50 years after Apollo 11: what will we do in space for the next 50 years?

This week is the 50th anniversary of the first human landing on the moon.  My son and I visited Washington, DC’s National Mall to see some of the commemorations.

A brilliant team projected a video of the entire Saturn V rocket on one side of the Washington monument.  It was extraordinary to see, visible from great distances:

Other festivities including information about prospective lunar flights.  Which brings me to ask you all: what’s next for space?

Let’s look ahead 50 years this weekend, while we revisit the past.

As a futurist I always start with present trends.  We can identity a bunch of them:

  • Exploration of the solar system via robotic probes
  • Earth-orbit and lunar interest from multiple nations
  • Rising private space efforts
  • Calls for a Mars expedition
  • Hints of expanding the preexisting militarization of space (Trump and Macron each called for their nations to offer a space force, in addition to their respective air forces)
  • Commercial interest in asteroid mining

How are these likely to play out over the next 50 years?  Robotic exploration seems likely to continue, since missions are relatively low-cost or even cheap, as well as offering little risk.  There aren’t many countervailing forces; anti-science cultural developments aren’t hitting Jupiter missions.

Private space efforts: I’m not sure.  Bezos has a long-term vision for human space settlement, and Musk is hardly lacking in that department.  But assuming they won’t change their minds (and they could), these are two individuals with limited lifespans.  When they die or become incapacitated, will those efforts continue?  I can imagine boards and managers preferring to focus on more familiar operations.  Asteroid mining may be similarly restricted to a handful of wealthy individuals.  Unless a commercial sector opens up, this Heinleinian moment could be a historical blip.

Militarizing space is something that’s been happening since WWII.  Geopolitics aren’t showing signs of heading towards an era of perpetual peace, so we should expect something like this to persist (but see below).

A Mars expedition is very exciting, but interest is quite low.  Consider this recent Pew Research poll:

That’s actually consistent with the 1960s and 1970s, when the majority of Americans opposed lunar missions most of the time. Apollo succeeded in part due to the Cold War.  Without that framing, it would take some serious and sustained heavy lifting in the political sector to get NASA to Mars.  What conditions would have to be in place for that to occur?

So one quick scenario for 2069: humanity flings robots across the solar system, building our scientific knowledge, while a mix of public and private enterprises haul humans to Earth orbit and back.

Let’s develop this a little further, adding additional trends to the mix.

Politics To pick one leading space nation, American politics is deeply partisan.  Space could either become a party issue or a bipartisan/nonpartisan one.  I can’t shake my sense that the GOP, while capable of opposing some science (i.e., climate change and evolution) will remain space-happy.  Much of the space sector is based in deep red states, like Texas and Alabama, or reddish ones like Florida (just today a Florida senator and 2016 presidential candidate published a pro-Apollo, pro-NASA column).  Many recent Republican presidents have been keen on space, from Reagan (Star Wars) to the Bushes (Mars) and Trump (space force).  Republicans also admire private sector space efforts, of course.

I’m not sure the Democrats have the same level of interest, despite the heritage of Apollo, called into being by JFK.  I’ve seen few pro-space expressions from candidates.  Instead, many progressives are calling for domestic moonshot efforts, such as Medicare for all, reparations for slavery, and free college tuition.  It feels like the old anti-space line: “Why spend money in space, when we can use it to address Earthly problems?”  Gil-Scott Heron’s classic performance comes to mind, as does the tendency of space boosters to be white.

A gender breakdown might occur as well.  Some surveys find men somewhat more interested in human spaceflight then women.  For example, a 2015 Pew poll found that “[m]en are more likely than women to say human astronauts are essential for the future of the U.S. space program (66% vs. 52%, respectively).”

That was pre-Trump.  Since then both political parties have become more gender-focused, with women increasingly likely to vote Democratic and men Republican.

In short, it might make more sense for Democrats to focus their major program political capital on non-space issues.  As one writer wrote into the New York Times this week,

Through increased wildfires, storm damage, flooding, rising sea levels, increasing desertification contributing to the world’s refugee crisis and a thousand other cuts, climate change is already costing us lives and conflict and billions of dollars. We need a moonshot, all right — a moonshot effort to stop and reverse climate change. We cannot afford both [lunar missions and addressing climate change].

