This is prediction of the future of humans in space based on real forces: economic, political, market, technological breakthroughs, ...
The story so far
X Prize and Bush's moon plan -> Driving new efforts, changing the way NASA funds stuff, SpaceX starts deliveries
The X Prize was conceived by Peter Diamandis and founded in 1995 with the purpose of encouraging a return to space, and for Diamandis, with the added reason that he wanted to go there someday.1 The prize gave US$10 million to the first non-government spacecraft to go to space twice in two weeks.
Also in 2004, Presdident Bush directed NASA to return to the moon. To focus on such a gargantuan task, NASA realized it would have to hand off some of the near-Earth work to others so it could focus on the harder stuff, and with its new understanding of what space entrepeneurs could do, it began to do just that. Even though Bush's plan was cancelled, NASA kept the idea of handing-off some of the work for low-Earth orbit to entreperneurs while focusing further out.
On October 10, 2012, private space company, SpaceX, berthed with the International Space Station (ISS), and subsequently delivered its first cargo under a Commercial Resupply Services contract with NASA. See below for more about SpaceX.
On September 16, 2014, NASA announced that SpaceX's Dragon and Boeing's CST-100 Starliner had been selected as the spacecraft that will be carrying crew to and from the ISS by 2017.
Near term developments for humans in space (2011 - 2017)
Cancellation of the US space shuttle program -> Private launchers
The termination of the US space shuttle program for economic and political reasons has opened up an opportunity for private investment in new launchers and crew capsules for getting from the Earth to Low Earth Orbit (LEO). Five such private companies are Space Explorations Technologies Corp., better known as SpaceX, Boeing, Blue Origin, SpaceDev Inc. and Orbital Sciences Corp.
In the late 1990's Bigelow Aerospace was formed and licensed the TransHab technology from NASA. In 2006 Bigelow launched their first small scale test habitat, Genesis I, into orbit, followed by Generis II in 2007.
In April 2016 Bigelow and United Launch Alliance announced a partnership to develop and deploy inflatable habitats in space in the form of a space station based on one or more Bigelow's BA330s, a 330 cubic meters (12,000 cubic feet) habitat. The timeframe is expected to be in 2019 or 2020.
Robert Bigelow has also stated that prior to that he is in talks with NASA to attach an initial BA330 to the ISS.
Besides political/budgetary/technological side effects from NASA some of this new movement into manned space flight is due to visionary millionaires and billionaires.
Elon Musk founded SpaceX in March 2002. But before SpaceX, he was the co-founder of the massive internet success, PayPal, which was sold to eBay in October 2002. In April 2004 he co-founded Tesla Motors, a company whose purpose is to eventually sell afforable electric vehicles to the mass market. He has stated that one of his goals is to make life multiplanetary with a focus on colonizing Mars. After a realization that a big stumbling block is the cost of the rockets, he founded SpaceX. The Falcon 9 is intended to be the first fully reusable orbital rocket, significantly reducing costs.
Robert Bigelow founded Bigelow Aerospace in 1998 with much of the funding coming from his fortune amassed from his Budget Suites of America hotel chain. Robert Bigelow had dreamed of establishing a permanent human presence in space since a young age but knew he had to make money to do it. And so he did, in the form of his hotel chain. When NASA cancelled TransHab in 2000, Bigelow bought the rights to it and the rest will be history.2
The market for space tourism is another driving force that exists and will grow. Bigelow Aerospace is targeting corporations and governments as customers for their Alpha Station, but not tourists. However, the ISS will continue to be a tourist destination and there will possibly be other space stations in Earth orbit for this purpose. The space tourism company, Space Adventures, has an agreement with the Federal Space Agency of the Russian Federation and Rocket Space Corporation Energia for three more tourists who will use the Russian Soyuz spacecraft to visit the ISS beginning in 2013.
Asteroid resource prospecting and mining (2015- )
Planetary Resources, Inc. plans to mine near Earth asteroids for water, platinum and other valuables. Their vision is to make the resources in space available to people both in space and on Earth. The two co-founders and co-chairmen are Peter Diamandis (the founder of the X Prize) and Eric Anderson.
Their approach is threefold. They'll first send up craft to identify all of the most valuable near Earth asteroids and how to reach them. Actual mining would commence a decade later. As resources are mined they'll deliver them to wherever they're needed.
