This past Sunday a fairly momentous event happened without much fanfare among the general public. It was the successful splashdown of the Space Exploration Technologies (SpaceX) Dragon spacecraft after a supply mission to the International Space Station—the very first such mission by a craft produced and launched by a private company. This was important to NASA and the International Space Station program in general because it assures the station can continue without the American space shuttles, now retired. The Dragon craft is also capable of bringing back a lot more in the way of research materials than the conventional Russian spacecraft that have been going back and forth to the ISS since the last shuttle flight, and especially refrigerated materials. But this mission was much more important as a symbol: a sign that private industry can pick up where government-funded organizations like NASA leave off in the realm of space exploration.
Why does that matter?
I could list dozens of reasons I think humanity needs to venture out into space—from ecological relief, to easing population pressure, to safeguarding Life from possible extinction by cosmic collision. Yet the truth is, the real motivator that will ensure us a lasting presence in space is the same as it has always been for exploration: wealth. Money. Commerce. Call it what you will. Columbus’s voyages might have been funded by government (royalty) but his explorations were about finding cheaper ways to access the riches of the Orient. Same with the first expeditions to Canada, and then the exploration deeper into the continent was all about the fur trade. The story was the same for Africa and South America, and it will be the same for the Moon and Mars and the asteroid belt. When the journeys can be made to provide a desirable financial return they’ll happen. For that reason my bet is that we’ll have a better-established presence in the asteroid belt before we have colonies of any size on Mars (unless someone discovers oil there!)
What does this mean for the future? Great opportunities for companies that deal in mining technology, pharmaceutical research (thanks to zero-gravity), solar energy, and robotic systems, among many other fields.
And maybe more science fiction stories with former hard rock miners and lab-coated technicians, and fewer hot shot ex-military pilots.