On July 20, we marked the 45th anniversary of the first human landing on the Moon. Like most people, I was pinned to the television to watch the grainy pictures of the first steps by Apollo 11 astronauts on an alien world. Once Apollo was over, human exploration of the Moon ended. In fact, we retreated to near Earth orbit and left exploration farther out to automated probes and instrumented landers. I must admit that I am disappointed when I realize that my grandchildren have never seen a real live person walk on the Moon. Apollo is ancient history for them.
In addition, the United States no longer has an active crewed spacecraft capable of achieving orbit. With the end of the Space Shuttle program, Americans are dependent on Russians to take American astronauts into space. NASA talks about human missions to Mars, but I would not hold my breath about the possibilities. The United States Air Force seems more interested in drones and surveillance satellites than putting people into space.
The future of space exploration and exploitation is primarily in the hands of commercial entrepreneurs like SpaceX, Orbital Sciences, and Virgin Galactic. Perhaps this is the way that it should be. Those who take the risks will receive the rewards. These are the entities that will reap the benefits from asteroid mining, power generation, and space factories. Exploitation will trump exploration with the latter done only by instruments.
The downside is that governments will eventually find themselves completely dependent on independent contractors for space services. With military downsizing, this is the approach now used in Afghanistan and other places where the U.S. military has a presence overseas. Much of the support, technical, and even security responsibilities are outsourced. This may seem the most economical approach right now, but will it always be so?
Whenever the first human craft lands on Mars, expect it to carry as many logos as a NASCAR contender. And that’s the way it is . . .