2021: Traffic jams in space

10 Mar

Remember last week when I said forget space? Well no, of course we can’t – there are going to be some big breakthroughs in space exploration over the next decade. There’s a veritable flurry of activity already in this area and the skies are soon going to start getting pretty crowded.

India plans to be the fourth country to launch a manned space mission, after Russia, the United States and China, in 2016 with an eye to getting to the moon by 2030. A good overview of what the country is doing can be found here.

China, meanwhile, in 2010 tied the United States for total number of space launches with 15 each and plans to start exploring Mars with robots later this year.

Then there’s Iran, which also aims to send a man into space by 2019. As with a lot of things that President Mahmoud Ahmadinejad says, though, we may have to take this one with a grain of salt.

The U.S. had initial plans to go back to the moon and then on to Mars, but funding for those programs has been cut. Alas, space exploration tends to suffer under Democratic presidents. Fortunately, there are also private sector initiatives springing up with things like Virgin Galactic’s space flights and the Google-sponsored X-Prize. There really has never been more activity going around space exploration.

Aside from feeding a natural curiosity about what’s up there, space exploration is also one of the best ways to fuel scientific research and advancement here on the ground. NASA alone has churned out useful technology after useful technology, from communications equipment and aerospace manufacturing to better car tires and margarine to food-inspection systems and even super-soaker squirt guns. There’s literally too much to get into here, but I do devote a whole chapter to it in Sex, Bombs and Burgers if you’re curious.

The point is, with so many other countries – and companies – getting involved, the technological benefits back here on Earth are going to dramatically multiply from previous years when it was just the U.S. and Russia. It’s actually difficult to predict the exact ways in which new space technology is going to enhance our lives over the next decade, because it’s going to do so in every imaginable way, from communications and transportation to food and biology.

Personally, I’m pulling for things like Virgin Galactic and the X-Prize because I would really love to get up to space in my lifetime. It’s not going to happen in the next 10 years, but I wish both those projects luck. If they succeed, they may very well make that dream – which I’m sure zillions of people share – a reality in the not-too-distant future.

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Posted by on March 10, 2011 in NASA, space


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