Space exploration began when a round satellite named Sputnik was launched into space by the Soviet Union in 1957. The resulting space race saw the United States trying to be the first country to explore this new frontier by committing to reaching and walking on the moon.

When that goal was accomplished in the late 1960s, NASA (National Aeronautics and Space Agency) continued to probe the outer limits with unmanned satellites and do research in space with its Space Shuttle program. However, with funding cuts, it is unclear what the future of space exploration will be for the agency.

Grounding the Space Shuttle

The first Space Shuttle, the Columbia, was launched in April 1981 and the program survived for about 30 years before the decision was made to end it. The decision was made partially due to the cost of maintaining the space vehicles and the lack of personnel to begin a new program.

The spacecraft was necessary to help build the International Space Station, which was commissioned by President Reagan in 1984. The first Space Shuttle was launched to begin building the ISS in 1998 with a projected end in 2010. President George W. Bush announced the end of the Space Shuttle program for 2010, almost 30 years after its first launch.  

A new program, dubbed Constellation, would require a new type of space vehicle to be built called a CEV, or a Crew Exploration Vehicle. There was a commitment to return the Moon and go to Mars using a CEV. However, the funds the program needed to be accomplished on time were never sent to NASA by Congress.

Another problem with Constellation was its need for technologies that didn’t exist. They would need to be developed before the craft could be completed and sent into space. The CEV program, or Orion, was delayed, underfunded and eventually ended.

Corporate Space Travel

As the ISS was an important research facility for the US, Russia, and Japan, researchers still needed to be transported to it. Its construction still needed to be completed as well, requiring payloads to be delivered to it. Since the Space Shuttle program no longer existed, decisions to take bids from private corporations were made to provide the necessary services.

Several companies had the desire to develop commercial spaceflight programs and saw an opportunity to do so by transporting ISS crews to the facility. Both Boeing and SpaceX were award contracts to provide the necessary services to take researchers and payloads to the ISS.

What is SpaceX?

The designer of SpaceX is the entrepreneur and engineer Elon Musk, who is best known for co-founding PayPal and his innovative car company Tesla. SpaceX is Musk’s company that designs and manufactures spacecraft for commercial purposes. Currently, it delivers equipment and supplies to the ISS.

The company has plans to do more, including launching people into space, developing a commercial space flight program, and go to Mars. Their rocket Falcon accomplished the first Earth orbit for a commercial spacecraft in 2010, they were the first company to land a craft in 2014 and tested a reusable space vehicle.

Future Missions for SpaceX

Musk’s company wants to accomplish three additional missions within the next year or so. They plan to launch a new version of a solar sailing spacecraft that was built by the Planetary Society to further explore space.

The next mission will be to launch the Deep Space Atomic Clock, which will provide spacecraft, and other craft, with the most accurate time possible. It will help provide them with the information they need for navigation. Also, the company may attempt a water landing sometime in 2018.

Corporate Space Services

The future of space exploration seems to be corporate as several other companies perform commercial space services, such as launching satellites for communications companies and want to explore commercial passenger space flight. Some of these companies also subcontract with NASA to send payloads to the ISS. These companies include:

Orbital Sciences

This company, which is based in Dulles, VA, has delivered payloads to the ISS using unmanned spacecraft and performed several other flights for NASA.

Sierra Nevada Corporation

The Sierra Nevada Corporation, based in Nevada, builds rockets for Virgin Galactic’s spaceplane and has built its version of the Space Shuttle called the Dream Chaser. This vehicle will carry two to four passengers into space, including NASA astronauts.

Virgin Galactic

This company, which is owned by businessman Sir Richard Branson, wants to be in the business of space tourism. Virgin Galactic had their first test flight in 2013 and planned to send people into space by the end of 2014. However, those goals were not met, but they hope to launch a commercial space flight, which costs $250,000 per person for an hour and a half experience, sometime in 2018.

Made in Space

Research is often conducted in space because it allows for tests to be done that are not possible to do on Earth. Manufacturing may soon be done in space as well if the company Made in Space has anything to say about it. They plan to make parts and tools via 3-D printing in the not too distant future.

Ad Astra Rocket Company

This company plans to develop rockets powered by electric engines instant of fuel. The engines would be more fuel efficient and help companies save money when traveling in space. One of their main projects is to develop plasma thrusters for rockets.

Future Space Missions

The future of space missions would not be complete without knowing which companies would be involved. With the move away from government-funded space missions in the US, there are many more players in the game besides the US and Russia

While the US still spends the most money on exploring space, and Russia spends the most per GDP, China, Japan, and France have also developed space programs.  

Chinese Space Program

The Chinese have plans to build a space station to rival the cooperative ISS. They also want to explore the possibility of capturing an asteroid and placing it in orbit around the Moon. The agency is proposing a study of a chaotic asteroid and, will eventually launch a spacecraft by 2021 to explore the possibility of capturing an asteroid.

Another ambitious plan by the agency, known as the Chinese National Space Administration, is to land a lunar rover on the dark side of the Moon sometime in 2018. The Chang’e 4 mission would study the Moon’s geology.

Japanese Space Program

Japan’s Aerospace Exploration Agency, or JAXA, has sent researchers and payloads to the ISS for several research projects. They added the Kibo research module to the station, along with a robotic arm, and perform regular cargo flights to the station.

Recently, they put the Epsilon Launch Vehicle into space to accomplish their goal to make a reliable space transportation system and future launches easier to do. The Epsilon 3 recently went into space in January 2018 to launch a radar satellite system.   

France Space Program

The leading space program in Europe is France’s Centre National d’Etudes Spatiales (CNES), which started in 1961. The agency started a cooperative effort with Germany, and other countries, to explore the possibility of creating a reusable launch vehicle. This mission, formed in 2015, would lead to testing the vehicle in about 2026.

Medical researchers, in cooperation with CNES, are looking for volunteers to go to space so the effects of being in space on humans can be studied. When astronauts spend extended amounts of time at the ISS or other facilities, they lose bone density and the ability to stand due to muscle atrophy. The goal of this research is to find ways to counterbalance these effects.

Other Missions

Some of the other space missions include the formation of the first independent space nation by a private company called Asgardia. They launched their first satellite, Asgardia-1, in November 2017 to deliver some data to the ISS for the nation. They eventually want to be recognized by the United Nations and have begun to form an economy.

In 2018, SpaceX wants to launch an unmanned mission to Mars, which will be the first commercial mission to go there. NASA will start a new project, its Solar Probe Plus, that will probe the upper atmosphere of the Sun to research the hot star. It will be the agency’s first exploration of a star.

Mars will be the focus of several future missions to explore the planet. India plans to launch their second mission to the planet, while the United Arab Emirates and China will launch their first missions to the planet.

There several plans slated for studying asteroids by NASA, the Asteroid Impact Mission, which is a collaborative effort by NASA and the European Space Agency to study how to change asteroid trajectories, and a private mining company, Deep Space Industries, is considering launching an unmanned craft to an asteroid.

The future of space exploration will include several ambitious missions by government space agencies and private companies within the next decade.