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Is space exploration a foreseeable sight within the near future?

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

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Demitri’s Answer

I majored in Astrophysics and was kinda disappointed about this myself, although it's not totally bleak.

My impression is there's certainly investment and interest in moving parts of our economy into space. There are scores of industrial processes that can be more efficiently performed in space.

As for putting humans on Mars and beyond, there's a reason there is much slower progress.

As you may already understand, exploration of space with humans in tow is a VERY expensive enterprise, in terms of the resources it will require and the research it will require to develop the technology required.

Most of the technology either still doesn't exist yet or hasn't been refined to the point where it is lightweight enough to lift with a rocket and robust enough to not fail while millions of kilometers away from Earth. If we were to put humans on Mars a year in the future with all of the technology we currently have, it would serve no purpose other than to say we managed to do it. Moreover, the intrepid explorers would have to go back home almost immediately before they run out of the resources they packed onboard to survive instead of getting a foot in the door so to speak.

The initial impetus to explore space with humans physically going there was political in nature, and many of the projects, especially those that never took off (e.g. the USA's Project Orion) were driven by a cold war derived incentive to be the first to do it and gain strategic advantage over the other world superpower. Today, we no longer have these incentives because with an increasingly pluralistic cast of powerful nations in the world theater getting into the space race (Europe, India and China just to name the biggest ones), the war of ideologies isn't what it once was. Consequently, the drive to do the extreme feat of putting humans in space doesn't have the same momentum as it did.

For that reason, if we are to develop the useful technologies that we need in order to explore space (and actually explore space), we need better incentives to put humans out in space. It helps to have eccentric people with a lot of money and power to put ideas in our heads and lead some of that effort (e.g. Elon Musk), but we need more than that.

In my opinion, our quest to become a type-2 civilization I think should start with finding the technological means to support our lives and lifestyles in a more renewable way, with the goal of creating a completely self-contained habitation that does not depend in any way on the surface of the planet where we currently live. This would help heal our planet in addition to allowing humans to explore space (once the technology is refined enough to be portable and robust enough to work out in space).

Fear not (or maybe fear?) as a space exploration enthusiast though; civilization may be facing some existential threats on this planet in the next 5-6 decades that will goad us towards space exploration and the technology that makes it possible. The technology that enables space exploration is the really interesting and useful part about human space exploration, because the science part we can just do remotely with probes and telescopes.
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Greg’s Answer

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).