Water in deep space is estimated to be worth $20,000 to $50,000 per pound and so they plan to go after that first. This will be done by enveloping the asteroid and then heating it up. That will release the volatiles, such as water, which will be collected. One result will be a fuel depot since water is made up of hydrogen and oxygen both of which are used as spacecraft propellent. After that they plan to go after other resources, mainly precious metals, including platinum which is $1500 an ounce.
Their approach will be to use only robots, not people. They've created a line of spacecraft called the Arkyd series which will be involved in the prospecting phase. The series that follows the Arkyd will begin the material collection and processing in support of asteroid mining.
On July 16, 2015, Planetary Resources' first spacecraft, the Arkyd 3 Reflight (A3R), was deployed from the International Space Station (ISS) for a 90 day mission.
Robotic moon resource exploration (2016- )
Google Lunar X Prize -> Robotic explorers on the moon
In September 2007, the X Prize Foundation announced the Google Lunar X Prize. Sponsored by Google, it's a total of $30 million intended to stimulate privately funded missions to the moon.
The first prize is $20 million for successfully landing on the moon, travelling 500 meters (1,640 feet) and transmitting back high definition images and movies. An additional $4 million prize is offered for completing other objectives including travelling over 5 kilometers; for surviving the lunar night, when temperatures can get down to -210C (-346F) that of liquid nitrogen; for detecting water; and for making a precision landing near an Apollo site or other sites interest (such as other landings/crashings of man-made hardware.) And there's $1 million for the team that "greatest attempts to promote diversity in the field of space exploration". $5 million goes to the team that comes in second.
The deadline is December 31, 2017. Contestants have until the end of 2016 to announce verified launch contracts to be qualified to compete.
Astrobotic Technology is now planning on launching on a SpaceX Falcon 9 rocket for their X Prize attempt in the second half of 2016. The original plan was to send a rover named Red Rover to the Apollo 11 landing site but in July 2011, NASA set a 75-meter keep-out zone around the site and so Astrobotic decided to not go there.
As of February 2015, Astrobotic's plan is to send a newer generation rover called Andy to a lunar skylight, a hole in the lunar surface exposing an open volume underneath. The lander that will get it there is called a Griffin, a workhorse that will also be used for other missions to get rovers and payloads to the lunar surface. Along for the ride as a customer will be another X Prize competitor from the Japanese team HAKUTO with its twin rovers Moonraker and Tetris.
Skylights are formed when the ceiling of a cavern collapses. They could be locations for housing lunar habitats since they provide a level of protection from meteorites and radiation. The plan is to launch the mission on a Falcon 9 rocket in the second half of 2016. The destination is Lacus Mortis, latin for Lake of Death, in which there is a rille called Rimae Burg. A rille looks like a valley formed either by erosion or an empty lava tube that was formerly running underground just under the surface and has collapsed leaving the valley-like formation. These collapsed lava tubes offer possible entry to still underground areas. Near Rimae Burg are also some pit craters which look to have skylights, holes which also extend underground.
Taken alone, this is not significant to the future colonization of space but they plan to follow with further expeditions. That includes one involving a rover called Polaris which is slated to go to the moon's north pole. Polaris will use a neutron spectrometer to detect hydrogen below the lunar surface, indicating the presence of either water or methane. It will then drill for samples to be analyzed by onboard instruments. A near infrared spectrometer will look for variations in surface temperatures hinting at the ice below the surface.
Astrobotic plans to make money by selling lunar data gathered on their expeditions, selling payload space, selling services rendered with its vision systems and manipulators, producing and selling media and through sponsors. Companies that wish to do prospecting for mining opportunities, for example, can use Astrobotic's services to do so.
Astrobotic Technology is just one upcoming example of a provider of these types of services. Others may also arise. The result will be a relatively low cost and low risk way of understanding lunar resources and techniques for exploiting those resources. From this, companies and governments can then progress to the next stage, actual exploitation of lunar resources using moonbases, robotics and humans.
Long term developments for humans in space (2017- )
A moonbase built of inflatable modules
And before any customers can journey to the moon on a regular basis, a transportation system for doing so must exist. Doing so using one-off Saturn V sized rockets, the ones used to send men to the moon in the late 1960s and early 1970s, is simply not sustainable. However, Elon Musk has stated that his Falcon Heavy can send people to the moon in two flights, one to get people there and one to send the return spaceship. As stated above, the Falcon Heavy is intended to be reusable.
