The Future of Spaceflight, Exploration and Expansion

Published on 25 February 2021 at 13:59

In the waning years of the Cold War and after there has been a marked lull in spaceflight and manned human missions to the great abyss, however 2020, although plagued by disaster, brought us a noticeable achievement in the department of outer-planetary travel: the very first private company, SpaceX, sent a man into orbit. This has heralded speculation in the future of a potential extra-terrestrial industry wherein private and public companies, not governments, will lead the way in furthering humanity’s insatiable desire for progress and scientific advancement.


We are almost a year on from the event, but the topic deserves far more thought and consideration as it has a very high probability of becoming something game-changing for our history. There are three major considerations when we talk about spaceflight. They are funding, practicality and environmental. During the early years of the Space Race, ambition was driven by the competition between the USA and the Soviet Union. Nowadays no such atmosphere adversity remains for any significant leaps in space-travel, indeed, NASA ended the it’s space shuttle program in 2011 for several reasons, including costs, marking the unfortunate end of the organisations very prestigious and life-altering achievements. 


An intuitive and obvious method to keep any expensive ventures into space is private companies which can lean on funding from various sources: going public on the market, tourism, contracts from other space agencies, investing speculators and personal financial injections from the companies owner or owners. Elon Musk has shown the world the ambitions that one man and his money can achieve, having started SpaceX on its long and arduous twenty-year journey entirely out of his own pocket, facing criticism from his personal idols and still proceeding with his grandiose ideas. Now Musk is the world’s wealthiest man, is receiving a huge $74 billion injection from various investors for his Starlink project (a network of high-speed broadband satellites) which also serves as a great example of how SpaceX  and other companies such as Startolaunch Systems and Virgin Galactic can use their this service to further make funds for future launches and expeditions.


Tourist trips to space have only been conducted by Roscosmos, the Russian Space Agency but ceased in 2010. The publicised cost was in excess of $20 million dollars for each trip, a ginormous sum, and one that only eight individuals spent for their once in a lifetime opportunity. Mass tourism beyond the stratosphere is a long way away but could be highly lucrative for any agency willing to invest in such an industry. The infrastructure and capacity are simply not there to facilitate it but would certainly entice exponential growth in the entire field of space-travel and its normalisation through tourism would streamline all the nuances and processes of space-travel in general.


Streamlining such a technologically and materially demanding industry is also nowhere near in sight and falls under the factor of practicality when thinking about the future of space-travel. It is a highly expensive endeavour, costing huge amounts in training and paying astronauts, technicians, mathematicians, astronomists and other personnel, designing, building and maintaining spacecraft and other auxiliary vehicles as well as ground-based facilities, purchasing and storing vast amounts of fuel and investing in new projects. The answer may lie in the very prospects that a growth in space-travel could provide, that being asteroid mining.


Some have speculated on the profitability of mining metal from asteroids. A one kilometre-diameter asteroid could contain 30 million tons of nickel, 1.5 million tons of metal cobalt and 7,500 tonnes of platinum; the platinum alone would have a value of more than $150 billion. However, to mine such vast amounts of material, although extremely profitable would also entail monumental costs. But the point remains, if it were to be achieved, the space industry could become self-sustaining in its efforts, not relying on an earth-based economy. Indeed, it is seemingly improbable that space-travel could ever be feasible unless humanity develops a “space-economy”, increasing the means of profiteering into the beyond.


To make mass space-travel feasible would demand too much of Earth’s resources to be considered environmentally safe. If we destroyed our planet any further in the name of getting off it would be ludicrous and not worthwhile in the long run. Advancements in green-energy, particularly solar-power would be indispensable. One can power spacecraft via panels or using solar winds to propel a vehicle through space, saving on resources and energy. Hydrogen is also now the preferred fuel for rockets and burns hyper-clean residue of water. 


Space debris is also a concerning hazard for space-travel. Huge amounts of waste orbits the Earth, from lost, broken or destroyed craft to paint flecks. They pose a threat to any vehicle embarking into space as they can collide with large debris. It has been theorised that for us to leave orbit would become impossible if the rate of debris entering the Earth’s orbit continues. On top of this, there are potentially a large number of salvageable craft that can be recycled for parts and material that would serve better use back on Earth, not floating above our atmosphere. There have been some efforts to mitigate the effects of debris but currently there is no legislation to prohibit the expulsion of waste into space.


Humanity has been on an extraordinary journey in recent centuries, we have created marvellous disasters and made terrifying leaps and bounds in ideas and creations. Although our achievements are nearly innumerable, none will ever be matched by our ability to have left our home planet. No other event in our history will be remembered with such pride and wonder. Perhaps in centuries to come those remembering will be resident elsewhere in the galaxy, but the means are ever as important as the end, especially now in the dawn of a new era of space travel. There are those who may be doubtful that such a thing could be achieved, but time and time over has our species outdone itself and we will most definitely not stop outdoing ourselves, until we reach infinity and beyond.

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