The Future of Space Exploration

Looking Ahead: This article is part of an occasional series of bicentennial stories in which GW experts share their thoughts on what we can expect on a variety of topics as the George Washington University moves into its third century.



Henry R. Hertzfeld

Henry R. Hertzfeld is the outgoing director of the Space Policy Institute at the Elliott School of International Affairs, where he also is a research professor of space policy and international affairs.


By Henry R. Hertzfeld

Can you imagine a day without outer space? We’ve come to rely so heavily on every day services that require outer space that if those satellites suddenly stopped working we’d be without smartphones, GPS, weather forecasts and even many television programs.

Humanity’s imagination, ingenuity and innovation have made the exploration and use of outer space almost unlimited. We have progressed from exploring the beyond with relatively simple earth-based telescopes to sending satellites, spacecraft and people to destinations previously thought impossible in a very short period of time.

So where do we go from here?   

Whether it’s private businesses or governments that ultimately lead the changes, we can expect a continued incremental expansion of human exploration and use of outer space in the near future.  

The major constraints on space exploration are also its main stimulators: international cooperation and international competition. Scientific discoveries rarely know national boundaries, and new knowledge spreads rapidly. International cooperation in these endeavors often benefits all nations and peoples.

But competition can be both beneficial and threatening. The race between the United States and the Soviet Union to put a man on the moon during the 1960s stimulated large investments and advances. Today, although not motivated by the same forces, the United States is facing competition from China, and both nations are responding with a show of technological prowess.

Competition for international leadership is now also more present in the national security and defense domain. As space technology has matured and spread across many nations, the threats have also increased, both to physical assets in space and to us as users of space applications.    

Competition has also moved into the economic realm as space capabilities have progressed from only being in the domain of governments to now offering private companies such as SpaceX, Blue Origin and One Web the promise of profitable rewards from space investments and resultant marketable products. Making profits in space is still not easy, as all space activities require large up-front costs, fast changing markets and high risks of failure.

Parts of space will become quite crowded and managing those systems in a sustainable way will be challenging.

Our quest for continued exploration into the far reaches of outer space, within and beyond our solar system, will progress as well. Robotic spacecraft visiting other planets, looking for life—particularly intelligent life—will remain a challenging goal. With advances in artificial intelligence, electronics, communications and other areas we will have a deeper understanding of how our universe works.

We will be sending people further into space. In the very near future private citizens may be able to routinely go to the edge of space on private rockets. One company is even promising such flights to begin this month. Governments are planning manned missions to return to the moon. Spacecraft in place at opportune locations will improve our ability to use in-situ resources and support new, deep space exploration missions. We also will be able to build structures in space and to resupply and fix malfunctioning spacecraft. This ability to work in space provides endless opportunities. However, we also must not forget that space is a harsh environment, people cannot survive there without special clothing and equipment, and all space activities incur high risk and expense.

The pace of space exploration continues to increase rapidly. Over time there could be airplanes that use the edge of space to travel faster between points on the Earth; we may be able to augment scarce metals by obtaining them from asteroids, and there could possibly be human settlements in space or on other planets. 

And while the progress in human space exploration is astounding, it’s the more everyday uses of space exploration that represent the biggest trend in space over the past 20 years—the continued growth of small, privately owned satellites offering data-intensive communications and remote sensing (pictures) services. Coupled with the backbone of government satellites, these satellites orbiting the Earth will even be more crucial to the smooth and orderly operations of the interconnected system of transportation, communications and electronics in modern society. Hopefully, we can protect space assets and won’t have to worry about a day without space.



The Space Policy Institute at GW, established in 1987, is located in the Elliott School of International Affairs. In the 34 years since its founding, its faculty, students and over 150 alumni have played a central role in working with the space community in this exciting, cutting-edge activity and continue helping to shape U.S. and international space policy.