This is my "best guess" timeline for the future of space exploration and AI. Also cross-reference with Five By Five for a treatment of other areas.
"The 21st Century is when it all changes - and you've got to be ready" - Captain Jack Harkness, Torchwood
The International Space Station has been manned continuously since 2000. The normal crew is 3, but recent enhancements allow up to 6 to be accommodated.
The key to the exploitation of space is a fully re-usable orbital launch vehicle. Virgin Galactic is likely to be the first to achieve that goal - if only to Very Low Earth Orbit (100 km). The ISS orbits at 350 km.
India is expected to launch their first orbital mission
Even with the retirement of the Space Shuttle it now looks as though the International Space Station will remain continuously manned til around 2020.
In the new space ace, both India and China establish their own permanent orbital presences - possibly to support lunar and planetary missions, potentially also for space industry and power.
With Obama's new plan skipping the moon,. China has already put a man in orbit, and launching a Moon mission would appear the logical move to mark their dominance in global and extra-global affairs. India may also see an Indian on the Moon as a mark of their growing influence. Perhaps this will be the new space race?
The success of Virgin Galactic leads to larger and heavier re-usable launchers, gaining a high enough orbit for stable space stations (c.350km), and allowing transfer vehicles can achieve higher orbits as required.
The Google X-prize is won - the first private robotic moon rover.
ESA finally gets its own astronauts into space, probably with Ariane technology.
Supported by re-usable shuttles the first private space station is launched - initially for space tourism, but later for pharmecutical development and other space fabrication.
Date for an operational Russian nuclear rocket announced in 2009
With Constellation now (rightfully) scrapped it look like Obama is ( just about) targetting a manned asteroid mission to test Mars hardware - but there's no real call to arms or drive behind it.
With the China/Indian stations and private stations, permanent orbital population creeps into double digits.
Any Chinese/Indian moon landing could be followed up by a moon-base. Russia seems to be in no fit state presently to join this race, and ESA is most likely to ride on the back of (any?) US activites.
Whilst men explore the inner solar-system, the outer solar-system remains the domain of robots. Europa and Titan seem to be the best bets for life elsewhere in the solar system, and likely targets for a joint NASA/ESA lander mission. Current (2009) NASA/ESA plans are for a Europa orbiter, launching in 2020, reaching Jupiter in 2026, and orbiting Europa in 2028).
Possibly a stepping stone to Mars, possibly the runners-up prize, a manned mission to a Near Earth Asteroid seems a distinct possibility.(US - 2025?). All the more so with Obama's Apr 2010 announcement.
After the Moon Mars is the big prize. It seems unlikely that anyone will head to Mars without first doing a test run to the Moon. It also seems likely that the first mission(s) will essentially be long-duration reconnaissance missions, maybe with 6 months on the surface, but no permanent habitation. It does seem possible though that India/China may beat the US there - and even Russia might decide to have a go.
With private space stations established going on to the Moon does not seem a big step. Indeed maintaining a private moon base may be easier than an orbital station. Expect the first short duration proving missions to be quickly followed by full-time bases for tourism, research and industry. As the national focus switches to Mars, the Moon and Earth Orbit are increasingly left to private industry.
See the L5 entry for more info
This has a good Earth-Mars alignment for a manned mission.
Earth Orbit, Moon and possibly even Mars sees up to 2100 people seeing the decade in from beyond the Earth. The majority of these may well be corporate rather than governmental employees, and on the Moon not Mars.
The chances of the US making the 2028-2030 window appear to be slipping - especially with Obama talking about 2035+) but the pressure from China and others will keep the pressure on to go sooner rather than later - so possibly first half of the decade not the second.
Chemical rockets are great for the Moon, and just about OK for Mars, but for regular Mars trips and trips to Jupiter and beyond. Fusion rockets based on the Daedalus model could give us journey times of a few months to Mars, and only a year or so to Jupiter.
All the noises suggest that we will go pretty quickly from the first manned mission to Mars to a permanent base there - the travel times are so long that frequent shorter trips make less sense. The key questions are why? and who?. Whereas there are probably good economic arguements for a moon base (low gravity, stable environment, farside astronomy, construction materials, health and just 2 days away) the same does not apply to Mars. The only reason to go there (apart from some basic science) is to colonise it. This suggests that hi-pop countries such as China and India may have a greater driver for colonisation than the Americans. Two scenarios are likely - a multi-national, whole-earth settlement, and three settlements - "the west", India and China. My bet is on the latter.
