Friday, February 21, 2020

How Far Millennials Will Soar in Space

Original image courtesy of NASA
One of the most inspiring results of my research interviewing over 100 millennials working in the space sector or studying to work in the space sector was the optimism about the future. Although not unanimous, most millennial interviewees hold high hopes and high expectations for the future. I asked them what they expected millennials will accomplish in space in their lifetimes. The responses formed the final chapter and my favorite chapter of Rise of the Space Age Millennials – How Far We’ll Soar.

It’s impossible to predict the future. But it’s fun to try. My millennial interviewees took a chance at peering 30, 40, 50 years from now to ponder what the world may become. Specifically, what humanity will discover and achieve in space. Much of the focus on space achievements last year was celebrating the past: the 50th anniversary of the Apollo 11 Moon landing. I wanted to understand what millennials believe we’ll accomplish 50 years from now.

Some interviewees hesitated to imagine too far into the future, if at all. They took some safe bets. Humans will return to the Moon and establish a permanent base or settlement. If NASA’s plans come to fruition in the Artemis program, we will return astronauts to the Moon as soon as 2024 (although more realistically somewhere in the 2025 – 2030 time frame).

Spaceflight frequency and affordability will increase, perhaps bringing spaceflight to the masses with suborbital point-to-point transportation. Suborbital and orbital tourism will take off. The early 2000s saw the first space tourists travel to the International Space Station. Very soon, we hope to see Virgin Galactic and Blue Origin begin suborbital space tourism and SpaceX begin orbital and cislunar tourism.

We will continue to pursue space resources on asteroids and elsewhere, perhaps maturing in-situ resource utilization (ISRU) technology. Although the previous and existing asteroid mining companies were early efforts that have not yet accomplished their goals, perhaps future efforts on asteroids, the Moon, or Mars will help humanity obtain off-Earth resources which are limited on our planet but plentiful elsewhere. Or perhaps water will become the most valuable mined resource in space.

We will be able to observe exoplanet atmospheres in more detail. Exoplanet science is only three decades old and already we’ve discovered over 4,000 confirmed exoplanets. Peering into the atmospheres of these distant planets orbiting distant stars is the latest scientific break-through. Comparative planetology will help us to understand our own planet and how planets are formed and evolve. The search for biosigatures on these distant worlds is vital to the search for extraterrestrial life.

We may even advance beyond chemical rocketry to more efficient modes of propulsion. Nuclear thermal fission, ion engines, plasma propulsion, solar sails, even nuclear fusion may be able to advance our rocket and spacecraft technology to faster and/or less expensive spaceflight.

Most interviewees believe they will see astronauts step foot on Mars within their lifetime. The call of the red planet is strong and is widely believed to be the next goal in human space exploration after the Moon. Some even believe we’ll begin to establish a permanent base on Mars in the coming decades, officially becoming a multi-planetary species.

Some interviewees foresee the creation of private space stations for space tourism and other applications. Companies such as Axiom Space and Bigelow Aerospace already have plans to create their own low-Earth orbit destinations. Some foresee multi-generational spacecraft for deep space exploration.

Some believe we’ll find evidence of past or present extraterrestrial life, whether in our Solar System or on an exoplanet, forever changing our perspective of the Universe and of ourselves as a species.

Some of the idealists interviewed hoped to see space unify humanity in the form of an international partnership that rises above the geopolitics of the present. We can become representatives of one planet as we progress outward to explore new planets. We may even come together to accomplish interstellar space exploration.

Wherever we go in the future, whatever we are able to accomplish in my lifetime, writing Space Millennials has given me renewed hope that the space sector is in good hands with the next generation and those to come.

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