Timeline: Click here to see key dates in NASA's first 50 years.
Editor?s note: As NASA celebrates its 50th birthday today, the agency looks back on a history of stunning successes while honoring those lost in its tragic setbacks. Here, space commentator Jim Banke takes a look at what the future might bring for America?s space program in the 50 years to come.
CAPE CANAVERAL, Fla. - As NASA marks its golden anniversary on Oct. 1, 1958, the question is inevitably raised: What will the U.S. space agency be like another 50 years from now?
Officially ask NASA managers and they?ll tell you their only thinking as far ahead as the return to the moon with Project Constellation and its Orion spacecraft and Ares rockets - with a nod to the ultimate goal of landing humans on Mars.
Ask about the specifics of going to Mars with humans and you learn that, officially, NASA has eyes only for the moon right now, not that there?s anything wrong with that.
Unofficially, as in off the record on deep background, every space cadet who works for NASA, either directly for the agency or as a contractor, appears to have their own dream of what might be in 50 years.
Some clearly have agendas, hidden or otherwise, while others relate pie in the sky wishful thinking about a spaceship in every garage, a fusion generator in every kitchen. Some are pessimistic and reflect in their vision their own bitter feelings about how far we have not progressed since the heady days of Apollo.
It?s clear that no one has a good handle on the future, and that?s probably a good thing. Anyone who professes an all-knowing, set-in-stone vision of the future should be kept at arms length unless they are clearly of divine origin.
NASA Administrator Mike Griffin has his head on straight when it comes to predicting the future. In a March 2007 essay for Aviation Week & Space Technology he addressed the topic of ?Human Space Exploration: The Next 50 Years.?
?It is so very easy to be completely wrong, since a variety of radically different futures in spaceflight can be presumed with equal apparent credibility today,? Griffin wrote. ?The one thing of which we can be certain is that in trying to envision the world of 2057, two generations in the future, we will be wrong.?
Griffin?s words ring true, but a certain Jedi master from a popular film franchise said it more simply: ?Impossible to see, the future is.?
During the past few months world events have insinuated them into the world of spaceflight and are sure to have some effect, as yet undefined. They include:
- The unprecedented rise of the space program in the presidential election rhetoric, which has candidates talking about extending the life of the space shuttle program and injecting new money into NASA?s budget.
- Russia?s adventures with Georgia has Congress suddenly asking hard questions about our reliance on Soyuz spacecraft at the International Space Station, a discussion that also has implications for the Shuttle program.
- The nation?s financial crisis and what will likely result in billions of tax dollars being paid out as a solution, making it more difficult for Congress to do anything positive with NASA?s budget.
So the future of space in 50 years can?t be foretold in detail, it?s always in motion. Sounds like it?s time to take the plunge and offer some debatable ideas.
The one thing we can predict with certainty is that by the year 2058 we will not have spaceships capable of flying faster than light, despite the suggestion of another science fiction franchise that predicts the invention of warp drive in 2063.
Now for the uncertainty. Try this out for size, in 2058:
NASA is still around and narrowly focused on exploration and the goal of extending human presence throughout the solar system. The first humans have long since landed on Mars and there is a thriving science colony near the moon?s south pole.
Construction has begun on a radio telescope on the moon?s far side and the lunar base has been established for years as one of the nation?s centers for excellence in fusion and alternative energy research.
NASA probes continue to reconnoiter the planets not only in our system, but with new telescopes and imaging techniques we are exploring planet in other systems and have discovered several Earth-like planets.
While proof of life - ancient and bacteria-sized - exists throughout the solar system, there is still no sign of intelligent life in the universe, not that NASA is looking.
In fact, by 2058, the U.S. military?s space program has evolved considerably and there the ones charged with keeping on eye on the stars for any potential threat, whether from intelligent life or accidental rock throwing.
It will be the military, in the name of national security, that will develop some of the more exotic and interesting spacecraft of the 21st Century, and will by 2058 be close to achieving the goal of a single-stage-to-orbit spaceplane - if they haven?t already.
In the meantime, the commercial space world by 2058 has become a major component of the space program, bigger and busier and more productive than NASA and the military combined.
Commercial space will almost exclusively be who you turn to when you want to travel to or from low-Earth orbit. The number of nations in the launch business or capable of launching something into orbit will be surprisingly greater than in 2008.
Commercial space tourism each year will provide hundreds of people the opportunity to vacation in an orbiting hotel, launching from spaceports sprinkled throughout the world.
Trips to orbit the moon will be possible, and lunar hotels at the Sea of Tranquility may not be out of the question.
(Please note that we cannot guarantee a room with a window view of the Apollo 11 lunar landing site at the Sea of Tranquility, which is surrounded by a security gate and is considered off limits so no one disturbs Neil Armstrong?s and Buzz Aldrin?s footprints.)
Suborbital hops as thrill rides - popular in the first quarter of the century - will become pass? by 2058 as the space planes grow larger and become integrated with the world?s air traffic system so that 45-minute hops from Miami to Tokyo become possible.
Along those same lines, the cargo folks like FedEx and UPS also will embrace this transportation mode for when it positively has to be on the other side of the planet on the same day.
Look ahead to 2058 and the details are unclear, but I am optimistic that we will continue moving off the planet and into the universe.
When NASA celebrates its 100th birthday, it will do so toasting successes and remembering devastating setbacks. It will honor the brave astronauts who make the trip and everyone else who makes it possible.
It will do so recognizing countless new and unexpected benefits for all in medicine, electronics, manufacturing, home improvement, entertainment and so much more.
We will move off this planet and return to the moon, then go on to Mars. From there the giant moons of Jupiter or Titan at Saturn look promising. There are asteroids to explore as well.
And then the rest of the galaxy awaits us, perhaps something to consider for the next 1,000 years.
Jim Banke is a veteran aerospace commentator and consultant based in Cape Canaveral, Fla.
- New Video - NASA at 50: Part 1, Part 2
- Images - 50 Years of Spaceflight: The Road Ahead
- Video - Back to the Moon with NASA's Constellation