The Future of Human Space Exploration

A NASA artist concept of future crews living and working on the Moon. NASA/Davidson

From Here to There: Human Space Flight

Space flight has been a reality since the early 1960s. It continues today, and there are plans for asteroid, Moon, and Mars missions in the relatively near future. Why explore space? What have we done so far? These are questions that power our future in space.

Human exploration of space actually began in 1961. That's when Soviet cosmonaut Yuri Gagarin became the first man into space.

He was followed by other Soviet and U.S. space explorers who landed on the Moon, circled Earth in space stations and labs, and blasted off aboard shuttles and space capsules.

Living and Working in Space

The work of these men and women have helped establish the process of learning how to live and work in space. Humans have established a long-term presence in orbital space with the International Space Station, and U.S. astronauts spent time on the Moon in the late 1960s and early1970s. Plans for human habitation of Mars or the Moon are in the works, and some missions—such as the long-term assignments in space of such astronauts as Scott Kelly— test astronauts to see how the human body reacts on long missions to other planets (such as Mars, where we already have robotic explorers and long-term rovers) or spend lifetimes on the Moon. 

Many mission scenarios follow a familiar line:  establish a space station (or two), establish lunar science stations and colonies, and then after testing ourselves in near-Earth space, take the leap to Mars.

Or an asteroid or two. Those plans are in the long-term; at best, the first Mars explorers won't set foot on the Red Planet until the 2020s or 2030s.

The Near-term Goals of Space Exploration 

NASA and the Russian Space Agency are partnering to bring astronauts to the International Space Station. Since the space shuttle fleet retired in 2011, Russian rockets have been blasting off with Americans (and astronauts of other nationalities) to the ISS.

NASA's Commercial Crew and Cargo program are working with companies such as Boeing, SpaceX, and United Launch Associates to come up with safe and cost-effective ways to deliver humans to space. In addition, Sierra Nevada Corporation is proposing an advanced space plane.  

The current plan (in the second decade of the 21st century) is to use the Orion crew vehicle, which is very similar in design to the Apollo capsules (but with more-advanced systems), stacked atop a rocket, to bring astronauts to a number of different locations, including the ISS. The hope is to use this same design to take crews to near-Earth asteroids, the Moon, and Mars. The system is still being built and tested, as are space launch systems (SLS) tests for the necessary booster rockets.

The design of the Orion capsule was widely criticized by some as a giant step backward, particularly by people who felt that the nation's space agency should try for an updated shuttle design (one that would be safer than its predecessors and with more range). Due to technical limitations of the shuttle designs, plus the need for reliable technology (plus political considerations that are both complex and ongoing), NASA chose the Orion concept (after the cancellation of a program called Constellation).


Beyond NASA and Roscosmos

The United States is not alone in sending people to space. Russia intends to continue operations on the ISS, while China has sent astronauts to space, and the Japanese and Indian space agencies are moving ahead with plans to send their own citizens as well. The Chinese have plans for a permanent space station, set for construction in the next decade. The China National Space Administration has also set its sights on the exploration of Mars, with possible crews setting foot on the Red Planet beginning perhaps in 2040.

India has more modest initial plans. The Indian Space Research Organization (which has a mission at Mars) is working to develop a launch-worthy vehicle and carry a two-member crew to low-Earth orbit perhaps in the next decade. The Japanese Space Agency JAXA has announced its plans for a space capsule to deliver astronauts to space by 2022 and has also tested a space plane.

The interest in space exploration continues. Whether or not it manifests itself as a full-blown "race to Mars" or "rush to the Moon" or "trip to mine an asteroid" remains to be seen. There are many difficult tasks to accomplish before humans are routinely jetting off to the Moon or Mars. Nations and governments need to evaluate their long-term commitment to space exploration. The technological advancements to deliver humans to these places are taking place, as are the tests on humans to see if they really CAN withstand the rigors of long space flights to alien environments and safely live in a more dangerous environment than Earth. It now remains for the social and political spheres to come to terms with humans as a space-faring species.