So long, space race; hello, international cooperation. Here are 11 ways we can expect space programs to change over the next 10 years.
1. 3-D PRINTING
While it may seem like a gimmick on Earth, 3-D printing could have a huge effect on space travel. Right now, if something goes wrong or a machine part breaks in space, astronauts have to wait days or weeks until a new part can be sent up. In the mean time, they can rig up a temporary solution (sometimes with duct tape). But an onboard 3-D printer could produce a new part in a matter of minutes or hours. Proponents of the process also say space engineers on the ground are already using the printers to bring new and previously impossible ideas to life.
2. MORE WOMEN
It’s about time: the new class of American astronauts is 50 percent women. The eight new astronauts (four men, four women) were selected from a pool of more than 6300 applicants—twice the number of applications the agency usually receives. All eight recruits are under consideration for a trip to Mars.
3. SHIFTING PRIORITIES
The Moon is great, but its time in the space-travel spotlight has ended (for now). The American space program has set its sights on new targets, including the aforementioned Mars mission and a trip to a near-Earth asteroid.
4. PRIVATE-SECTOR GROWTH
As evidenced by the thousands of astronaut applications, space is pretty exciting right now. But even as public interest increases, government funds for space science dwindle. Into this gap come big-thinking entrepreneurs, who are currently trying to develop reliable, commercially available space travel.
5. MORE COOPERATION
Gone are the days of Cold-War-fueled competition. Today, American and Russian astronauts are working together more than ever before. With the 2011 retirement of the space shuttle, our space travelers have had to depend on Russian transport up to and down from the space station. Far from stunting our growth, international collaborations have enabled new ideas and opportunities.
6. SOCIAL MEDIA
The daily life of an astronaut is more interesting than any job on Earth. So when space travelers take to social media, they find a massive and eager audience. Instead of waiting for their space programs to release official reports of their activities and achievements, today’s astronauts can instantly share the details themselves via photos and 140-character messages.
7. SPACE TOURISM
It’s already happening: private citizens are hitching rides into space. Like the early days of airplane travel, attempts to build space-going tourist vessels have as yet met with failure (and occasionally disaster), but the thinkers and business minds behind these ventures are determined to make space tourism a reality.
8. NEW PLAYERS
It might surprise you to learn that more than 70 countries boast their own space programs. True, the major players are restricted to a handful of nations, but the playing field is growing, and growing fast.
9. FOCUS ON PHYSIOLOGY
The latest return of an American astronaut concludes a year-long experiment by our space agency to monitor the effects of space flight and travel on the human body. The results of this experiment will inform future astronaut training and preparation on the ground, as well as activities and accommodations in space.
10. MORE EARTH SCIENCE
Space programs are uniquely positioned to study our planet. Scientists have sent dozens of observational satellites into orbit around our planet, each with a different mission—some monitor forest fires, while others track the availability of bird habitats, for example. If the funding is available, experts will continue to rely on the view from outer space to inform how we look after ourselves here on Earth.
11. LONG-TERM PLANS
The first lunar missions took about three days to reach the moon. A trip to Mars, on the other hand, will last at least six months—and that’s just getting there. Devising a vessel (and preparing its inhabitants) for such long-term, far-reaching travel is a whole new ballgame, and experts are currently figuring out ways to keep astronauts healthy, happy, and well-fed—and exploring how they might be able to depend on the Red Planet’s natural resources once they land.
What seems impossible today will feel like an inevitability tomorrow. Click here to see how some early pioneers believed humankind would someday make it into space.