. And already, a Japanese businessman has contracted with SpaceX to fly around the Moon.
As far as economics goes, the stars really do align for a bustle of tourist activity in LEO. We now have the technology and infrastructure to reach orbit at a fraction of past costs, and plenty of rich people can be counted on to put down money for the adventure of a lifetime—there are profits to be made here. Now, do I think space tourism is particularly useful or glamorous? Not really. What’s heroic is exploring strange new worlds, not spending a million dollars on a joyride past the Kármán line. Nevertheless, humanity’s expansion into space needs any financial incentive it can get.
The big enabling factor for orbital tourism, and really everything else we do in space, will be the further reduction of launch costs. Already, SpaceX’s reusable Falcon 9 has paid off with prices lower than anyone else in the industry; compared to an average per-kilogram cost of $18,500 between 1970 and 2000, and a staggering $54,500 for the Space Shuttle, SpaceX can manage as low as $2,7203. Starship will likely slash costs even more, by sheer economy of scale. It combines the reusability of Falcon 9 with truly immense size. And when competitors enter the market for reusable rockets—Blue Origin has one in development, called New Glenn—things will get really exciting.
Admittedly, orbital flight won’t be as cheap as air travel for a long time to come. We’d need to have some kind of infrastructure in place to remove rocketry from the equation altogether—something like skyhooks or an orbital ring, as my friend Eamon has written about at length for this blog. But even with only a several-fold reduction in launch costs, stunning possibilities open up.
Looking forward to 2042, I anticipate a hectic economy in low Earth orbit, led by the American private spaceflight sector, focusing largely on tourism and scientific research. There will be a lot of money in rotating space hotels, frequented by the super-rich and even the moderately rich. Nevertheless, governments and research organizations will still play a major role. The largest station to date, the ISS, has been up for two decades, and is confirmed to continue through 2030, but it can’t stay up forever; it may make sense for NASA to start contracting for orbital lab space, in addition to rockets. There will also be plenty of small countries who’ll be happy to put their citizens in orbit for bargain prices. Imagine a large private station, constructed out of inflatable habitats, housing hundreds of people at a time. A range of modules would meet the varied needs of tourists, private researchers, and astronauts from nations around the world. By 2042, we could easily have multiple such stations circling the Earth. With launch costs kept low by fleets of reusable boosters, orbital space would be a boom town, frequented by thousands every year—and that’s not even getting into destinations further afield.
The Moon and Mars
We have two realistic near-term shots at putting American boots on other worlds. One is NASA’s Artemis program, which targets a landing at the lunar south pole in 2025; the other is, of course, Elon Musk’s scheme for the human settlement of Mars. In a sense, these two projects overlap, because NASA has selected a version of SpaceX’s Starship to use as a lander for Artemis. If Starship succeeds on Mars, it’s likely that a Moon landing will take place, too, even if NASA suffers setbacks with SLS/Orion. Conversely, were Starship to fail for some reason—suppose Elon Musk went bankrupt—Artemis would be delayed several years, and a human mission to Mars would be pushed even further down the line, with colonization essentially off the table. So the projects are intertwined; in our current age, it is difficult to cleanly separate private ventures from public ones.
Call me an optimist, but at this point, Artemis has a good chance of success. It has come a lot further than its predecessor, Project Constellation; the Space Launch System, which was vaporware for so many years, is now fully assembled, and NASA has shown a willingness to be pragmatic, outsourcing more and more work to private contractors for the sake of getting things done—see the SpaceX lander, or the new spacesuits they’re purchasing for use on the Moon. It’s looking increasingly likely that we’ll overcome the necessary hurdles and eventually restore some kind of human presence on the Moon. That does not, however, mean that the 2025 target date is realistic—for NASA to meet that deadline, it would have to suddenly become a model of efficiency and fast-paced innovation, which hasn’t exactly been its track record so far. 2028 is a considerably more reasonable goal for the first landing. Even then, there will probably be long gaps between Artemis flights, and it will take time to ramp up surface operations.
