There’s Nothing Final About the Final Frontier

You ask a kid what they want to be when they grow up, and they’ll answer princess, cowboy,  firefighter, President, astronaut. Most people see these childhood ambitions cruelly crushed by reality, but not all: this year, NASA received the second-highest number of applications to their astronaut training program in the organization’s history. Where most childhood superheroes have moved on to Management and Marketing and other less explosions-and-glitter careers, there are a hardy few who still see themselves among the stars.

Image courtesy of mpancha, © 2008, some rights reserved.

Over the past few years, there’s been a marked rise in the public’s interest in space exploration. The sharp rise in applications to NASA’s astronaut training program, combined with small-scale individual space ventures, and the entertainment industry’s reinvestment in science-fiction makes space seem a lot closer than it did a few years ago, when NASA was being defunded and its projects shelved. Last month, when Felix Baumgartner threw himself out of a capsule on the edge of Earth’s atmosphere, the entire world looked up. Over the past few years, the Maker movement has enabled the everyman to send up his own picosatellite[1], for just the cost of a new laptop. Both the Star Wars and Star Trek series, which in their heyday inspired thousands of young people to look to galaxies far away and frontiers not yet breached, will release brand-new installments in the next three years. Space, once again, has captured the imaginations of the masses.

Private ventures, the rich man’s creative outlet, have begun to press the boundaries of human innovation in a way the world’s governments have failed to: Space Adventures is currently the only company currently providing options for private space flight; Virgin Galactic, Sir Richard Branson’s dream to make space travel affordable for the masses, is taking off; SpaceX created the impressively successful Dragon Capsule, and is one of three private launch companies (the other two being Boeing and Sierra Nevada) contracted with NASA to ferry astronauts to the International Space Station (ISS) following the retirement of the shuttles Discovery, Endeavour, and Atlantis. The recent successful return of SpaceX’s Dragon Capsule from its mission to resupply the ISS was a triumph for the private sector of space exploration, proving that all the “pie in the sky” astropreneur start-ups have viable potential. The success of Space Adventures, who has sent up individuals such as Guy Laliberte, the CEO of Cirque du Soleil, and Sarah Brightman, the famed classical singer and ex-wife of Lord Andrew Lloyd Weber, bodes well for the future of commercial space travel. Virgin Galactic has already sold over five hundred places upon their pioneer space flights, which are to take place on ships that are not yet seaworthy— or rather, spaceworthy. If the public demand for all things space-related is as high as it seems, especially following the tremendously popular cross-country tour of the Space Shuttle Endeavour, then perhaps they will be more acquiescent to governments re-entering orbit.

In fact, Great Britain is set to increase “space spending” by £120 million over the next two years, in order to increase their participation in the European Space Agency (ESA); simultaneously, China is preparing to launch yet another manned spaceship this coming June, and is taking a serious look at being the second country to put a person on the moon[2]. Furthermore, the Chief of the ESA, Jean-Jacques Dordain, is confident that the agency will elect to participate in NASA’s Multi-Purpose Crew Vehicle (MPCV) Project, a reincarnation of the Orion Project from NASA’s cancelled Constellation Program[3]. South Africa and Australia won rights, this past year, to the installation of the Square Kilometer Array (SKA) on their respective soils. The SKA, a radio telescope set to be fifty to one hundred times more powerful than any built before, may not be landing men on Mars, but it is certainly one of the most ambitious space endeavors the international community has embarked on since the ISS. Governments across the globe are concentrating their efforts to understand the galaxy, so as to reach further into the void than ever before.

So what does the future of space exploration hold? Following the recent re-election of United States President Barack Obama, rumors abound that NASA is preparing to announce a series of manned moon missions, leading to the establishment of a “human-tended waypoint” on the dark side of the moon (much like in Asimov’s I, Robot.) Similarly, it seems that the privatization of the exploration of the limits and possibilities of zero-gravity flight might drive our current space base, the ISS, past its current development-based program into one more focused on its potential as a jumping-off point for long-distance travel. Or maybe, the fifteen-year-old station will fall to the ranks of Skylab and Mir, as China, only the third country to independently send people into space, is determined to establish its own fully-functional orbiting space station by 2020[4] (the year the ISS is set to run out of funding.) The future of space exploration is as foggy as the universe itself. However, the trend seems to be set: mankind once again is boldly going into vastness unknown, and Space Princesses everywhere are rejoicing.

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