Where do we go from here?

What is our future in space? Do we even have a future "up there"? Space is expensive - will we continue to pay for it? Should future exploration be purely robotic? Or is space the solution to the long-term survival of our civilization?

The Space Exploration Initiative of 1989

The first President Bush proposed a long term space exploration program involving expeditions to Mars and bases on the Moon. This 'Space Exploration Initiative' was estimated (especially by its critics) to cost over $500 billion (spread over many years). It was never popular and was soon abandoned.
The Space Exploration Initiative

The new 'Vision for Space Exploration'

In January 2004 President G. W. Bush announced a new direction for NASA. Presidents Kennedy, Nixon and Reagan had initiated the Apollo, Shuttle and Space Station programs respectively. Many critics have complained that the Shuttle and Station are only engineering projects lacking any visionary goal of exploration. Bush directed that the Station be completed, then the Shuttle retired, and that future NASA goals should involve a return to the Moon and preparation for expeditions to Mars. The project has strong supporters and many detractors. The cost is supposed to be held to a reasonable level, but this is clearly the main problem. If the Vision is rejected, it is difficult to see what alternatives there are to it, assuming that human space activities are not abandoned altogether. I expect that it will be implemented in some form.
The Vision for Space Exploration

Implementing the Vision

NASA has moved ahead with planning to accomplish this Vision. A new family of rockets (Ares) will be built using parts of the Space Shuttle system. A new capsule (Orion) will be able to fly six people to the Station, or four to the Moon. A new lunar lander will be designed. Some landings, called Sorties, will go to scientifically interesting places anywhere on the Moon, but most of the initial effort will go into building a base at one of the poles, probably the South Pole.
NASA's new Exploration Systems Mission Directorate

Other US studies

There have been many other US studies over the years. See the links below for disparate current and past thoughts about our future in space. There are many different ideas about what should happen in space and who should do it.
Eisenhower Institute
Pioneering the Space Frontier
A private sector view

The Private Sector?

Do we have to rely on NASA for the future of space exploration? Many businesses are trying to break into space exploration on their own (see Lecture 7). Will they take us where NASA will not? But raising money is very difficult. Until one company can succeed and show that it is possible to make money in space, investment is likely to remain difficult to find. Follow the Chapter 7 links for more background.

Other nations?

Space is no longer just the playground of the superpowers, as it was (or could have been said to be) in the 1960s. China has launched its first astronauts and is planning a space station and lunar robotic missions. India has planned a lunar orbiting mission and is beginning to discuss an astronaut program. Both nations have successful home-built launchers and satellite industries. Japan has a longer history of satellite launching and planetary probes, but has suffered recent setbacks. Brazil has a satellite launcher development program but recently suffered a serious launch site accident. Many other nations have had satellites launched for them, or flown experiments on Russian or American spacecraft, or even flown their own astronauts on Russian or American spacecraft. The reasons for these actions are mixed, including national prestige, inspiration for youth, and a demonstration of technological ability. But small space budgets will inevitably limit what can be achieved in all these countries.
Indian space agency
Japanese Space Agency
China's Space Agency
Italian Space Agency
British Space Agency
French Space Agency
Brazil's Space Agency (could add many more...)

My guess

I don't think space will be abandoned - we find new things to do there all the time. I also find it very difficult to believe that the private sector will take over completely, though it may play an increasing role. I expect that governments will play the leading role in space exploration and exploitation for a long time. In exploration, we will see many more planetary robotic probes, and I am fairly sure we will see people back on the Moon in 12 to 15 years. Mars will be much more difficult to reach than many people appreciate, so I expect progress towards sending people there will be slow, but it will probably happen. Meanwhile, I do expect non-traditional activities in space to grow, maybe quite rapidly. The idea of a trip to orbit as a prize in a lottery or a reality TV show has been discussed for years. Commercial robotic trips to the moon, with a saleable product (moon soil, burials, science data, entertainment 'content', etc.) are being worked on now. Once a few of these things happen, as I think they will, a watershed will be crossed in terms of credibility. Then, and I think only then, will we see the investment flow and things will literally 'take off'. To the Moon!!!