Space travel has been the mainstay of science fiction more or less since the genre was invented in the 19th Century. During the 20th Century, of course, we saw the first attempt to turn those dreams into reality. The Apollo programme took men to the Moon in the late 1960s and early 1970s. In the subsequent decades multiple unmanned probes then ventured deep into Solar System, to examine the austere majesty of our celestial neighbour. Most famous of these perhaps is the Voyager 1 probe, still operational after more 40 years and now the most distant man-made object ever made.
Where next? What is the future of space travel?There was a tremendous romance to the Apollo era, a sense that man had begun an epic journey to the stars. Then manned spaceflight stopped – at least anything beyond rather timid trips into low earth orbit. The problem was the – if you’ll pardon the pun – the astronomical costs and mind-bending distances to even our nearest neighbours. Mars, for example, is an average of no less 140 million miles away.
The political will to tackle these challenges and find the funding melted away in the 1970s. But the story isn’t over quite yet. NASAhas been busily beavering away and all the indications are that the next decade could see a belated return for manned spaceflight. Plans are afoot for NASA to send a manned flight to the asteroid belt by middle of the 2020s and to land on Mars a few years later.
When NASA was founded, by President Eisenhower in 1958, its only competition were the space agencies of rival governments like the Soviet Union. But times have changed and competing private companies are now developing space programmes of their own. Dutch company Mars One has set itself the ambitious target of sending the first astronauts to the Red Planet as soon as 2022, planning to fund the venture by selling media rights to the entire expedition, from the initial training right to the establishment of the first human colony.
We’ll see whether that happens – and indeed, whether NASA succeeds in getting there too. But there is no doubt that, as the 21st Century rolls on, manned spaceflight will become increasingly mainstream, to the extent that space tourism will become an obtainable reality for many. Futurologists have suggested that by 2050, as many as 10,000 people will have seen the sky from the other side: that’s comfortably within the lives of many of us.
The sky is no longer the limit it seems. As human colonies on the Moon and Mars gradually develop and mining in space becomes feasible, a new generation of extra-terrestrial humans could become a reality, born beyond the earth. Then the future really will have arrived.
Photo by NASA Goddard Space Flight Centervia Flickr(Creative Commons)