Recently NASA held a workshop on “Planetary Science Vision 2050.” The workshop was a multidiscipline discussion of how space exploration should develop over the next 33 years. Leaving aside the opportunities presented by new technologies such as commercial CubeSats and Star Trek-like life detectors, a number of choices confronted the workshop attendees according to an article in Air and Space.
“A human mission to Mars, a Moon base, landers and submersible missions to the so-called “ocean worlds” of the outer Solar System? Or maybe huge telescopes to observe exoplanets, a planetary defense system against asteroids, or building up of infrastructure as (James) Head suggested?
33 years in the future is not a great span of time in the vast scheme of things. For perspective, 33 years ago takes us back to 1984 when the space shuttle was flying and President Ronald Reagan first proposed the space station. Galileo, Cassini, various missions to Mars, the Hubble Space Telescope, and New Horizons were still in the future.
Looking at the choices presented by the attendees at the workshop, which one(s) to focus on depends on what the world is willing to spend. Future heavy lift rockets ranging from the NASA Space Launch System to the commercial options such as Falcon Heavy, New Glenn, and New Armstrong would give NASA and her commercial partners plenty of capability to go back to the moon, go to Mars, and drop robots on the surfaces of Europa, Enceladus, and Titan. Some options, such as space infrastructure and going back to the moon, would have substantial commercial development. Deeper space exploration would likely be a NASA, and her international partners show, though wild cards are always possible, considering the interest such companies such as SpaceX has in Mars colonies.
Another wild card would be the development of advanced propulsion technology. Frank Chang-Diaz is starting to put his VASIMR plasma rocket to long duration tests. The EM drive may yet come to have practical benefit, bring much of the solar system within reach, enabling, for example, crewed expeditions to the #Outer Planets.
Political developments will also shape the course of space exploration over the next third of a century. Will countries such as China, India, and the UAE become major space powers? Will the United States bring NASA out of the doldrums and have NASA go boldly once again? Will commercial competition bring down the cost of space travel? How will the potential breakup of the European Union and the turmoil taking place in Russia affect things?
Still, the opportunities are exciting and accessible given the commitment of recourses.