Will we live to see a permanent human presence in outer space?

Will any of us live to see the day when there is a permanent human presence in outer space? Defining “permanent human presence” as a state of affairs where we can always be sure there are, say, more than 50 humans (purely arbitrary figure, and I’m open to arguments for a higher or lower one) at any given time – even if those persons are “transients” who were not born in space and do not intend to die there. (Like most of the current population of Alaska, IIRC.)

We probably have the technology already. But nobody has yet established any permanent space colonies or industrial concerns because nobody has found a way to make them profitable. Will that change?

(As for why we should be concerned about this, see this GD thread from 2004: “Space travel means racial survival!” – http://boards.straightdope.com/sdmb/showthread.php?t=262764)

I’m dubious. Space travel/habitation is so expensive and risky that it’s difficult to think of any profitable enterprise where step one is going to the moon. Maybe in the extreme future when natural resources are scarcer and technology much better, but not in my life time.

In the current state of affairs, I would say not.

Let’s consider a bare minimal colony of fifty indviduals, permanently in orbit around Earth. First of all, we need to build the space station. That’s several billion right there. Then you would need constant trips into spaceto replenish food, supplies and equipment. Fuel isn’t getting any cheaper; even with cost-cutting technology we’d still be looking at several million per trip. And of course our space station would need to be held to strict standards of safety for all the individuals on board. Creating a station that’s livable on a permanent basis for a large group requires expanding the perimeters beyond what current space missions have. We need a more people-friendly space station.

Now how do we pay for this thing? One possibility is scientific research. NASA does that on shuttle missions, yet without turning a profit. There’s a fixed amount of research in space that companies are willing to pay for, and automated experiments will always be cheaper than putting people in space.

Then there’s manufacturing. But I see no means by which large-scale manufacturing in space could ever be cheaper than on Earth.

Also, we must assume that corporate sponsors are paying for this thing, since the government won’t have oodles of spare money in the decades ahead. But corporate sponsors are not interested in long term profits. You won’t sell them on a project that starts earning money fifteen years in the future. They want immediate progress, and that limits the space projects we could do.

All of this, of course, assumes that society stays in its current state, economically and philosophically. If the world changes, the prospects for space may also change.

A step that might be omitted entirely. I.e., if some profitable (and safe) way could be found to gather solar power from orbiting space platforms and transmit to Earth, there would (or might) be permanent human presence there.

Mining of Helium-3 (a form of the element rare on Earth but relatively plentiful in lunar crust and an excellent fuel for fusion reactors) make make it worthwhile, assuming the continued development of fusion technology. I admit that there isn’t any point going into space just for the hell of it; there has to be some ready application to take advantage of the effort.

In the fifties and sixties, the space program was useful in itself as a driving force for the development of new alloys, new plastics and new computers, which were readily adapted into military tech and consumer products. Now the innovation process is driven by the consumer-product manufacturers themselves, even sneaking ahead of the military in many fields. There has to be something accomplished by a space mission that no one is currently capable of replicating on Earth, and personally I’m hoping for controlled fusion.

But first we need to make fusion work and develop it to the point where there’s a large demand Helium-3. Also the helium is spread evenly through out the first couple meters of lunar soil, so while there’s technically a lot of it, its disperssed enough that to get a meaningful amount you’d have to process thousands of tons of regolith, a huge undertaking on a hostile moon. And of course this will be competing against oil for at least the next couple decades, which even if it becomes more difficult to drill, will almost certainly remain competitve against a fuel source that requires trips to the moon and huge Toqumak reactors. I wouldn’t say these things are impossible, but I remain skeptical they will happen in the next few decades.

I have the same sort of reservations about BG’s orbital solar platforms. They require technology we don’t have yet, would be hughly expensive to create and would compete against seemingly much cheaper Earthbound technologies.

If we develope cheap fusion, we might have the resources and motivation to go into space. Otherwise, no. I suppose there is also the possibility of a fundimental breakthrough in partical physics leading to a different sort of cheap energy, but in that case, we might not have any reason to go into space in our lifetimes.

Yeah, orbital solar collectors are probably a non-starter, at least for decades. Sure, they can collect solar power 24 hours a day, and the sun’s output isn’t attenuated by the atmosphere. That’s the argument for them. The argument against them is, “SO WHAT?” You still have losses beaming the power to Earth, and if the orbital solar panels collect 10X the energy of earth based ones, but cost 100 times more to fly and operate, it makes no sense.

And that’s assuming that solar power is the way to go in the first place. It probably isn’t.

