What will happen to NASA in 20 years? Private companies and China will decide everything

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20 years ago, in 1998, NASA launched the Lunar Prospector mission, which found water on the moon. In the same year, 15 countries came together to agree on a framework for the construction of the International space station and then launch the first part of the laboratory into orbit. In the same year, his first successful test flight carried out a brand new spacecraft NASA X-38. All these events, each in its own way, helped to determine the course of space development of the United States.

Looking back, one fact can be observed: the past is a prologue, and history repeats itself. The achievements of human beings in space flight 20 years ago foreshadowed the current state of Affairs in space, so by observing how the seeds have blossomed and how they have dried up, one can try to understand what will happen in the future.

Over the past couple of years, several important changing trends in space exploration have emerged, many of which were largely unforeseen in 1998. Today we have a new space company, their sponsors, billionaire, we see the development of international players, particularly China, which may overtake and surpass the cosmic exploits of NASA.

So, where will humanity be in 20 years? Let’s try to understand the future by looking at the past.
Space exploration: 1998

January 6 spacecraft Lunar Prospector went in the direction of the moon on the rocket Athena II. This was the second mission, with humans or robots — in General, which NASA has sent to the moon since 1973.

A dozen astronauts who visited the lunar surface in the late 60s and early 70s discovered a cold, dead, dry world on the moon. Buzz Aldrin, who first landed there along with Neil Armstrong, described the landscape they entered as “startling devastation.” But years passed, and scientists began to believe that over the centuries, water ice has accumulated in the shaded regions at the poles of the moon. These cold traps could keep the ice from comets and other sources, because in the darkness of the vacuum it would not be possible to leak somewhere-the temperature never rose above -190 degrees Celsius.

Among the instruments that were with Lunar Prospector was a neutron spectrometer that was able to detect hydrogen at the lunar poles and therefore detect the presence of water. Before the mission, scientists estimated that they could find from several tens to several hundred million tons of water ice. During its 19-month mission, the device found three billion metric tons. The devastated world was suddenly full of water. This discovery seemed very large.

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On Earth, in January 1998, the United States, Russia, Canada and a dozen European partners concluded a formal agreement on the development and operation of the International space station. In the same year, in November, the Russian space Agency launched the Zarya module, which was supposed to provide movement, altitude control and communications to the station. Two weeks later, the mission of the space Shuttle sent into space and the Unity module, and the astronauts put it with “Dawn”.

From that moment on, the developing and, ultimately, 420-ton station became the basis of us space policy and a support for human space exploration. Many space flight programs have been implemented in 20 years, but the station was constant. And ten years just flies by.

Over the past 20 years, the station’s program has helped to establish valuable and long-term international cooperation between countries. NASA hopes to expand it to the exploration of deep space. In recent years, the Agency has also played an important role in the development of commercial space flights.

20 years ago, NASA finally began to make notable progress in the successor of the space Shuttle, a small cruise ship known as the x-38 spacecraft.

In March 1998, a large b-52 aircraft dropped the x-38 test apparatus from a height of 7000 meters. Opening the parachute, X-38 safely fell through the atmosphere of the Earth and fell to the runway. Other, more successful trials will follow in the years to come.

“They were on a great way,” recalls Wayne Hale, who was then Director of space Shuttle operations and subsequently became the Manager of the Shuttle program. “They were building a very capable spacecraft that wasn’t just a lifesaver. He could do a lot of things.”

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Originally, the X-38 was supposed to serve as a “lifeboat” attached to a space station that could bring astronauts back to Earth in the event of an emergency. However, the vehicle could also be converted into a reusable spacecraft launched on private rockets. But it wasn’t.
Space exploration: 2018

The disaster that affected NASA’s modern space flight program happened just over 15 years ago, when the space Shuttle Columbia crashed to pieces over Texas in February 2003, returning to Earth’s atmosphere. All seven astronauts died.

After this tragedy, George W. Bush’s administration sought to find a safe and meaningful course for NASA’s future. As a result, a strategy including the moon and the International space station was adopted.

President Bush said it was time for NASA to expand its capabilities in deep space. As Lunar Prospector hinted at the wet lunar surface, astronauts had to return to the moon to determine what resources were there. NASA should not just touch the moon, and learn to live on its surface. The Bush administration planned to land by 2020.

Meanwhile, space shuttles were to be used to complete the construction of the space station, after which they were to be decommissioned. On Board the station, NASA and its astronauts would learn to live for long periods of time and experience technologies such as water recovery necessary for long-term space missions.

After decommissioning NASA shuttles had to find a way to deliver astronauts to the space station — were 2010-ies. Just a few months before the Columbia tragedy, NASA administrator Sean O’keefe canceled project X-38 for budgetary reasons. (NASA needed to find a billion dollars to close the hole in the budget). Thus, in an era when the Agency was looking for a replacement Shuttle, he had to kill quite a convenient solution.