Let’s fast forward to 2042, as we did with Earth orbit. What does the Moon look like? Some kind of permanent base is likely, probably at the south pole, where water ice is abundant and there are areas of near-constant sunlight4. The purpose of the base would be scientific, but it would also present an opportunity for commercial mining. Water ice can be turned into fuel for rockets and oxygen for life support, while aluminum, which is abundant in the regolith, could provide construction material for various deep-space projects. Building or fueling something with lunar resources will be much cheaper in the long run than hauling everything out of Earth’s deep gravity well. Companies would have an incentive to set up shop there, and harvest materials for NASA or other private entities. One often-talked-about lunar resource, helium-3, would not be part of this extraction process—while there’s more of it on the Moon than on Earth, it still isn’t very abundant there (50 parts per billion, tops), and in any case we’re unlikely to have much demand for fusion fuel by the 2040s.
Twenty years from now, a decent-sized public-private outpost is well within the realm of possibility. Whereas LEO holds several hundred to a thousand people in this scenario, let’s say that this American lunar base is host to a few dozen, with regular flights rotating people in and out. It would be rather like a tour in Antarctica; the journey there would be measured in days, and astronauts would be able to return to Earth at any time. Permanent habitation will come much later, if ever—the Moon’s not really that practical or desirable a place to live—but we will at least see a lunar exploration program far more comprehensive and sustainable than the old Apollo model.
Now—on to Mars. This one is a tougher call. I’ve previously discussed my misgivings about Elon Musk’s plan to put a million people there within this century. Mars presents immense technical and operational challenges for any human presence, let alone a new, self-sustaining branch of human civilization. In contrast to the Moon, I think there’s a large chance that we will hit the year 2042 without a manned mission, either by NASA or SpaceX. The success of Starship as an orbital booster or Moon lander does not automatically translate to success as an interplanetary colonial transport. Now, Starship may do very well in that role, and perhaps Elon will even hit his current goal of boots on Mars by 2029, but the risks are enormous. Is an aggressive timeline feasible? Will it lead to a triumphant landing before this decade is out, or a ship’s worth of dead astronauts? It’s impossible to say.
In all likelihood, Mars will remain the domain of probes and rovers for a while longer. When humans do arrive, probably in the middle of the 2030s—and, indeed, probably aboard a SpaceX Starship—it will not be to stay, but to establish a scientific presence. The most plausible vision for Mars in 2042 is similar to what I outlined for the Moon: a NASA research outpost, with a few dozen crew shuttled in and out by Starship flights. Instead of months-long shifts days from home, astronauts would work on Mars for years at a time and endure six-month flights each way. It would be lonely work, exploring the red sands of a barren world, but the scientific payoff would more than justify the expense—the base would allow for detailed study of Martian geology, climate, and paleobiology, with on-site researchers far outperforming today’s remote-controlled rovers. And when we do finally go to Mars as colonists, we will be able to draw on years of experience living and working there.
As they say, slow and steady wins the race. America is in every position to put a human presence on the Moon and Mars, provided we’re realistic about our goals.
The Will to Explore
This is where I’ll get a bit less specific, and focus more on… vibes, I suppose. I can’t find much recent polling on the public’s view of space travel, probably because the pollsters have their work cut out for them with vastly more contentious topics. Nevertheless, I believe there are observable trends that should be talked about.
First, space generates a lot of buzz. When the helicopter Ingenuity took flight on Mars, the internet absolutely fawned over it. Even my mom thought it was pretty cool. Likewise with the Inspiration4 mission, or the end of Cassini’s mission out at Saturn—events in space still generate widespread interest on Earth. Granted, there’s definitely some pushback, too, but it’s mostly against the likes of Musk and Bezos, and focuses more on capitalism than on space travel per se. While you’ll always have the hippie types who think our species is a scourge that should never escape Earth, they are far outside the mainstream.
Artemis, in particular, is present and well-advertised, in a way the Constellation program never was. When it was still active, around 2010, I only ever saw signs of it on Wikipedia and in a few museum exhibits—otherwise, there was little coverage, and no enthusiasm. Artemis may not be at the top of many people’s minds, but it’s at least there. It hovers in the background as a titanic force, an aspiration, rumbling along towards a glorious achievement for the country.
The political will is there, too. NASA still enjoys strong bipartisan support, reflected in a budget that has substantially increased over the past few years. Contrast $23 billion in 2020 with a low of $19.6 billion in 2013 (adjusted for inflation). It’s not enough to reach the Moon by 2024, but it’s a solid start. And when President Biden assumed power, he did a very wise thing—he continued his predecessor’s space policy. Artemis passed without a hitch between two very different administrations, and is now reaping the rewards.