Mars One - Permanent human settlement on Mars with first settlers scheduled for 2027
Mars One plans to begin a human settlement on Mars, with the first four settlers arriving there in 2027. The key to making it affordable is that there would be no return flight back to Earth; it's a one-way trip. The endeavour is to be funded by sponsors and from revenue made by selling broadcasting rights. The process will be filmed with the settlers lives on camera. The settler application process began on April 22nd, 2013.
The settlement is planned to consist of modified and enlarged SpaceX Dragon capsules and inflatables, all connected together and with power supplied by solar panels. Robotic rovers will play a large part in setting up the colony.
The current schedule is:
Business opportunities in space
So thus far:
What additional business opportunities would there be that will get an Earth-moon system economy going?
1. Transportation between Earth orbit and moon - If destinations exist at the Lagrange points and on the moon, possibly in the form of Bigelow habitats, then a means would be needed to get there - a bus/trucking company so to speak. This would be a spacecraft that remains in space at all times. Passengers and cargo would fly from Earth to an orbital space station using a Falcon 9/Dragon spacecraft (for example.) In addition, the bus/trucking company would also fly up supplies and propellant as needed by the same means. The bus/truck would then transport the passengers and cargo from Earth orbit to their destination and back for a fee. This is also the stage at which tourists can start visiting the moon.
Once propellant and other resources become available from the moon and space stations then this transportation system would be used to move those around too. As well, propellant for the transportation itself would no longer need to be shipped up from Earth.
2. Selling moon water as propellant, water, air - On October 9, 2009 NASA's LCROSS (Lunar CRater Observation and Sensing Satellite) mission proved that there is water in permanently shadowed areas of the moon and that some of it is in the form of mostly pure ice crystals. At the same time it was found that there are also useful volatiles such as methane, ammonia, hydrogen gas, carbon dioxide and carbon monoxide. It also found relatively large quantities of light metals such as sodium, mercury and maybe silver. Missions prior to LCROSS had already found by measuring neutron emmisions that there is abundent hydrogen at the moons poles.
The hydrogen, ammonia and methane are useful for making rocket propellant. Oxygen for breathing can be gathered by heating lunar soil. And of course, lunar ice can be melted down to produce water. All of these are marketable products for use off-Earth.
3. Moon satellite services - There would be a market for satellite services on the moon and throughout space. This is the same situation we have with satellites serving Earth. Services needed include communications (including telerobotics), location finding akin to GPS, health monitoring, mapping and resource location, and so on. The customers for these services would be the users on the moon, in space and on Earth. NASA has already done some planning on using commercial services for just this purpose4.
4. Mining moon resources for use in Earth-moon space - As already stated above, there are many metals in lunar soil. The following table is taken from the Lunar Resources Utilization for Space Construction study done for NASA by General Dynamics Convair in 1979. Note that abundant water is a recent discovery on the moon and so the figure for hydrogen is no longer correct. It does illustrate that the moon has similar composition and material availablity to Earth and so it should be possible to supply most raw materials needed for a sustainable space-based economy.
5. Earth satellite maintenance, orbital debris clean-up/salvage - An internationally agreed upon mandated fee could be put in place for satellites that reach their end of life and have no means of being deorbitted. The fee would be paid by the satellite owners to the organization that oversees the management of the program, with the bulk of the fee going to orbital companies that remove the satellite from orbit. Of course services would also include satellite maintenance and even refueling.
Others - The above are only a few ideas. Others include growing and selling food, making solar panels from lunar silicon, and more. After a time, the amount of supplies shipped up from Earth could be decreased by producing much of what is needed in space stations and moonbases. Eventually a sustainable space-to-space economy would develop, even if only as a side effect of decreasing the costs of space efforts in support of Earth.
Ad Asrta plans for eventual use of their VASIMR technology for carrying cargo from low Earth orbit to low moon orbit, each journey taking months but using less fuel than chemical rockets. This could serve as the cargo truck spoken of above, though in this form is not suitable for people due to the long travel time.
The long term use for the VASIMR rocket for manned space travel would be to scale it up to be able to make use of a nuclear power source for transporting people to Mars. Such a trip would take days instead of months and would permit the beginnings of a Earth-Mars system economy.
Possible new way of getting to orbit - Airship to orbit
JP Aerospace has been working since 1993 on a novel, two-stage approach to getting to Earth orbit using airships instead of rockets. The approach seems feasible and many of the components and systems have been tested and the work is ongoing with tests flights done every year since.