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Universal Expeditions

It's 2001.  Decades ago, it seemed like the third millennium would usher in a new age of human expansion beyond the confines of Earth. We had hoped that space exploration by this point in human history would look something like the picture to the left:

Unfortunately, that's not the way it's turned out.  Not only have no planetary expeditions emerged beyond the paper planning stage, but the same can be said for a return to the moon, or any other project beyond the International Space Station.  And the IIS itself looks increasingly likely to suffer from a scale-back in capability and capacity.

Clearly, neither government nor private industry has had the will or the funding to bring about a new era in space exploration.  While this annoys those of us who would rather watch a Shuttle launch than a football game, it should come as no surprise.

Governments must cater to wide interests and must do so with a short fiscal planning cycle.  It is clear that no overwhelming interest in space exploration exists or more would have been done.  NASA receives six times the funding of the National Science Foundation.  Given that, it is unrealistic to expect funding to increase in the future. And given that NASA is a scattered government bureaucracy with all the vested interests and processes that such an organization  implies, it cannot be expected to do more with the funding it receives.  Faster, Better, Cheaper has gone as far as NASA can take it.

Private industry cannot be expected to take up the slack.  Corporate decisions are based on perceived rates of return, and if those rates did not justify action five years ago, the collapse of Iridium, cancellation of the X-33 and X-34 and the siphoning of funds into Internet startups that have since evaporated has done little to improve the situation.  Obviously, private industry has no interest in exploration and settlement, but at current launch rates, there is little incentive to develop low cost access to space, either.  While a build-it-and-they-will-come attitude might actually be true, it will get a project champion kicked out of a board meeting, especially since that business model has shown some difficulties in the Internet arena.

So, space exploration, travel and settlement is a narrow agenda with few hopes of turning a reasonable profit.  What can we do?

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