America is headed back to space. This time we'll stay there.
Why the new generation of U.S. space exploration will last
If the predictions of the starry-eyed futurists of the 1960s had been right, humanity would already be a multiplanetary civilization. They expected colonies on the moon and Mars by the early 21st century, if not sooner. That obviously hasn't happened. Even so, America may finally be ready to forge the sort of bold future in space — from near-Earth orbit to our closest neighbors and then beyond — that it abandoned decades ago.
Last year saw the United States return to human spaceflight when a SpaceX rocket ferried NASA astronauts to the International Space Station. Elon Musk's rocket company is also now operating its Starlink global satellite internet service, with big plans to expand. Last month, NASA successfully landed the car-sized Perseverance rover on Mars. And there's plenty more to come over the rest of the year, including tests of two competing mega-rockets: NASA's Space Launch System (SLS) and SpaceX's Starship. Both are heavy-lift launch vehicles critical to carrying large amounts of cargo — including passengers — into orbit, as well as manned journeys to our neighbors in space.
Will Americans step foot on another world anytime soon? Musk says he remains "highly confident" that SpaceX will land humans on Mars by 2026, a goal he first announced back in 2016. As for NASA, it's still shooting to put astronauts on the Moon in 2024, an accelerated target date for its Artemis program that was set by the Trump administration back in 2019. It's a highly ambitious schedule, especially given the struggles NASA has had developing the SLS. With a new president and a new acting NASA administrator, it's unclear whether the 2024 date will stick. But the administration does seem keen to continue Artemis — and to take credit for putting the first woman on the Moon. After White House Press Secretary Jen Psaki confirmed that goal in early February, NASA astronaut Anne McClain, a member of the Artemis team, responded via tweet: "We'll be ready."
The value of gender equality is one theme running through For All Mankind, which just started its second season on Apple TV+. Created by Battlestar Galactica's Ronald D. Moore, the show is an alt-history look at a world where the Space Race never ended — even after it was a Soviet cosmonaut who first walked on the lunar surface. And when the Soviets also then landed the first woman on the Moon, the U.S quickly started recruiting its own corp of female astronauts.
It's that competitive geopolitical fire that keeps America engaged in space in For All Mankind. By the early 1980s in that reality, the U.S. already has a large nuclear-powered moonbase, named Jamestown. A Mars landing is being planned. The space program also gives a boost to innovation here on Earth, including technologies such as electric cars, cell phones, and solar energy. And spin-off tech prevents the Three Mile Island nuclear disaster.
In our world, of course, America won the Space Race — and then cut NASA's budget and abandoned human exploration. But don't blame just the politicians. Americans were always more enthused about beating the Soviets than pushing forward the boundaries of science and exploration. Indeed, a 2021 Morning Consult poll found that most Americans see sending astronauts to the moon or Mars as a low priority for NASA, or perhaps as something that should not be done at all.
That's also one reason America will remain a space-faring nation this time around. China has apparently scheduled more than 40 orbital launches in 2021, including launching the core module of a space station. To paraphrase LBJ, I don't believe this generation of Americans is willing to resign itself to going to bed each night by the light of a Chinese Communist moon. Both national security and national pride will demand America match China's ambitions.
So will economics. Morgan Stanley estimates the global space industry could generate revenue of more than $1 trillion or more in 2040, up from $350 billion now. In addition, there are nearly 1,000 startups working in the sector. Even if U.S. politicians again go wobbly on space, the U.S. private sector won't. And that includes space-crazy billionaires such as Musk and Jeff Bezos, the latter of whom will have more time to focus on his Blue Origin spaceflight company now that he's stepping down as Amazon CEO.
For now, at least, much of the economic case for space exploration revolves around the satellite industry. But if America had stuck to its Apollo-era plan, that economic case today might involve moon or maybe even asteroid mining, as well as large-scale manufacturing in orbit. Space tourism for Americans might be as common as jetting to Australia. A pricier but possible trip would be to the moon — maybe to check out the massive radio telescope that fills an entire crater on its far side. By this time, the project might already have detected incontrovertible proof of extraterrestrial life. All of America might be as enthused about space as Bezos and Musk.
Yes, the best time to have committed to ensuring such a future would have been 50 years ago. The second best time is now, for both America's benefit and that of all mankind.