Especially if the GOP presses hard on space, which incentivizes progressives to push back.  So we could see space becoming a partisan issue over the next generation.

Alternatively, Democrats could articulate a competing space vision.  For example, if climate change becomes an organizing principle for that party, it would make sense to advocate for extensive orbital support for continued Earth science.  If Democrats turn more to the left, they might oppose private space efforts in favor of public ones.  We can see hints of this now in liberal critiques of Musk and Bezos for multiple business practices.  At the same time Democrats and Republicans could follow historical practice and align together in bipartisanship on the military use of space.

Technology The Space Race drove an extraordinary period in technological development.  As we currently experience non-space-related tech innovation, could some of that shape our future in space?

To pick some technologies in development, consider orbiting 3d printers to jumpstart the construction of vehicles and facilities in vacuum.  A sprawling series of space stations, asteroid mining operations, and a lunar town might become more feasible. Alternatively, think of the role of AI.  If AI continues to improve in quality – not a sudden Skynet breakthrough, just steady growth – we could witness a boom in autonomous spacecraft, extending robotic exploration.  As humans exit drivers seats in cars, we could decide that AI pilots are better than human ones and turn the universe over to bots.  Alternatively, if we pursue a cyborg future with humans working closely with AIs, human spaceflight may continue with software companions.

Other tech may make space exploration less difficult.  Sufficiently advanced quantum computing could lead to realtime communication with craft light minutes and hours away.  Improved medical care could mitigate some of the stresses spaceflight places on the human body.

The development of space-specific technologies may speed space exploration. In particular, getting out of Earth’s gravity well is a major roadblock to spaceflight. In 2018 we read Soonish, which offered this view of new tech that might help things:

reusable rockets, like the SpaceX Falcon 9; spaceplanes, like ramjets and scramjetssuperguns, including the wild and tragic Gerald Bull story (45ff); rocket sleds; the awesomely named Slingatron; firing lasers at rockets; the space elevator.

To these we could add the space catapult, space fountain, and the sky ramp.  Technological development and space exploration could feed each other in a reinforcing loop.  The classic NASA spinoff pattern could heat up to our general benefit.

Demographics (Yes, you knew I would go there.)  I’ve noted several works on population trends which contend that older populations are less likely to boldly go.  Paul Morland thinks such societies are less likely to take risks.  Bricker and Ibbotson concur.  Will aging nations then back away from space?  Moreover, if older societies are less prone to war (remember this phrase: geriatric peace), they might spend less on military space capacity.

Perhaps the next two generations of space travel will stem from nations still producing young people at scale.  Subsaharan Africa may become the home of the next Baikonur and Cape Kennedy.

Geopolitics We could take the planet in the direction of international peace.  I just mentioned aging societies’ tendencies away from war.  We could add general unease at war in a society demonstrably intertwined and fragile.  Nonlethal weapons may proliferate and tamp down our revenge cycles.  Nonviolent movements may grow.

On the other hand, there are many reasons we can expect a violent 50 years ahead.  Islamicist terror is still active on multiple continents.  Right-wing extremism is building up now, and that’s unlikely to establish a global Ghandian peace.  Various types of nationalism are heating up, which historically can add fuel to international tensions.  And so on.

This could drive another wave of space development.  Military use of space can expand as nations seek orbital and interplanetary advantages.  International rivalries can elicit resources to compete with astronomical achievements.  International cooperation could occur, but in the service of dueling power blocs.  Imagine a One Belt, One Road multinational crew aboard a Chinese Martian expedition.

Culture Forecasting cultural changes is very difficult, so I’ll start by turning back to history.  We know that fictional visions and future imaginations of spaceflight have inspired research, development, and exploration since the 19th century.  That pattern seems to still be going on now.  It could well persist in the near and medium term future, as sf creators offer us stories of aliens, new worlds, etc.

It’s possible that sf could pull back from this focus.  Some writers have spoken of the difficulty in imagining the future as our present becomes ever more chaotic and innovative.  There are many paths for sf writers to tread other than the short- or medium-term future: alternate history, fantasy, and the far-future.  The genre could mutate in this direction, but I don’t see it as all that likely.

