Space has not been this exciting since the 1960s.

Nasa recently launched Orion, its first new spacecraft to carry astronauts since the Space Shuttle, and is developing a massive new rocket to rival the Saturn V. Europe has landed a space probe on a comet 510 million kilometres (317 million miles) away and China is developing its next space station.

Meanwhile private companies are changing the economics of space by forging ahead with plans for human spaceflight, space tourism and even missions to Mars.

The next few years will also see the final construction of the James Webb Space Telescope – a space observatory the size of a tennis court.

So in the decade from 2020, can we look forward to a glorious new space age of Moon bases, Mars colonies and more remarkable cosmic discoveries? To try to find out, we canvassed the opinions of an expert panel for their predictions beyond 2020.

Our experts are:

SP: Scott Pace, Director of the Space Policy Institute in Washington DC

DB: David Baker, ex-Nasa engineer, author and editor of Spaceflight magazine

MG: Monica Grady, professor of planetary and space sciences at the UK’s Open University

As you would expect, there are plenty of uncertainties in the coming years in space – not least the impact of domestic and international politics. Nor do our panellists always agree. However, here are the six predictions they came up with:

1. Humans will go back to the Moon

If only because it’s up there, you can see it in the night sky. The Moon’s just three days away and it requires very little extra capability to send astronauts there for relatively short periods of time. China is very much targeting the Moon as a place it wants to put its astronauts.

MG: I envisage a semi-permanent habitation of the Moon. This is not colonisation; this is going to the Moon and using it for a launch pad for rockets to Mars – a lunar base for future exploration of the Solar System.

SP: The problem with the current US space policy is that not only did it get rid of the Moon as the next step and substituted this rather vague path to Mars and asteroids, it left out our international partners. We had many potential partners that were interested in the Moon. It belongs on the agenda because it’s driven by the geopolitical, technical and economic interests of the US and our major partners.

2. But not – yet – to Mars

Although Mars is a goal for human exploration, once you’ve gone there and planted a flag there, I’m not exactly sure what happens next.There are discussions about whether we should make Mars a protected habitat in the way that we have protected habitats on Earth.

SP: When we said we’re going to Mars, a lot of our fellow space agencies said, ‘well that’s nice but it’s a lot more than we can handle’. Strategically we picked a direction that left out the most crucial thing in today’s world, which is international partnership.

DB: One has to realise there’s never been a time in Nasa’s history when it hasn’t been as controlled by its public relations department hooked into the White House. The view the public is being presented with from Nasa is very different to the capabilities of the agency.

The new Orion spacecraft is capable of three weeks of autonomous operations in space. It’s not capable of providing human habitation on the way to Mars. Going to Mars is drastic, dangerous and premature.

3. China and India will become major space nations

We are starting to see a space race between India and China and I think that is going to play out gradually over the next few years.

SP: I don’t really think there’s a race in that sense. For China space is a way of instilling national pride and support for the Communist Party, a way of improving industrial quality and of attracting young people into the science and technology fields.

DB: In the West we get a new space policy with every new president or government. There is a general lack of continuity and a lot of time and money are wasted. China has the advantage in this – it has a non-democratic political system that can lay out plans several years in the future and expect to see those accomplished.

4. The future of the International Space Station (ISS) is uncertain

The Americans are committed to be there until 2024, the problem is whether our partners will be there through that time and that depends on the future relationship with Russia. Both the US and Russia are very tied to the ISS, it’s a deeply mutually dependent exercise. Every effort is made to insulate that from other problems in our relationship.

DB: The Russians can’t continue to operate the ISS on their own, as it’s not owned by them. I think the whole thing will be deorbited. By the time we get to 2020 it will be more than 20 years since the initial elements were launched.

SP: The future of the space station depends on the future of international partnership. And if we don’t have a clear path on what we do next after the space station, the real answer is we’re going to be going out of business. Human spaceflight will certainly continue but it won’t be led by the West.

DB: We are seeing a number of quite serious concerns about keeping it running. Over the last year we’ve seen a lift in the number of hours spent on maintenance.

SP: By the mid 2020s we’ll see a Chinese station up there and Europe is in discussions with China over having one of its astronauts on board.

5. Private ventures could eclipse the agencies

I think we’re going to get XCOR and Virgin Galactic flying people. You’ll have your high-rise joyriders but I think the real promise is sending scientists and experiments on sub-orbital flights.

MG: First of all it will be the super-wealthy and the tech geeks (or the super-wealthy tech geeks), in the same way that the super-wealthy took the first aeroplane flights. When the airlines were getting going, we forget that many of them such as British Airways were government-owned. It will be the same with rocket flights to the Moon. At the moment it’s the agencies but eventually it’s going to be companies like SpaceX, Virgin Galactic or their successors.

SP: The lack of future [US] government plans beyond the ISS are quite dangerous for the emerging commercial space sector. Without clear government demand, it’s difficult to see how they can thrive on their own. If you look at the development of SpaceX’s and Orbital’s capabilities there are billions of dollars of Nasa funding to meet Nasa’s needs.

DB: The future lies not with grand visionary mega-concepts of the Von Braun era but the solid consolidation of private corporations wresting it away from government. Then I think you’ll see performance.

6. Humans will continue to boldy go

SP: Defining what it is to be human involves answering questions like: ‘Where can we go? What can we see? What can we learn and bring back?’ In partnership with robotic systems, we want to go to as many places as we can. And we should.

MG: No doubt the robots will be able to do everything the humans do and they’ll be no need, for scientific or technical purposes, to send people. However, there is curiosity – what people what to do and find, there’s the aspiration and inspiration. People will still go once the robots have shown us how to do it.

DB: I think while there are going to be these mega projects – I would love to see these happen – I don’t think that’s the way space is unfolding. It’s going to be market-led, people-led, we’re seeing the democratisation of the space programme.

MG: We are seeing the tech benefits that come from the space programme. There are jobs in it. The UK space industry, for instance, is one of the biggest providers of income to government. I’m optimistic because I don’t think that the inspiration value of space exploration has changed.

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