The receding final frontier of outer space

One small step for man…and mankind’s last step? Neil Armstrong’s death has prompted much navel-gazing at what has become of the space age that the mission to the Moon was supposed to herald, when in the decades since, human exploration has largely ceased, venturing no further than the International Space Station. The US space shuttle program is over, as is its funding for the Constellation Program that was supposed to reopen the door to human spaceflight; the only manned spacecraft at the moment are the Russian Soyuz modules, the only way of getting astronauts to the ISS and back.

In a way, there is a certain aptness about Armstrong’s death, coming in the same year as a new space age has been foreshadowed once again, this time surrounding the prospects for private space flight – built and operated by private companies, not by governments. The success of the SpaceX Dragon’s visit to the ISS in May is “a demonstration of the idea that a small private firm can do something that has, until now, been the preserve of nation-states”, writes the Economist. Nearly a decade after SpaceShipOne won the X-Prize competition by going 100km up for private spaceflight (and now, as Virgin Galactic, aims to make a business out of such suborbital trips), the momentum and energy now seems to be firmly with private firms, whether it be for space tourism or as ‘space trucks’. Chinese plans to send a man to the Moon (triggering this academic piece about Chinese conquest of the Moon), or India’s own burgeoning space program, by contrast, are signs of their worldly ambitions here on Earth – but hardly constitute boldly going where no-one has gone before, or exploring strange new worlds (see Star Trek: The Next Generation opening credits below).

This is, on one hand, the privatisation of space missions – the SpaceX goal is to nab a $1.6bn contract from NASA to deliver cargo to the ISS, as NASA seeks to subcontract out ISS deliveries. And only with the backing of wealthy private individuals can the barriers to entry be overcome by would-be spacefirms – SpaceX is bankrolled by a billionaire, as is Virgin Galactic by Richard Branson. Armstrong himself didn’t seem to be terribly keen on private space missions, although fiction envisions future worlds where private corporations are common across the cosmos, from the excellent 2009 film Moon to the Trade Federation of the Star Wars universe.

And yet will mankind get beyond near-Earth orbit, inner space as opposed to outer space? Last year the Economist wrote of geostationary orbit, where an object orbits in time with the Earth’s rotation, as marking the limits of human activity in space. The transformations brought by the Space Age have been those confined to 0 to 36,000km up, forested by a ring of satellites that bring us GPS, deforestation estimates, and troop movements. The visions of starfleets and space cadets is all but over:

“The future, then, looks bounded by that new outer limit of planet Earth, the geostationary orbit. Within it, the buzz of activity will continue to grow and fill the vacuum. This part of space will be tamed by humanity, as the species has tamed so many wildernesses in the past. Outside it, though, the vacuum will remain empty. There may be occasional forays, just as men sometimes leave their huddled research bases in Antarctica to scuttle briefly across the ice cap before returning, for warmth, food and company, to base. But humanity’s dreams of a future beyond that final frontier have, largely, faded.”

In 2010, Armstrong spoke of a deeper quest to explore the unexplored, on the Moon and beyond: “”Some question why Americans should return to the moon. After all,’ they say, ‘we have already been there.’ I find that mystifying. It would be as if 16th-century monarchs proclaimed that ‘we need not go to the New World, we have already been there.’…Americans have visited and examined six locations on Luna, varying in size from a suburban lot to a small township. That leaves more than 14m square miles yet to explore.”

But, for both governments and the private sector, it seems, perhaps only when it becomes profitable to do so.

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