Very quietly, very subtly, we have reached the brink of what will likely be known as the Second Space Age. I would make the argument that the First Space Age ended with the last Shuttle flight, as good a marker as any to herald the turning point between government and corporate primary in space exploitation. In the 20th century, it was as much a matter of prestige and defence interests as anything else - most of the technological advancements that have transformed our lives were spin-offs from military research, everything from comsats to advancements in meteorology that have made the weather forecast something more than a joke.
We’re in an interregnum, and it has lasted for a very long time. Let me first say that I loved Shuttle, loved the look and the feel of it, but in my opinion it was a colossal misstep that set mankind’s exploration of space back decades. It dominated NASA, but compromises right at the start of its design meant that it could never be what it needed to be - a cheap way of accessing space. Preserving the Apollo/Saturn setup would have given so many more options, allowed so much more, that it seems absurd that it was given up, the key decisions made before man even landed on the Moon. Look at Russia - Soyuz is approaching its sixth decade in service, and allowed them to maintain manned space stations since the 1980s, with only a fraction of the NASA budget.
Nevertheless, things are beginning at last to open up. By the end of this decade, there will be commercial manned space flight - I have every confidence that SpaceX will fulfill its mandate, and Boeing also. Three roads into space instead of one. In all probability, commercial space stations will also exist, and that really does begin to open up a world of possibilities that simply have not been possible at the moment. The cost of everything falling, and rapidly - and there will be takers, those willing to spend the money. They’ll come to manufacture new products, to promote their national prestige, or simply for the glorious view, but they will come, and they will stay. (Side bet. By the end of the 2020s, at least one octogenarian billionaire will be living in space in a bid to extend his lifespan. Anyone want to take me up on that?)
Don’t forget Skylon, something that Britain can actually be proud of in the field of space exploration. The spaceplane was always going to be what would truly open up space, but it is a creature of the 21st century, not the 20th. Never mind; it is coming anyway, and soon. By the end of that 2020s we’ll be flying spaceplanes into orbit, and the dream of low-cost space access will at last be hoving into view. And remember - when you are in Low Earth Orbit, you are halfway to anywhere.
Which means the Moon. The cost of putting a man on the Moon is still going to be high, but instead of being Manhattan Project high, it’ll be Lex Luthor high. Someone will do it. If he was thirty years younger, I’d bet on Richard Branson; as it is, there are plenty of candidate billionaires with the interest and passion for such a flight. And if you are doing the mission from a LEO space station, you’ve managed to set up the infrastructure that Von Braun wanted, all those decades ago. Because here’s the trick - spend the money once, and make sure that you don’t have to spend it again. A transfer station from LEO to the Moon...and there is still a lot of good science to be done there, not to mention the potential Helium-3 assets. China and India have both expressed interests, and they’re going to need the power. Though I doubt we’ll actually see extensive Lunar colonies; I have a horrible feeling that Luna City will remain a phantom. It’s too easy a commute from Earth. Think oil rigs or Antarctic research stations.
Go further, and it becomes a different story. We’re going to get to Mars, and I’ll throw down right now and say that we’ll do it by 2030. NASA won’t; it’ll be a commercial consortium most likely, but don’t bet against the Russians giving another October surprise. They’ve got the know-how and the desire - their space enthusiasts have been aiming at the Red Planet for more than a century. Someone will go, though. A matured LEO infrastructure will give all the tools to do it. As for technology...frankly, we could have done this any time in the last two decades. It’s just a question of spending the money now. There’s a great piece on Atomic Rockets called ‘Cape Fear’; that should give you a good idea of where interplanetary colonization will go. Mars is far enough away that it isn’t a commute, and there it does make sense to plan longer-term settlement. Bye bye Luna City, hello Port Lowell.
If you can get to Mars, you can get to Venus. Someone will, though I doubt to stay unless someone finds something interesting in the atmosphere. Perhaps an international consortium will put a research station in orbit to service manned or unmanned airships exploring the planet, but we’re back in the Antarctic again here. Mars will happen first for the simple reason that you can take that big first step, but Venus will happen soon afterward in a ship that looks essentially the same, but without the lander. Another great adventure.
The Asteroids? Certainly. Probably not glorious Ceres and Vesta, though, not if the plan is commercial exploitation. (Someone will likely tick them off, though; after Mars and Venus, they’ll be a new prestige race to do it. Anything that the public know about which can be reached with the same flight set-up will get visited, probably within ten-fifteen years of landing on Mars. It’s different this time; the infrastructure will be a lot more reusable than it was before.) There are near-Earth asteroids to look at, and there again are possibilities for commercial exploitation. Not for use on Earth directly, but to start feeding orbital factories; no-one’s going to be sending millions of tons of iron ingots down to Woomera, but hundreds of tons of refined products are another matter entirely. Mars is a key here again; it already has two ‘asteroids’ orbiting it.
If you want to do better, though, head out to Saturn. Sixty-two moons, most of them small enough to count as asteroids, all the water you could want, and the biggest prize of all. Titan. Whatever happens with renewable energy, we’re going to need petrochemicals for all sorts of industrial reasons, and they are right there, waiting. Enough to last us for thousands, tens of thousands of years. By the 2060s, someone will have gone out that far, even if it is a two-year flight, and there will be plans to start exploiting that resource. The Yukon of the 21st century; petrochemical exploitation from Titan, and mineral extraction from the smaller moons.
Where does this put us, then? As usual, there will be a race on, a race for exploitation and development. Throw in another factor; Earth’s going to be visibly suffering the effects of climate change by then, and that’s going to lead to a lot of people wanting out, and wanting their families out as well. An exodus of millionaires? Not impossible, and that might be the one thing that finally gets L-5 colonies off the drawing board, though again, they’ll be built not from lunar resources, but Martian and NEO. Hell, probably easier to move an asteroid into position rather than build a station. Or just colonize Mars instead.
So, the Solar System fifty years from now. Thousands of people in LEO, working in transfer stations, space industry, or servicing the satellite constellations. (Another prediction for you. By then, space junk will not be a problem; we’re not going to be able to allow the Hofmann Effect to happen. Likely the original Clarke concept of a few large stations that do all the jobs will finally come to pass; it would have made a lot more sense to do it that way in the first place.) The first L-5 colonies under construction, retreats from the increasing problems on Earth - though again, by then we will be working on fixing them, from simple necessity.
Beyond, a small population on the Moon, likely in the hundreds, mining Helium-3 and scared about what is happening out at Saturn; because it is present there in even greater quantities. A larger population on Mars, in the thousands, on one of the moons and on the surface - mining on the moons, and later perhaps on the Mars Trojans. A twenty-year-old space station orbiting Venus, constantly on the verge of being taken out of service due to cost. Astronauts out at Titan, building the first stations and outposts and testing equipment for the planned exploitation, and slow freighters being built to carry the fruits of their labor back to Earth. (Yes, the Nostromo is going to be a reality by this point, or at least abuilding.) Humans have been to Callisto, and the first Triton expedition is on the drawing boards, an excuse to showcase new propulsion technologies and a patriotic exercise for one of the Great Powers - China, the United States, India, Europe. Toss a coin.
It’s going to happen, one way or another. The dream didn’t die after Apollo...it just got postponed a little.