The Future of Human Space Exploration

"To be perfectly honest I think it would be sad for anybody not to want to go to space..."
-Richard Branson, Founder and Chairman of Virgin

I admit it, when President Obama opened space exploration to privatization in 2010 I was more than skeptical—I was disheartened. In my view at the time, I felt this would take space from the realm of everyone, a place of human destiny, to a profit-driven realm of the privileged few. That remains something of a concern for me, since space exploration is in everyone's self-interest.

As Carl Sagan once said, " the long run, every planetary civilization will be endangered by impacts from space, every surviving civilization is obliged to become spacefaring—not because of exploratory or romantic zeal, but for the most practical reason imaginable: staying alive..."
The Dragon Capsule in Earth Orbit
Photo by NASA via Wikimedia Commons

Although it remains to be seen what this new corporate space exploration will become, there are some rays of hope coming from those directly involved in it. NASA has not been sidelined, but has assumed a new role as a partner and funding source in this new arena. SpaceX's Dragon Capsule has shown that automated trans-atmospheric delivery vehicles can and do work quite well, paving the way for a more economic path to building the infrastructure we will need to ultimately shed our planetary bonds. Its success is leading the way for the crewed version, the Dragon Rider, to come into operation at 1/3 the per seat cost as the current Russian Soyuz craft. Not only that, but plans for the Red Dragon and Mars One Dragon craft have been drafted and will be proposed for funding to NASA later this year. Both vehicles will explore and pave the way for the targeted human presence on Mars in 2023.

Another source of hope in the private-space arena is Virgin Galactic. The child of Virgin founder Richard Branson, it aims to bring passengers and tourists into space. The Virgin system will be something of a revolution, as it abandons launch-pad systems for in-flight launches from a specialized airplane (currently, White Knight 2). This system has some advantages over pad launches as the starting point, being further away from the Earth's center of gravity, will require less energy expenditure on the part of the actual space-module (Space Ship 2) to reach the boundary of space than its terrestrial counterparts, but its main advantage lies in its purpose. I have great hope that the expanded access—making space more accessible to people—will create more of a sense that space really is for all of us, which in turn will lead to greater public interest around the world and by extension, greater funding for more ambitious missions. If this is successful, then the privatization of space will indeed have been a very good thing and an important step in bringing our future, our destiny as a species, to fruition.

Below is a video I watched on by Virgin Galactic and Richard Branson. In it you will see the White Knight 2 and Space Ship 2 in operation. Sir Branson's words were inspiring, and I hope this kind of attitude pervades the future of space exploration and colonization.


  1. I think the involvement of business is a great new hope. Sure, it's about making money - but it's fantastic to see that business recognizes that possibility. I believe business will be more inclusive than government, which will tend to be dominated by military interests. Bring it on, I say.

    1. One of the great things about space (in regards to the USA) has been NASA's involvement. NASA, as a civilian agency, has developed space for the citizenry of the US and the world. I hope that spirit of "for the benefit of us all" continues as corporations are introduced. What I worry about is that it will turn into "for the betterment of me" instead of "for us."
      At least NASA remains involved as a funding source. With taxpayer money used, at least the corporations can't go whole-hog into profiteering.

      Having said that, I DO hope they develop the asteroid belt commercially. It should bring down prices of technology (as I hear the asteroids are rich in rare-earth elements). I hope that is the case moving forward.


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