Folks, we live in a world where this is real. That is a truly amazing thing.
And what is coming up over the next few years is just as amazing. In two years from now, New Horizons flies past Pluto and its moons, giving us our first close-up look at a Kuiper Belt object, and that promises to provide a major step forward for planetology. Within the same time-frame, the first suborbital tourist flights will have taken place, bringing the stars just a little bit closer for all of us. The Rosetta probe is about to conduct the closest ever examination of a comet in November next year, and that should provide us with a lot of interesting information about a critical part of our solar system.
Within the decade, private companies will be opening up access to space, at a fraction of the cost of anything NASA provided. Don't get me wrong – I loved Shuttle, it was a magnificent creation, but in my opinion it was a huge mis-step. If those funds had gone to keeping the Apollo/Saturn production lines open, then we'd have something at a cost comparable to Soyuz, but capable of a much wider range of capabilities. Never mind, we're getting them back again; SpaceX is slated to have its heavy-lift booster well within the decade, as well as its manned missions, and Boeing's running along similar lines. ISS is scheduled to be retired in 2020...but will it?
The Russians are already considering detaching their elements with a new core module to create a new space station specifically intended to service longer-ranged exploratory missions – the Moon and Mars. It's quite true that some elements of Station will be showing their age by then, heck, some of them are now, as the recent ammonia leak suggests. Other modules are a lot newer, though – even if the Station itself is abandoned and de-orbited, I can certainly see the Russian idea adopted for other modules, maybe even for Space Station II. (Launched by private companies, most likely, but it's going to happen. Probably with a four-star-hotel module, but it'll happen.)
We're in a period analogous to the gap between Apollo and Shuttle. Soyuz is beginning to show its age a little, but a recent upgrade seems to be going well, and it isn't as if they're reusing the modules. (Side bet – once private manned space kicks in, someone will licence Soyuz. The Russians would likely go for it if the money could be used to finance their next-generation capsule, whatever they are calling it this week.)
My predictions for 2020 in space?
- At least two space stations in orbit. (Out of three possibles – ISS, Chinese, Commercial. I wouldn't rule out the Russian OPSEK just yet, but it's very dependent on what happens with the Space Station Consortium.)
- A return to lunar orbit, probably as a tourist flight. (A bit risky this one, but within the limits of the hardware.)
- Private manned space flights that are not government-sponsored. (Corporate research, tourism, lots of possibles here. Unlikely a monopoly on space will last very long.)
- No manned landing on Mars. (Disappointing...but practical. We could do it – and I'm an optimist who expects it by 2030. The technology will be there by then in spades.)