If you think about it, we are already traveling through space on this big rock we call the Earth as it revolves around the Sun. Or think about the entire solar system moving in its orbit within the Milky Way. Actually, that’s nitpicking. When someone asks “when are we going to be traveling in space?”, we all know the question is about spaceships and rockets and that characteristic of a civilization that can be called spacefaring.
Seafaring is a concept with which we’re all familiar; spacefaring is the same thing, only applied to outer space rather than the Seven Seas. A civilization can be said to be spacefaring when it is actively and routinely operating craft that go far beyond a planet’s atmosphere to destinations on other worlds or so far away in space from home that the empty region can be considered another world. There are as many specialties within the concept of spacefaring as there are in designing, building, launching and running a nautical fleet, plus some extras unique to outer space.
Space TravelAs of the end of the first decade of the 21st century, the only human spacefaring has been trips to the Moon of Earth, none of these trips involving an actual human presence on the Moon lasting more than a few days. However, plans are already in motion to expand the current International Space Station for use in the rest of the century, to station people at a permanent Moon base by the end of the second decade, to place humans on Mars by the end of the third decade and to consider the design and development of a “one-hundred-year” spaceship” to explore the furthest reaches of the Solar System. Though we’re talking about national missions with military and scientific staff here, soon to follow would be the business, speculation and tourism that has always been the essence of the human race reaching beyond the extent of the geography already known.
As of the start of the 21st century, there are only three nations on Earth that can be considered spacefaring: the United States of America, the People’s Republic of China and Russia. Several other nations, including those in the European Space Agency and India, Australia and Japan, have launched orbital spacecraft, but not on a regular schedule. At the next level, which we might call pre-spacefaring, we find many countries and several private entities who have already launched sub-orbital spacecraft or have sent a craft into orbit once or twice.
Getting back to the Big Three, China is the one preparing for a manned moon base within the next twenty years, Russia is continuing support of the International Space Station expansion as a lift-off point for travel beyond Earth, and the USA is considering a multi-purpose six-person spacecraft called the Nautilus-X that would be useful for expeditions of up to two years launched from the International Space Station for such destinations as the Earth/Moon L1 and L2 and Sun/Earth L2 Lagrange Points, asteroids near Earth and Mars orbit.
Private companies are fast becoming the other way for the human race to move on out into space. Suborbital flights are available for individuals via such companies as Mojave Aerospace Ventures, SpaceX and UP Aerospace, who have all had successful test flights of their rockets within the last ten years. Orbital flights are the next step, but, as of 2011, the only private companies who can operate such flights are using them for cargo supply to the International Space Station. However, Virgin Galactic, Space Adventures and EADS Astrium, a subsidiary of the European EADS aerospace enterprise, have all said they will offer suborbital and orbital flights as soon as there are viable destinations for these flights.
Let’s talk destinations. Space travel so far for private individuals is short-term, involving only lift-off and re-entry. What’s needed is a destination for a more lengthy stay. Excalibur Almaz is modernizing Almaz space stations from the Soviet-era for launch and deployment in orbit, with Soviet TKS space capsules as the tourist shuttle. Bigelow Aerospace is modifying the NASA designs for an inflatable orbital habitat and has already launched two of these Genesis stations, one in 2006 and the other 2007, into orbit, albeit in compressed mode, but ready for deployment whenever the need develops — another larger “space hotel” called Nautilus, almost as large as the International Space Station, has a launch planned for 2015. Hilton International has the Space Islands Project, based on the inter-connection of used fuel tanks of the US space shuttles, each as big as a 747 airplane. There’s no word yet on the price of a room rental at any of these space hotels. British Airways, however, has announced that the price of a flight would be $60,000 per person one way, although the price should drop as flights became more a part of their regular schedules.
Now, let’s move beyond Earth orbit. Space Adventures Limited is developing plans for spaceports to be built in Singapore and the United Arab Emirates. Their projected price for one passenger on a flight taking off from Earth, circling the moon and returning home is set at $100,000,000. The timeline for this project is still uncertain, but it’s touted to be up and running within the next fifty years.
Once humanity has at least one spaceport dedicated solely to putting human beings into space, the multiplier effect comes into play. Every person sent into space will have a significant positive impact back on earth. Beyond space tourism and curiosity, the potential for profit in returning to Earth solar energy and the extra-terrestrial materials to be discovered out there will guarantee a demand for space travel. One hundred years ago, only a handful of people could say they flew on an airplane — today, millions of people can say that. The same will be true for space travel — we will make travel into space as routine as air travel by the end of this century.