Wild cards and black swans Most of the preceding is based on present-day realities and current trends.  I tried to stick to what seems most likely.  But what about the impact of very unlikely events?

An asteroid near miss could spur growth in space.  An actual strike could drive us into Cold War levels of outreach and investment.  New religious movements that gain actual cultural and political traction could push space in all kinds of directions (this is a science fiction staple, actually).  A sudden Singularity event: ditto.  Discovering life in an interesting way (beyond single-celled organisms or algae) could inspire a major effort.

Many awful and surprising things could shock humanity and injure us badly enough to retreat from the universe.  A massive pandemic – beyond the 1917 flu, more like the Black Death, but broader in impact – that overwhelms our public health systems could force us to retrench rather than reach out.  An international economic depression could easily have the same impact (“Why are we spending money on Lunar orbit when people are starving on Earth?”).

Let me conclude with two scenarios.  They’re based on mashing up a bunch of the preceding, and tuning them to extremes.  I’m leaving off black swans for the moment.


Scenario I: Entrenched

In 2069 human civilization is under a great deal of stress.  Population growth has tapered off, but many nations grapple with how to manage this new state, either trying to support a large population of elders, or dealing with a mass exodus of young people.  Geopolitics are dicey, as tensions run high across numerous borders.  Short mid-century wars (India and Pakistan, Russia and Germany, China and the US) caused damage and human suffering, but also kept military forces well-supplied and on edge.  Climate change’s many impacts have started to be felt, as some coastal cities experience populations leaving (“dry flight”) while struggling to maintain sea defenses, and hyperstorms (coined by the old Weather Channel) clobber regions.  Food and water systems are under stress.  Their failures are well publicized.

Humanity’s space presence is divided.  On the one hand, AI-guided robots busily explore the solar system from the sun to the Oort Cloud, sending back scientific information and material samples.  Many automatic craft participate in Gaianet, the planetary warning system aimed primarily at tracking solar weather (some of which could injure Earthly infrastructure).  Robots draw on installations built upon the Earth’s moon, Martian moons, and several large asteroids.

On the other (fleshly) hand, human spaceflight focuses on Earth orbit.  Human crews inhabit multiple stations lofted by various nations.  They combine scientific research – again, often keyed into Gaianet – with fairly obvious military posturing.  Several nations, combines, and corporations maintain their own orbital ecosystems as a matter of power and prestige, each with its own mapping systems (GPS to personal implants), weather sats (the best ones), and multi-tiered communication infrastructure, along with extensive surveillance tools and strike capacity.  Earth launching systems are varied and gradually developed.

Every spacefaring nation and combine experiences fitful planning, as political waves come and go.  Military incidents and weather disasters spark more space investment, while their absence and various populisms compel reductions.  Corporations face a similar dynamic, as some leaders seek to realize lucrative space opportunities, while opponents cite the long history of these falling short.

In academia pro-space research and teaching can be controversial.  Some oppose it as too military or corporate.  Anti-space academics of all stripes have followings.  Gaianet work is quietly respected.

Scenario II: Expanding

In 2069 human civilization is deep in VUCA territory.  In most of the world national elites cling to power with a mix of desperation, surveillance, terror, and finely tuned marketing, trying to fend off restless populations.  Older nations seek to maintain their elaborate support mechanisms (immigrant labor and advanced automation) while younger ones seek global leadership.  Climate change gnaws at coastal regions and thwacks many areas with bad weather; food systems are transforming, but the process is fitful and costly.  Religious, cultural, and political movements sweep through populations more rapidly than ever.

In space automated craft extend throughout the solar area, as with scenario I.  Many participate in Gaianet, with its twin missions of defending humanity against solar weather and asteroid impacts.  Others work as parts of mining operations, extracting minerals, ice, and entire (small) asteroids for use around Earth.

Humans sometimes work with these automated deep space denizens.  While AI has progressed well since the 2030s winter, we like to have humans in the loop for extraordinary situations and, of course, insurance purposes.  Small teams wrangle probes from nearby in solar terms – i.e., from bases on Ceres or Luna, using quantum entanglement to monitor and manage bots from hundreds of millions of miles away.

