After 50 mighty fine years of space exploration, NASA is set to celebrate the end of the first decade of the 21st century by retiring the thirty year-old space shuttle. The Orion class heavy lift vehicle won’t be ready until 2015, so while the Yankees are bumming rides off the Russians to get to the International Space Station, we’ll see some new players emerge onto the scene.
So just who is lining up to tame the next frontier? It’s no longer nations that are into the achieving-escape-velocity game these days. We have both commercial and national interests looking to the skies. With all this competition, surely some day the peasant folk like you and me will be able to afford some steerage-class tickets off this mudball.
While Russia’s Soyuz rockets are doing a lot of work these days, the Russians are focusing on milk runs to supply the ISS and drop off satellites. China, on the other hand, is plowing ahead with its space program. It’s now the third country to have put humans into space, and taikonaut Zhai Zhigang conducted his country’s first spacewalk last month. The Chinese have announced plans to build an orbiting laboratory and have it in orbit by 2011, with a full-fledged station by 2020.
Visit Venus – Orbital Workshop | download
We may see several moonbases up and running by 2025 – Russia, China, Japan, the USA and India all have their sights set on some prime lunar real estate. Atomique and I hold a couple of acres of homestead near Crater Huggins, purchased from the super-dodgy and not-legal-at-all-but-hey-I’m-the-guy-with-a-deed-for-moon-land-and-you’re-not Lunar Embassy.
Perhaps the most exciting entry into the new space race comes courtesy of the Japanese, who plan to build a space elevator for the paltry sum of 1,000,000,000,000 Yen. Okay, so a trillion Yen doesn’t sound like much of a bargain, but when you consider that that’s roughly 9 billion US dollars and the Space Shuttle program has to date cost about 1.3 billion US per launch, it starts to sound quite economical. The question is, can you stand fourteen hours of elevator music?
Just to emphasize the point: space elevators are beyond kickass. If they pull this off, we can defeat that cocksucker gravity for once and for all. Japan FTW.
Then there are all the private entities vying to show they’ve got the right stuff. Only when space has been opened up to commercial activity will we have any real hope of prices dropping, so I hope there are enough idle rich folk kicking around willing to foot the bill for the first decade of commercial space travel.
The most well-known of the private-sector space travel mobs is surely Richard Branson’s Virgin Galactic. The airline (spaceline?), using Scaled Composites’ SpaceShipTwo as its launch vehicle, will get you into the thermosphere and weightlessness for six minutes. No firm date has been set for the first liftoff with a compliment of paying passengers, but it should be some time in 2010.
On the 28th of September, 2008, SpaceX became the first non-government entity to lift a liquid fuel rocket into orbit (woot!). SpaceX seems to have lifting cargo as its main goal, but the SpaceX Dragon may be lifting astronauts to the ISS before the Orion comes online.
But just what do you do with a ticket to space? Chances are that any moonbases will be fairly cramped, scientific outposts, and you’d better hold a few doctorates if you want a bunk. Unless all you’re after is a short burst of zero-gee frolicking (wheeee!) on a Virgin Galactic flight, what are your options?
Well, luckily for us, Bigelow Airspace is not only planning to build a lunar cruise ship which will take you on a tour around the far side of the moon and back, it’s also working on an orbiting hotel. Bigelow has already lifted two payloads into orbit to test various habitat construction methods. I’m EXCITE!
Bigelow have no set date for the opening of any of their facilities, unfortunately. There will be a hotel in orbit by 2012 (maybe) courtesy of Galactic Suite (I hope), although you may have to wait a while if you can’t afford the inaugural three-day rate of four million dollars.
So – long story short – you and I aren’t getting a ticket to beyond the atmosphere for the next couple of decades. But I’m willing to wager it will be affordable (enough, if you’re really keen) by 2050. I’ll be 75 then, but in 2050, 75 will be the new 45.