There remains the question of competition. Sure, the American public and private space programs have a lot going for them, but can this country remain head and shoulders above a dynamic, rapidly changing world? My answer to that question is yes—with a caveat.
Now, there are many space agencies out there, capable of doing amazing things. India and the United Arab Emirates recently stunned the world with low-cost Mars probes, while ESA and the Japan Aerospace Exploration Agency (JAXA) maintain well-established, highly advanced programs. Russia, which racked up countless firsts back in the Soviet era, still retains a functional human spaceflight capability, with plans in place to replace the workhorse Soyuz with a next-generation crew capsule called Orel. But no one can challenge NASA in terms of a broad-based program. NASA’s $23 billion budget, plus billions more in military projects and the private sector, simply dwarfs any spending other nations can bring to the table. So let’s revisit that list: India and the UAE don’t yet have the resources or expertise to catch up; Japan and Europe are inclined to cooperate rather than compete, and will bring their skills to the Artemis program; and finally, Russia is a declining space power, coasting off of Soviet glory. While the Russians will continue with Soyuz, Orel, and their share of the ISS, they face economic problems that are likely to hold back their progress.
The caveat, then, is China. When it comes to space, it is the only peer competitor to the United States. Its space program—China National Space Administration5—is fairly new, but in recent years it has advanced with breathtaking speed, and demonstrated impressive technical skill. It is only the second country to safely land a rover on Mars, and it did that on the first try. It’s also the only other nation besides the US and Russia that can launch humans into orbit aboard domestic rockets. And in another feat that was hitherto exclusive to the US/Russia club, the Chinese space program is now assembling a multi-module station, called Tiangong, which when complete will be similar in size to Russia’s Mir, the predecessor to the ISS. CNSA’s budget is second to NASA’s, and rising; no other nation can simultaneously challenge the US in launch vehicles, interplanetary probes, and human spaceflight.
If the US falls too far behind on Artemis, it will be the Chinese who make the next crewed Moon landing. They have the stated intention of doing so—the very logo of their lunar program (above) contains human footprints, and in 2019 they announced the goal of constructing a research station at the lunar south pole, to be manned no later than 2029.
The good news is that we would have to drop the ball to lose this race. China isn’t immune to delays, and their optimistic goal, 2029, is still later than the most realistic American fallback goal, 2028. We still have a large advantage in funding, facilities, practical experience, and a booming private spaceflight sector. In that sense, China’s space program puts us in a very favorable position—we won’t lose if we put in the effort, but we’ll be forced to stay on our toes.
The US has come a long way since 2011. After a quiet decade, filled with false starts and unrealistic plans, the space program has sharply picked up the pace. SpaceX has slashed the cost of launches; NASA astronauts can finally reach orbit on US-built rockets, flying from American soil; as the Artemis program pushes forward, in spite of setbacks and delays, the sight of astronauts bouncing around the lunar surface no longer seems so remote. America has long led the world in space exploration. Now, thanks to hard work and some recent, stunning successes, we are positioned to push even higher.
I often have to remind myself to be optimistic. In a world that often seems uncertain and bleak, space travel is proof that greatness is still possible. These really are exciting times, brimming with novelty, and sparkling with the promise of more glorious successes to come. Why, though, does space travel so capture the imagination? It’s a wondrous thing, on its own merits. But for America it is also an opportunity. By exploring beyond Earth, and soaring towards the cosmic dream, we seize the chance to discover, invent, struggle, achieve—and, perhaps, renew ourselves.
Thanks for joining me for today’s long post. I appreciate your taking the time to read it all, and I hope I was able to inspire some optimism. Next week’s entry will be a shorter piece on planetary science; in the meantime, I hope you all have a wonderful Fourth of July!
- Given current geopolitics, we should be very glad we’re no longer dependent on Russia for human spaceflight.
- Though it did lead to a pretty cool expansion pack for Kerbal Space Program, which added asteroids, grabbing claws, and giant SLS-inspired rocket parts to the game. So it wasn’t a total loss!
- Per this article, from 2019. Current costs may be even lower.
- This is important because the Moon has a rather long day—about a month in duration, identical to its orbit around the Earth—which entails periods of sunlight and darkness for two weeks each. A solar-powered base would have trouble supplying energy during the long night, so there’s an incentive to set up shop near certain peaks at the poles, which receive sunlight almost constantly.
- Note that China’s manned spaceflight efforts technically fall under a different organization, the China Manned Space Agency.