From tourist jaunts to deep-space expeditions, research bases on the Moon to shining cities on Mars, humanity’s ambitions beyond the final frontier are picking up pace.
While politicians debate pushing back the timeline of America’s new moon-landing programme by four years and stepping up the focus on sending astronauts to Mars, NASA and other government space agencies are forging partnerships, teaming with the commercial sector and cheering on private entrepreneurs in a collective effort that is opening up space to more exploration than ever before – and bringing closer the prospect of a trillion-dollar space economy.
Since space welcomed its first private astronaut in 2001, when entrepreneur Dennis Tito paid $20 million for an eight-day round-trip to the International Space Station (ISS) as a guest of the Russian government, the final frontier has been opening up to tourists. Six more followed Tito, the last in 2009.
For short-haul travellers on a tighter budget, Richard Branson’s Virgin Galactic is preparing to launch $250,000 sub-orbital thrill-rides aboard SpaceShipTwo, a rocketplane that will take off from Spaceport America in New Mexico slung beneath a carrier aircraft, then detach and hurtle passengers to the edge of space. They will float weightless for several minutes and view Earth’s curvature, at an altitude beyond 50 miles (80kms) – the US Federal Aviation Administration’s definition of the boundary between Earth and space.
Blue Origin, owned by Amazon founder Jeff Bezos, promises to get guests a little higher aboard its six-seater, 59ft-tall New Shepard, a reusable rocket that launches and lands vertically. They will venture beyond 62 miles (100km) altitude – the Earth-space boundary defined by the World Air Sports Federation, keeper of air and space flight records – and unstrap from their seats for around four minutes. Both are aiming to start possibly later this year.
Two space capsules operating under contract to NASA – Boeing’s CST-100 Starliner and SpaceX’s Crew Dragon – will offer occasional seats to private passengers to fly to the ISS alongside US government astronauts. The price: around $90 million, plus $35,000 a night on the ISS.
Yusaku Maezawa, 44, a Japanese billionaire, has set his sights on a flight around the Moon on SpaceX’s Starship, currently under development in Texas, for an undisclosed sum. SpaceX chief Elon Musk is aiming to fulfil the deal by 2024.
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The Russian space agency, Roscosmos, is the only operator currently taking astronauts to and from the ISS, 220 miles from Earth, using its Soyuz rockets and capsules. Its American counterpart, NASA, retired its space shuttle fleet in 2011.
Keen to end its dependence on Russia, save itself the $80 million-a-trip ticket price and restore American pride, NASA contracted with private industry to build and operate space taxis to resume the task of ferrying US astronauts aboard US spacecraft from US soil; Boeing’s seven-seater CST-100 Starliner and SpaceX’s Crew Dragon.
Starliner completed its first orbital flight test – without crew – last month, but suffered a technical mishap that prevented it from docking at the ISS and forced an early return to Earth. An investigation will determine when the next flight will be and whether it is ready for crew.
Crew Dragon aced its non-crewed test flight to the ISS last year, and a test of its ability to save its crew in the event of a launch emergency earlier this month. It is aiming for its first mission with astronauts aboard in the second quarter of this year.
China, which in 2003 became the third country to put humans in space and has carried out five more crewed missions since, says that it is preparing to begin construction of a space station “soon”, in time for completion in 2022. Its new capsule for getting taikonauts to orbit is due to be put to the test within the next few months, minus crew. China’s temporary Tiangong-1 and Tiangong-2 space station prototypes, aboard which taikonauts temporarily lived and worked, were de-orbited in 2018 and 2019.
India is planning to get a human spaceflight programme off the ground with the first orbital test mission of its Gaganyaan capsule, with crew, in December 2021.
In March last year, Mike Pence, the US Vice President, directed NASA to set the first woman and the next man on the surface of the Moon by 2024 as a prelude to going to Mars – for the first time pinning down a timeline for the agency’s next giant leap in its human exploration programme.
The new programme, later named Artemis, would be about more than planting flags and footprints in the lunar dust because “this time, we’re planning to stay,” he said.
Since 2011, NASA has been developing the world’s most powerful rocket, the Space Launch System (SLS), which will loft humans to the Moon and beyond aboard a capsule named Orion.
Artemis will establish bases on the Moon and construct Gateway, a space station orbiting around it, where astronauts will live and work, testing out new technologies and learning new capabilities for ultimately heading outwards to Mars. NASA will contract with the private sector for landers and rovers.
A new bill produced last week by a congressional committee, however, suggests that legislators may not be in the mood for all that the Trump administration had planned – and that the “flags and footprints” approach may be closer to the mark. Should the bill pass, astronauts will carry out just a few brief visits to the Moon starting in 2028 then strike out for Mars five years later.
China plans a permanent human colony and scientific research station near the Moon’s south pole by 2030, Last year, it set down Chang’e-4, an uncrewed lander carrying the Yutu-2 rover, on the far side of the Moon. Both are still sending back imagery from on-board cameras.
After a failed attempt to make its first moon landing last year, India has announced that it will send a new lander and rover, the Chandrayaan-3 mission. Launch could be as soon as November.
Legislation introduced by the House of Representatives’ Science Committee and it’s Space sub-committee targets 2033 for NASA to send the first humans to orbit Mars.
No formal date thereafter is set for a crewed landing, whose feasibility will depend on new inventions and technologies not yet born, and on creating ways of sustaining human life off planet Earth – such as using the Martian dust to build habitats, and growing fruit and vegetables.
Three new robotic missions are queued up to head to Mars this year to carry out geological exploration: NASA’s Mars 2020, which will collect samples to be picked up and returned to Earth by a future mission; a joint exploration by the European Space Agency and Russia named ExoMars 2020 to drill deeper than ever below the surface; and China’s Mars 2020 expedition. NASA’s mission will also test technologies that address some of the challenges for future human exploration on the Red Planet, such as testing a method for producing oxygen from the Martian atmosphere.
Ina series of tweets issued earlier this month, Elon Musk – SpaceX’s founder, chief executive and chief engineer, announced ambitions to build a city of one million people on Mars by 2050, using a fleet of 300 of his Starships launched aboard the reusable Super Heavy Rocket.