Space travel used to be an expression of the epic ideological struggle between nations, with a long cast of heroes and villains, technological breakthroughs and dramatic disasters.
As this era fades into history, one of the most urgent debates in space exploration is whether manned space flight makes sense at all nowadays. With the Shuttle now officially in retirement the US is now totally dependent on the Russian Soyuz program to take astronauts into orbit. Add in the fact that rewards from unmanned probes and explorers such as the mars rover vastly outweigh any meaningful yield from the ISS for example.
Military spending has driven space research for decades with civilian benefits more or less limited to gps, airbags and hi-tech golf clubs. While unmanned drones make so called precision strikes on remote Pakistani mountain passes and Israel boots up it's 'iron dome' system designed to protect against rocket attack, the idea of sub-orbital defence installations doesn't seem so far fetched at all. The Outer Space Treaty forms the basis of International Space Law and ostensibly prevents signatories from placing WMDs in space but the idea of offensive strikes delivered from space is regularly on the table for military futurologists. The THEL and MAHEM projects, both currently in development bring this terrifying possibility closer to home.
The call of the distant horizon is a far more compelling argument for space exploration. Humankind has always sought the unknown from our pre-Neolithic ancestors migrating across continents to the first steps on the moon. Curiosity is a powerful driver and with the state of the planet tipping into irrevocable destruction people are starting to think seriously about crewed colony ships that might take 10,000 years to reach another habitable planet.
Two main strands now dominate current space activity. The first and most active is the constant launching of low orbit satellites designed for earth observation, remote sensing of the wider galaxy and microgravity research. There are now an estimated 2500 satellites orbiting the earth and they're probably only the ones we know about. They can carry increasing payloads and are the result of some unexpected transnational collaborations.The proliferation of satellites shows no sign of slowing down either with the Indo-Russian ResourceSat launching this week.
The other strand is the wholesale transfer of space travel from the state to the privateer. The privately developed and owned Falcon Heavy rocket for example can take the largest payload ever into space and has the combined thrust of 35 civilian 747s. Something NASA hasn't came close to achieving since Saturn V was retired in the sixties. SpaceX, Virgin Galactic and COTS are just three of a very crowded field hoping to offer private flights to citizens who can pay. There's even a plan for a private orbital space complex where the groovy spaceplanes can land and passengers hang out and network in the micrograv lounge. Spacenetworking - you heard it first here folks.
Of course for most of us space remains a distant dream but make no mistake the final frontier is getting closer and closer.