OK, make that 4, or 5 or 6. Whilst my guess is that the Moon might attract more private activity than Mars initially, if the goal is colonisation then the private sector is bound to get in on the act. Who knows, even the Mars Society might be one of the sponsors.
Defined as a settlement of more than 1 building, but where the buildings are not pressurised but are under a common pressurised dome, and the space between buildings is bare Martian soil
Private or public sector establishes a long term base on an asteroid, probably for mining purposes.
The bases on Mars, growing commercialisation of the Moon, and the possible start of colonisation efforts on Mars start pushing off-planet numbers up.
The Lagrange Points have often been identified as ideal space station sites as several of them are inherently stable (unlike an orbit which decays). They also have low transfer cost, so its easy to get to and from them. Gerald O'Neill wrote a great book back in 80's about them called the High Frontier - great "island" space habitats, solar power satellites and lunar mass drivers - still a viable future scenario - especially with global warming issues. So once private industry starts heading for space expect L4 and L5 to become a focus of activity for zero-G manufacturing, space hotels and zero-G settlements.
During 2040 - 2050 there are no new "firsts", activity around Moon/Asteroids/Mars increases, robot explorers deals with the other planets, particularly the moons of Jupiter and Saturn. The Moon and Mars see a gradual shift from public to private funded activity - although the political situation in China may influence this.
OK, from 2050 onwards the game changes. The 'logical' things have been done in a 'logical' way. The next half-century sees a shift from basic exploration to inter-planetary politics, emerging AI technology, and mankind turning to the stars. So everything from here on in is far more speculative - see my FiveByFive analysis for more detail.
The period 2010 - 2050 will see great strides in the creation of Artificial Intelligence - particularly as a result of their use in virtual worlds. Both "standard" and virtual world" Turing Tests will have been passed by this date, probably decades earlier. Leaving aside arguements about whether AI's "think" or "feel" or "know" or have souls, from a behaviourist stand point by 2050 I expect we'll have a reached a point where you can't tell an AI in a virtual world from a human in any way. Whilst such AIs? will of be of great personal and operational benefit in normal human operations and explorations, they will come into their own in the exploration of the outer solar system and the stars. More of this below but also see my AI In Interstellar Exploration paper.
Once we've cracked the AI problem, putting the AI in physical bodies will seam trivial (although their "brains" will be Internet based - they'd never trust themselves to a single processor on legs!). So expect Gleisner Robots and Androids around this time.
This may be a realm for international co-operation, a manned mission to Europa, with landing, in search of life, and possibly even a permanent science base later. Based on Gallileo its 5 years out (6 with gravity assist), so it could be a 10 - 15 year return mission!
What I hadn't really appreciated til the BIS Daedalus seminar was that it was assumed that Daedalus would be powered by He3 mined from Jupiter. This still seems like a reasonable bet. So assuming that by exploring exoplanets is a major driver, and we want to take a manned look at Europa, then after Mars developing a mining/manufacturing capability in Jovian orbit becomes a key future milestone.
As with Jupiter/Europa, a science-led international mission - and who wouldn't want to see the rings close up. Based on Cassini Huygens it's 5 years out (7 with gravity assist), so it could be a 12 - 20 year return mission!
A version of the Turing is passed in virtual worlds, email/IM and maybe even speech and video where friends and colleagues fail to tell an AI apart from the person it is mimicing. This opens the way not only to digitally cloned/splintered personalities, but also digital immortality. It is possibly the most important moment of the 21st century.
After we've got to Mars, and landed men on Europa (and maybe Titan) the next real goal is the stars, not Neptune, Uranus or Pluto. In the 1970s the British Interplanetary Society created one of the most detailed blueprints for an interstellar robotic fly-by called Project Daedalus. This envisaged a 50 year mission at 0.12c using a nuclear pulse engine to fly past Barnards Star, 5.9 ly away, to achieve a 70 minute (!) fly-by! The Daedalus design was based on technology that was seen a "achievable" in the 1970s, so we could launch such a probe at any time during this century in theory, but post the "manned" rush seems most likely. However there is no indication that the basic mission parameters could change much given even 50 years more technology advance - 12% light-speed is still a tall order. The Daedalus model is just being reviewed for C21 under Project Icarus - which looks for 30% light-speed (!). (Interestingly in a survey on their site 80% of respondents expect the first true inter-stellar probe to launch after 2025). And as mentioned above the building of Daedalus/Icarus is probably dependent on industrial level activity in Jovian orbit - so this may become the time limiting factor - not the build of the spacecraft per se. So perhaps this is looking more like 2080 - 2100.
