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

20 years ago, in 1998, NASA launched a missionLunar Prospector, who found water on the moon. In the same year, 15 countries came together to agree on the framework for the construction of the International Space Station and then launch the first part of the laboratory into orbit. In the same year, the first successful NASA X-38 spacecraft made its first successful test flight. All these events, each in its own way, helped determine the course of US space development.

Looking back, you can see one fact: the past is a prologue, and history repeats itself. The achievements of people in the field of space flight, made 20 years ago, foreshadowed the current state of affairs in space, therefore, by observing how the sown seeds bloomed and dried, one can try to understand what will happen in the future.

Over the past couple of years, several importantchanging trends in space exploration, many of which were largely unforeseen in 1998. Today we have new space companies, their billionaire sponsors, we see how international players are developing, especially China, which may well catch up and overtake NASA's space feats.

So where will be humanity in 20 years? Let's try to understand the future by looking into the past.

Space exploration: 1998

On January 6, the Lunar Prospector spacecraft set off toward the moon on a rocket Athena II. It was the second mission, with people or robots - in general, which NASA sent to the moon since 1973.

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

Among the devices that were with Lunar Prospector,there was a neutron spectrometer that could detect hydrogen at the lunar poles and, therefore, determine 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 big.

On Earth, in January 1998, the United States, Russia,Canada and a dozen European partners have entered into 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, station altitude control and communications. Two weeks later, the space shuttle mission sent a Unity module into space, and the astronauts hitched it with Zorya.

From this moment on, developing and, ultimatelyAs a result, the 420-ton station became the backbone of US space policy and a pillar for human exploration of space. Many space flight programs were implemented in 20 years, but the station was permanent. And another ten years just flies by.

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

20 years ago, NASA finally began to achieve significant success with the successor to the space shuttle, a small winged ship known as the X-38 spacecraft.

In March 1998, the large B-52 jet droppedX-38 test apparatus from a height of 7000 meters. Opening the parachute, the X-38 safely fell through the Earth’s atmosphere and descended onto the runway. In the following years, other more successful trials will follow.

“They were on a great journey,” recalls Wayne.Hale, who was the flight director of the space shuttle at the time and later became the program manager for the space shuttle. “They built a very capable spacecraft that was not just a rescue. He could do a lot of things. ”

Initially, the X-38 was supposed to be a "rescue"attached to a space station that could bring astronauts back to Earth in case of an extreme situation. However, this vehicle could also be converted into a reusable spacecraft launched on privately launched rockets. But it was not.

Space exploration: 2018

The catastrophe that influenced modernNASA’s space flight program happened just over 15 years ago when the space shuttle Columbia crashed into pieces over Texas in February 2003, returning to Earth’s atmosphere. All seven astronauts died.

After this tragedy, the George administrationBush Junior sought to find a safe and meaningful course for the future of NASA. As a result, a strategy was adopted, including the Moon and the International Space Station.

President Bush says NASA is timeexpand your capabilities in deep space. Since the Lunar Prospector hinted at the wet lunar surface, the astronauts had to return to the moon to determine what resources were there. NASA should not just touch the moon, but learn how to live on its surface. The Bush administration planned a landing until 2020.

Meanwhile, space shuttles were supposed toused to complete the construction of the space station, and then go on write-off. On board, NASA and its astronauts would learn to live for long periods of time and experience technologies such as water recovery needed for long-term space flights.

After writing off NASA shuttles, you had to findThe way to deliver astronauts to the space station was in the 2010s. Just a few months before the Columbia tragedy, NASA administrator Sean O’Keefe canceled draft X-38 for budgetary reasons. (NASA needed to find a billion dollars to close a hole in the budget). Thus, in an era when the agency was looking for a replacement for the shuttles, he had to kill quite a convenient solution.

It was one of the most important decisions forlast 20 years for NASA and US space flight. In 2008, the agency began to finance private companies to deliver cargo to the station, and two years later expanded the program to include crew flights into orbit. Capsules created by SpaceX and Boeing as part of the crew’s commercial program will replace the shuttle.

