Last weekend, Neil Armstrong, the first man to set foot on the moon, passed away at the age of 82. At the height of the Cold War, he provided a moment that brought together people around the world as a unified body of global citizens. Possibly the most recognizable crew member on the Apollo 11 mission, he transformed the way many people saw space, and continued to influence the future of spaceflight during the years leading up to his passing. A reclusive but highly sought-after individual, for years he was the epitomization of a superstar in hiding. In recent years, Armstrong gave a few short speeches, and a few longer ones in the form of Congressional Hearings. They were succinct and to the point - controversial at times, but no less highly regarded. His presence in the space community and beyond will be missed. As one of my friends noted, he truly has a legacy that extends beyond this earth. Few can say they have that.
The moon missions that followed the Apollo 11 mission were equally impressive, but as the Space Race wound down to a close, so too did America’s ambitions for human spaceflight. Space Shuttle missions continued up until the program’s decommissioning last year, but the innovation curve for the federal space sector has been flattening for decades. Armstrong’s passing thus begs the question - what is the future of man in space?
Or perhaps more accurately, is there a future?
Right now, the answer appears to be an emphatic yes. The future is bright for human spaceflight, and there are a variety of innovations on the horizon that could usher in yet another golden age of space exploration.
The first transformation will be an exponential increase in reusable rocket stages (versus expendable stages) being used in rockets. This will drive the cost per pound down dramatically - it won’t be enough to make spaceflight affordable for the average person, but for corporations and governments deploying payloads, it’ll make a big difference. SpaceX is actively developing these types of stages, and their shuttle-specific projects will be completed decades before NASA’s.
Next, a drastic improvement on the current generation of hypergolic propellants will be needed. Current fuel mixtures work well for spaceflight, but they are both inefficient and costly to produce. It is difficult to imagine a reduction in production costs, but more efficient and powerful fuels are currently being researched. This is important when we consider long-distance space travel (say, to Mars). Storage, mixing, and ignition all become much more complicated after escaping the grasp of Earth’s orbit. A safe, powerful, and efficient fuel mixture will be critical. The only other potential alternative to hypergolic fuel is cryogenic propellant, which is essentially a cocktail of liquified gases. However, they must be stored at very low temperatures, which adds another wrinkle into the engineering problem.
Another notable step will be the refinement of hypersonic capabilities. Active tests are already being carried out by DARPA which tangibly confirm America’s intent on developing quick-response weapons systems, which could in theory strike anywhere in the world in under an hour. Another obvious application of this technology would be the rapid deployment of satellites, as well as the ability to quickly get strategic space-based defense systems into place. However, the possibilities of hypersonic travel in outer space are limited because current versions of the scramjet engine are air-breathing, and need atmospheric oxygen in order to maintain velocity. Space doesn’t possess this critical ingredient, so a rethinking of current technology is needed.
The combination of improvements in the above three areas will sustain man’s reach into space for the time being, but more significant innovations will be necessary before a human mission to Mars is possible. Fortunately, this problem’s already being seriously worked on too. Elon Musk, who has already stated that his life goal is “to make humanity a mult-planetary species”, is harnessing the talent at SpaceX to begin developing a next generation capsule for Mars that could be lived in by astronauts during the multi-month journey to the red planet. Sustainability of life is being mapped out as well, with several blueprints for how a miniature colony might look having already been made.
Overall, man’s future in space still hangs in the balance - but it’s being tilted in the right direction, thanks to an infusion of capital from the private sector and a renewed public interest in spaceflight. If this momentum can be sustained, a human Mars mission could happen by the 2030s. But in the eyes of some, a journey like that would be only the beginning. As Earth’s infrastructure and resource supply continues to become more strained, the hunt for habitable planets will begin to heat up. Saturn’s moons are a possibility, but other than that, there are few immediate prospects. If necessity is indeed the mother of invention, an explosion of innovation and intense focus on the space sector very well may arise.
The first giant leap for mankind was the Moon. Mars is next.