The biggest issue with Daedalus is that it is a fly-by probe. After 50 years of travel all that you get is 70 minutes of encounter (although you get about 7 years planning time for it). So the next big step is an interstellar orbiter. But for that you need to decelerate from 0.1c, and worse still you need to accelerate you deceleration fuel to 0.1c in the first place! So I'd trade Icarus's 0.3c acceleration for 0.2c up and 0.2c down - getting a orbiter mission in the 50 year time. And once you do that its time to load a far more sophisticated AI, possibly Turing clones and a virtual world, and even Von Neuman replicators to start inter-stellar exploration in earnest.
By the end of the 21st century we could have as many as a million people living off-planet - and a large proportion of those could have been born off-planet.
Human colonies would exist in earth orbit, at L4 and L5, o the Moon, in the asteroid belt and on Mars, with possibly science outposts at Venus, Europa and Titan.
How to get to 1 million? Assume from 2050 there is 2 flights a week taking 100 people each as colonists, that's ~ 5000 year for 50 years = 250,000. Over 50 years you could get 2 generations of new-borns = 250,000 * 2 * 2 = 1m!
Hedging my bets as to whether it's on Mars or Earth. Probably Mars to prove the tech in a less challenging environment, and where failure would not be quite so devestating - imagine the cable whiplashing right round the Earth!
Even with personal Turings Homo Sapiens is still going to want to visit the stars in person if the tech will possibly allow it. Daedalus technology allows for a 50 - 100 year journey time, so we're really talking generation ships, possibly a fleet, and all designed to stop and settle. A key issue is whether it waits for the robot missions to report back, or given the mission lag and giant virtual telescopes it amasses enough remote sensing data to know it will find a good system at the end of the journey. This is the Mayflower or Golden Hind of the 22nd century.
The interstellar fly-by gives us the first close-up image of an alien star-system - well 5 years later once the signal gets back to earth.
The inter-stellar orbiter arrives. Possibly the most important moment of the 22nd century as if we've gone down some form of self-replicating route (even if not the Von Neuman route), then it could be the descendants of this probe which colonise the galaxy, and not Homo Sapiens.
Depending on how many c we can make, the interstellar mission arrives, and hopefully finds somewhere to colonise!
The second generation digital colonists arrive at the stars 10 ly out. 2300AD (the "near future" version of the Traveller RPG) also has three dominant space powers (USA, France, China) and envisaged inter-stellar exploration in three competing arms, one per power. So given my scenario we could see a "western" Arm, an Indian Arm and a Chinese Arm, each taking a 120 degree solid angle of space - say the West out through Barnard's Star towards Vega, India from Wolf 359 out towards Beta Canum Venaticorum, and China from Beta Hydri towards Alpha Hydri. But would the AIs? see it that way?
So far we have treated the organic and digital as quite separate worlds. As humans our interface to the digital world is a very clear one - at best we may have contact lenses that give us head-up displays on our vision, or hidden sensors that give us sub-vocalised speech or sub-aural hearing. But the ultimate goal would be the direct digital to brain interface - letting us think to machines, and letting machines create our reality for us - completely. I'm sceptical that this could ever be achieved - but in the next 2 centuries it doesn't seem an impossibility. And like the creation of AI and especially Turing clones it would represent a new stage in mankind's development - and a potential singularity point.
Whilst I'm willing to give neural interfaces the benefit of the doubt, these next two I'm completely sceptical about and would be willing to class as 'never'
Could we ever create a machine that reads our whole brain and creates a digital "copy" of it - which we can then embed in silicon (for ever) or even another organic (clone) brain?
Can we ever travel faster than 0.1c - 0.3c. Einstein tells us that the faster we go the more mass wwe have, so going much faster than 0.3c just gets harder and harder - diminishing returns. So we hve to find another way. The "Warp" drive, where we bend space as we travel so as to get faster than light seems to me less likely than the jump drive, where we bend space at the point of entry and exit and travel in non 3D space between those points. Any such "jump" drive is likely to start (if at all) with stargate to stargate travel at first (think sort of Babylon 5), before we find out how to create the gate at any desired point of exit (the true jump drive - think Star Wars).
Third generation of digital colonists arrive at stars 15 - 20 ly out.
So by 2200 (or even 2260) where are we? Earth, Moon, Mars, Asteroids are a hive of private activity, each with their own governments and factions. The other planets have been visited and maybe even host science outposts. The first human colonies around other stars out to 5 - 10 ly have been started, but mankind's digital envoys are pushing the wave of exploration out to 20ly.