Nations, combines, and businesses compete to send humans into space, aiming for new destinations and strategies.  Space Race 3.0 is followed unevenly, as humans sometimes get excited by firsts (the Indian Jovian moons mission!) and bored by others (how many Venus trans-atmospheric stations do we really need?).

Earthspace is where human space effort is grounded.  As with scenario I there are scientific and military missions in orbit, as well as around and on Luna, maintained by competing interests.  They also support deep space missions in various ways: communications, launches, capture.  The night sky is strung with bright dots of self-assembled platforms of all kinds.  Earth launching systems are varied, with startups trying out around the world, especially in Africa.  China is testing out a new sled launching facility in Pakistan, taking One Belt, One Road into space. Stations occupy Lagrange points, partly as way stations for asteroid work.

Space tourism is popular among oligarchs and celebrities.  Paparazzi-bots share AI-generated VR documentaries of fashion stars embarrassing themselves in Lunar gravity, while the business media follows CEOs closely when they meet in orbital stations.

Support for space expansion comes and goes.  There are cultural divides, as some back space for nationalistic or brand identity reasons, while others celebrate entrepreneurship.  Opposition occurs for similar reasons, urging a redirection of resources to Earthly needs.  Cultural movements also connect with space, from new forms of interplanetary mysticism to various styles of Earth worship (“we are the real Gaianet!”). Virtual relationships between space workers and terrestrial folk – truly long distance relationships – are the subject of humor and academic study.

In academia, space-related STEM fields grow steadily, if unevenly.  Space Humanities remains a controversial movement.

…and that’s a brisk tour through some trends and possibilities.  What do you think?

PS: I’ve written about this previously.

(photos by Goddard, and Goddard again, Marshall Space Center, and also Kordite)

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4 Responses to 50 years after Apollo 11: what will we do in space for the next 50 years?

  1. Joe Essid says:

    I’m a “Child of Apollo” and a spaceflight zealot. I want humanity to colonize the Solar System. No ifs, ands, or buts. We can do it and restore balance to the world’s climate.

    That said…how? Who? Other nations will chose their own paths. At some point, a profit will be found for human-supported ventures, and then it will be Wild West 2.0, with a boom and rush into orbit and beyond. We must insure that rocket launches in such a gold (or rare earths, or Helium 3) rush do not ruin Mother Earth’s atmosphere.

    I’ve become skeptical, for all my Apollo fervor, of NASA leading the way in human exploration for the US. I think the taxpayer’s money could be best used as it was for DARPA and the Internet, to develop standards (such as the global docking ports now in use) and infrastructure (launch pads, tracking) for private space explorers and entrepreneurs. Far-reaching advanced tech could be pursued by basic scientific investment (Fusion, even “warp” drives and other exotic ideas).

    What O’Neill called “The High Frontier” will open, but never at NASA’s pace. It also will be stillborn if left to the US election cycle and our broken Federal Government. Trump’s unworkable four-year push for a lunar landing, now apparently denied by the Presidential Weathervane in favor of a Mars-first strategy, only illustrates the problem starkly. It will take Tony Starks like Elon Musk, with a hell-for-leather drive, or long-term investors with a vision, like Jeff Bezos, to make America a space power.

    Our broken political system and NASA’s inherent caution work against what we Children of Apollo call “The Dream” (Capital D, damn straight). China or other nations will take their own paths and may beat us this time, but that’s a different subject.

    • Bryan Alexander says:

      It certainly looks like we have a burst of energy for private spaceflight. And my son reminds me that SpaceX is a going concern, regardless of Musk.

      Perhaps I should focus a scenario on that, plus China.

  2. Mark Vickers says:

    A lot of great stuff here. I think you could be more aggressive with your “Expanding” scenario. What if Musk really does get to Mars? What is space tourism gets cheap enough to encompass the upper middle class? What if there’s a profitable business model for asteroid mining (let’s start with water, which can be turned into fuel for satellites). I’m not saying any of that is going to happen, but you might as well “go big” with the Expanding scenario, counting on those positive feedback loops you cite.

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