A recent series of pieces published by Forbes Magazine imagined how technological and other trends will affect life in the year 2033, 20 years hence. George Whitesides of Virgin Galactic imagined space in that not so distant year.
Space to be dominated by commercial space
Whitesides, who works for a company that proposes to launch the well heeled and adventurous into suborbital jaunts, believes that commercial space firms like Virgin Galactic will dominate space travel and not national space programs such as NASA and the European Space Agency. Indeed, he predicts that most people who travel into space in the year 2033 will be private people and not government astronauts. Whitesides believes that it is possible that spaceflight in the 21st century will be as common as air travel has been in the 20th,
Commercial space's plans to take people into space
Virgin Galactic and XCOR are companies in pursuit of creating a space tourism market by taking paying customers into sub-orbital jaunts. A company called Statolaunch Systems is developing a plane launched rocket that may, in the fullness of time, launch people as well as satellites into space.
Commercial space servicing government markets
A number of commercial space firms, such as SpaceX, Sierra Nevada, and Boeing, are developing crewed spacecraft funded largely by NASA to take crews to and from the International Space Station. It is possible that there will be private markets for such spacecraft, including space tourism flights and visits to private space stations such as the one being planned by Bigelow Aerospace, but these remain in the realm of possibilities and not firm plans.
Commercial flights to the moon
At least two companies are planning commercial flights to the moon. Space Adventures is putting together a loop around the moon on a modified Soyuz with two paying customers and a Russian cosmonaut pilot. Golden Spike has outlined a plan to land paying customers on the lunar surface.
Meanwhile, back at NASA, et al
National space agencies, such as NASA, have their own plans. NASA, in a plan laid out by President Obama, will have visited an asteroid or perhaps more than one asteroid by 2033 and would be preparing in earnest to go to Mars. China, if its plans come to fruition, will have landed people on the moon by then.
The future is uncertain
The problem with predicting the future, either for commercial space or government space programs, is that the future is uncertain. The plans of commercial space firms can be derailed by changing markets, unexpected lack of investment, and technical challenges. Past commercial space firms with much promise like Rotary Rockets and Rocketplane Kistler have come and gone. The plans of national space agencies like NASA can be changed by shifting politics. A plan put forth by the Space Task Group in 1969 imagined people on Mars by the mid-1980s. President George W. Bush's Constellation program envisioned a human return to the moon by 2019. The former never came to fruition in the post-Apollo draw-down. President Obama abruptly cancelled Constellation in 2010.
Mark R. Whittington is the author of Children of Apollo and The Last Moonwalker. He has written on space subjects for a variety of periodicals, including The Houston Chronicle, The Washington Post, USA Today, the L.A. Times, and The Weekly Standard.
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