It was one of the most important decisions in the last 20 years for NASA and us space flights. In 2008, the Agency began funding private companies to deliver cargo to the station, and two years later expanded the program to include crew flights into orbit. The replacement of the Shuttle will be the capsules created by SpaceX and Boeing in the framework of the commercial crew program.

Today, for the Agency, is both hopeful and anxious. Following Bush’s announcement of his return to the moon in 2004, NASA was working to achieve this goal. The Agency seems to be going to send people back into deep space, to the moon, Mars, or both. Over the past 14 years, NASA and its contractors have been building the Orion spacecraft and the giant SLS rocket to achieve these goals. Constancy of purpose — it’s convenient.

The concern arises precisely because NASA has spent 14 years working on the implementation of the concept of deep space exploration, which Bush outlined in January 2014. Plans for development have changed with administrations, but even now, the extraction of water resources on the moon is NASA’s Central agenda in returning to the moon’s surface. The problem is that although NASA has spent billions of dollars on “exploration systems” since 2004, the lunar surface will not be visited for at least another ten years.

Fourteen years is a very long time. This is two years longer than the time that passed between the launch of the first satellite into space and the landing of people on the moon. NASA may be confidently moving to deep space, but especially not in a hurry.
Space exploration: 2038

In addition to the movement of planets and short-term weather forecasts, the future is almost impossible to predict. But just as the roots of NASA’s current activities go back to 1998, we can find clues about the future in today’s space exploration.

One clear signal is NASA’s desire to send astronauts out of low earth orbit for the first time since Apollo. President Bush sent NASA to the lunar surface. President Obama sent it to the asteroid and then to Mars. President trump will build a lunar station (Gateway) before the development of the moon and Mars. But movement in deep space there is no and not envisioned.

Whether we go there or not — this issue will be resolved in the future. The reality is that because NASA spent so much time and tens of billions of dollars developing Orion and the SLS, the Agency didn’t have the funds to develop any infrastructure necessary for space exploration, including landers, energy systems, habitats, and more. It is also necessary to make difficult decisions and take risks. To reach the surface of the moon, Phobos or Mars before 2038, NASA needs courage.

Eventually, a large NASA rocket will come off the ground (SLS launch is likely to take place in 2021). This will allow the Agency to allocate part of the funding to a real development plan. Hale, who left NASA in 2010 and now remains on the Agency’s Advisory Board, says he’s full of hope, but not expectations.

“If it is a government program, nothing will change. Everyone wants to have a space program, but does not want to spend a lot of money on it. So you kind of have a budget, but it’s not enough to do what you want.”

There are several changing forces that could push NASA off its inertial path. One of them is a revolution in the private space segment, which the Agency helps to implement with the help of commercial programs for crew and cargo transportation, issuing grants and concluding contracts. NASA can get new energy, effective tools and ideas that will help to explore space in General, thanks to SpaceX, Blue Origin, Bigelow Aerospace and other companies.

Historically, NASA has never been interested in developing price-focused launch systems. (For example, NASA spends about $ 2 billion a year on the SLS rocket. For this money it would be possible to buy 20 launches of Falcon Heavy). The Agency has been instructed by the White house and Congress to do something about people in space, but to do it well and safely. NASA spends a lot of money checking, double and triple checking its systems.

There is another way of thinking, most promoted by SpaceX, but also shared by a host of new space companies, which says that the lower the cost of access to space, the more interesting things people in space can afford. This approach has allowed SpaceX and Blue Origin to develop a reusable rocket. It is crucial that both companies are supported by billionaires committed to fulfilling their plans. In 1998, no one could have imagined this, but now NASA is likely to be able to quickly and cheaply get to where he wants to, in deep space, using private companies.

The commercial sector also can destroy the plans of NASA, if private companies will find something really attractive to operate on orbit. Nowadays, space is a place where you can earn money only with the help of communications and remote control of satellites. In addition to these areas, most private space companies exist, carrying out government contracts.

In the coming decades, the production of asteroids can become profitable, but it is too early to talk about it. However, there may be a short-term breakthrough in 3D printing of tissues in microgravity-preliminary studies were very promising. That is, from space can be adjusted flow of healthy hearts, lungs, kidneys or other organs. “Space fever” will quickly find a way to go into space and back, speed up the process and devalue it.

China could also force the US government to accelerate NASA’s plans. China might be able to move faster if it wanted to, but now the authoritarian country intends to land the taikonauts on the lunar surface by 2030. China’s achievements can turn a number of international partners away from NASA, which will make the Agency move.

However, there is no guarantee that the Chinese will be on the moon in 2030. The country’s economy could collapse. XI Jinping’s government, which strongly supports space, can be absorbed in internal Affairs. The country can force events in the South China sea and become an international outcast. The future is uncertain, as always.

 


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