Today is for the agency at the same timefull of hope and anxiety. Following Bush’s announcement of returning to the moon in 2004, NASA worked to achieve this goal. The agency seems to be about to send people back into deep space, to the moon, mars, or both bodies. For the past 14 years, NASA and its contractors have built the Orion spacecraft and the giant SLS rocket to achieve these goals. Constancy of purpose is convenient.

Anxiety arises precisely because NASAspent 14 years working on the implementation of the concept of deep space exploration, which Bush outlined in January 2014. Development plans have varied with administrations, but even now, the extraction of water resources on the moon is the central agenda of NASA in returning to the surface of the moon. The problem is that although NASA has spent billions of dollars on “development 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, perhaps, is confidently moving toward deep space, but is not particularly in a hurry.

Space exploration: 2038

In addition to the movement of the planets and short-term forecastsweather, 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 of the clear signals is NASA's desiresend astronauts beyond the low-Earth orbit for the first time since the time of Apollo. President Bush has sent NASA to the lunar surface. President Obama sent to the asteroid, and then to Mars. President Trump will build the lunar station (Gateway) before mastering the Moon and Mars. But the movement into deep space is not and is not expected.

Will we go there or not - this question will bebe decided in the future. The reality is that due to the fact that NASA spent so much time and tens of billions of dollars on the development of Orion and SLS, the agency did not have the funds to develop any infrastructure necessary for space exploration, including landing gear, energy systems , habitat and more. It is also necessary to make hard decisions and take risks. To reach the surface of the moon, Phobos or Mars until 2038, NASA needs courage.

Ultimately, a large NASA rocket will break away fromland (the SLS launch is likely to take place in 2021). This will allow the agency to allocate part of the funding for a real development plan. Hale, who left NASA in 2010 and now remains on the agency's advisory board, says he is full of hope, but not expectations.

“If this 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. Thus, you have a budget, but it is not enough to do what you want. ”

There are several changing forces that couldpush NASA off its inertial path. One of them is a revolution in the private space segment, which the agency is helping to implement through commercial programs for the crew and cargo, issuing grants and entering into contracts. NASA can get new energy, effective tools and ideas that will help in general explore space, thanks to SpaceX, Blue Origin, Bigelow Aerospace and other companies.

Historically, NASA has never been interested.development of price oriented launch systems. (For example, NASA spends about 2 billion dollars a year only on the SLS rocket. For this money, you could buy 20 launches of the Falcon Heavy). The agency was instructed by the White House and Congress to do something with 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, the mostpromoted by SpaceX, but also shared by many 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 allowed SpaceX and Blue Origin to develop reusable rockets. It is extremely important that both companies are supported by billionaires who are committed to the fulfillment of their plans. In 1998, no one could have imagined such a thing, but now NASA will probably be able to get faster and cheaper to wherever it wants, to deep space, using private companies.

Commercial scope can also ruin plansNASA, if private companies find something really beneficial for working in orbits. Currently, space is a place where you can earn money only through communications and remote control of satellites. In addition to these areas, most private space companies exist in compliance with government contracts.

In the coming decades, the extraction of asteroids maybecome profitable, but it’s too early to talk about it. However, a more short-term breakthrough in 3D printing of tissues under microgravity conditions may occur - preliminary studies were very promising. That is, a stream of healthy hearts, lungs, kidneys, or other organs can be made from space. "Space Fever" will quickly find a way to go out into space and back, will speed up the process and devalue it.

China could also force the US governmentspeed up NASA plans. China could possibly move faster if it wanted to, but now the authoritarian country intends to land the Taikonauts on the lunar surface until 2030. China's achievements may turn a number of international partners away from NASA, which will force the agency to move.

However, there are no guarantees that the Chinesewill be on the moon in 2030. The economy of the country may collapse. The Xi Jinping government, which strongly supports space, can be absorbed by internal affairs. The country can force the events in the South China Sea and become an international outcast. The future is foggy, as always.

In twenty years you will be twenty years older. Do you think space will become closer to us? Tell in our chat in Telegram.