1 answer

Is space exploration a foreseeable sight within the near future?

Asked Parma, Ohio

Space exploration has always fascinated me, but space exploration, or at least chatter pertaining to space exploration, has dulled immeasurably in the past few years. Have we given up on manned space expeditions? #astronomy #space #nasa #physics #astrophysics

1 answer

Greg’s Answer

Updated Sunnyvale, California

Your perception of the state of the industry seems strange to me; in many ways, today's space race is more exciting than at any time since the 1960s. The sole difference is that, in the US at least, it's being driven almost entirely by private companies (SpaceX, Blue Origin, United Launch Alliance, etc.), not NASA.

That said, space exploration is not something humans are particularly well-suited to do; it's vastly, vastly cheaper and more effective to do it with robots. They're relatively immune to hard radiation, they can crash into planets or burn up in the atmosphere with hardly a tear shed (aside from the accountants), and they can be sent into deep space forever (Pioneer 10 and 11, Voyager 1 and 2, New Horizons) with zero concern for an eventual return. Robots are also probably going to be better even for mining asteroids and for setting up the foundations for a human-compatible Mars base (for example), but humans are generalists and are almost certainly better suited for the mid- and long-range development activities needed for a fully functional, long-term human habitation on another planet. (Again, Mars is the most favorable target and the one on which Elon Musk has his sights set, but the Moon is closer and may also be a target. The Moon is pretty sterile, though; its primary attraction is that it's only a quarter-million miles away.)

There are also Earth- and space-based telescopes of anywhere from very large to immense size, some just now coming online, some under construction, and some still in the proposal stages. Everything we know about the ~5000 planets circling other stars is via telescopes; we're nowhere near sending even a robotic probe to one, much less humans. Space is insanely big, and with today's technology, the relevant timescales are measured in the tens of thousands of years. Telescopes and associated instrumentation let us see these things right now.

So by all means consider a career in space exploration, but don't get your hopes up too high for a personal flight into space (unless you're super-wealthy or willing to wait a couple of decades with no guarantee that even that will suffice). Careers in aerospace engineering, electrical engineering, physics, exobiology, and the like will let you participate in the extremely cool space discoveries that continue to happen--and if the prospects for manned flight happen to improve dramatically in the next decade or two, you'll be well-positioned to take advantage of it as a mission specialist of some sort.

Greg recommends the following next steps:

  • Read up on large telescopes: Keck, Event Horizon, James Webb, Thirty Meter, EELT, LUVOIR, IceCube, LIGO/Virgo, Dark Energy Survey, ALMA, Square Kilometer Array, etc.
  • Read up on commercial spaceflight companies, particularly SpaceX (and their BFR concept).