To have a robust off-earth permanent colony, you need two things: 1) a reason for doing it, and 2) a suitable location that makes it feasible.

I don’t think we have either right yet. Helium-3 sounds great, but there are lots of obstacles there. Perhaps radio astronomy on the dark side of the moon will be the ‘killer app’, but I don’t think that would support much of a human presence.

As for where, it’s possible that there are uncollapsed lava tubes on the moon that are huge, could be sealed and turned into pressurized habitats, and could acoomodate thousands of people and protect them from radiation and temperature extremes. If we find enough water on the moon, we could create an oxygen environment and maybe with hydroponics make a colony self-sustaining. And while that would make a cool science fiction book, we’re probably at least 50 years from even contemplating something like that.

I’d just like to play the devil’s advocate and say that, without a working space shuttle, we really don’t.

The sad thing is that we landed on the moon in 1969. We should have a functioning moon base right now, and it’s a national disgrace that we don’t.

I don’t know, our space stations have been little more then money pits. A moonbase would’ve probably ended up a similarly expensive boondoggle.

A vote for no. Too much danger out there. A solitary aw-shit will wipe out a thousand atta-boys.

Bigelow Aerospace is hiring. The founder of Budget Suites of America, Robert Bigelow, seems to feel he can make a space hotel within 20 years or so.

We already have a space tourism industry. Russia will send you to space for $20 million. NASA has officially signed off on space tourism, and I’m pretty sure once the ISS is complete, we’re going to see a reality show winner get a trip up there. We may also see a space lottery formed so anyone could theoretically get to space.

Within the next twenty years or so, NASA will probably have developed a reusable space plane that will cost 1/10 what it does now to ferry people and materiel to and from space.

Space Adventures wants to send you on a trip around the moon, hopefully within twenty years.

“Within twenty years” seems to be the magic phrase I’m hearing a lot these days. It’s probably optimistic, but the fledgling space tourism industry is convinced space tourism will be worth billions of dollars per year. If that’s true, then a semi-permanent human presence in space is inevitable within say, 50 years.

How do you know that? I mean, the United States government is running a whopping deficit right now – but there are others. E.g., the European Space Agency. Maybe even China or India. And even the U.S. government might find a way to get back into the black. It’s been done before.

No research is done on the ISS, and the only “science” done on shuttle missions is stuff you see at a high school science fair. The only thing scientific about the current state of space meandering is delivering satellites which contain telescopes to orbit.

We’ll have permanent space colonies when one of two things happen: 1) a bunch of billionaires decide to leave the planet, its taxes, and its terrorists behind, or 2) a mining consortium decides its cheaper to set up operations in the asteroid belt and ferry metals to Earth.

“Within twenty years” has always been the magic number for these kinds of things, because it’s far enough away that you don’t have to show specific plans to back up your assertions, but close enough to maintain people’s interests, since the vast majority will still be alive in 20 years.

I remember when the first ‘space colony’ ideas were floated in the 1970’s. The claim was that we’d have them ‘within 20 years’. Same with personal air cars, break-even fusion, and other things we don’t know how to do but really want to.

Yeah! Where’s my jet pack?! :mad:

You’re possibly thinking of Gerard K. O’Neill. I pretty much memorized his book when I was a kid. It was so sad. He said we had the technology to do it, and that we could do it within twenty years, but he couldn’t know that we wouldn’t do it.

But space tourism is a real thing now. There’s profit in it. Who cares about “science” and “exploiting resources,” or “solar power satellites?” People are wealthy enough to afford it, they want to go, and they can go. It was never going to happen until there was profit, and now it seems there is profit.

Defining Will any of us live to see the day as ~12/29/56 - I would shake the magic 8-Ball and say “Signs point to yes.”

Space tourism is one possibility.** levkadron ** nails it. 34,000 people registered within the past few months to pay about $200,000 (£113,242) for a 5 minute space ride with Virgin Atlantic. Imagine the numbers if you cut the price by 2/3 and made it 3 days in space, or quintuple the price for an 8-day moon trip w. 2 days on the moon and I see it as viable. The market is there and the technology isn’t decades and decades away ; it is a-l-m-o-s-t there in '06.

I also suggest as another possibility man’s ancient enemy: the moon - a stable platform to watch the Chinese and throw weapons at them and for them to do the same. They have announced that they want to build a Moon base. Hey guess what China? America was just thinking of doing that! So a Space Race II is, IMHO, inevitable.

I know I could be wrong.
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And if you’re on a tight budget, the Mexicans can take a whale* to the Moon for $200! :wink:
*Condition on delivery not guaranteed.