Almost everything that has transpired with the advancement of launch technology has been done with government bureaucracy. Nothing even remotely close to competitive market forces have played a part in the advancement of and in turn the reduction of launch costs. With this in mind projecting future progress based on past progress is probably not a good idea, as the Law of Accelerating Returns has not played any significant role yet. That is about to change.
Approximately every 18-24 months, the power of both the computer and the network doubles. Sometime in the 2010’s, we can anticipate a desktop computers operating at teraflop speeds. Wireless devices will be ubiquitous. The marketplace of ideas will be enhanced by things like smart mobs and online reputation systems, which will further accelerate the already rapid pace of “expert networking” and knowledge collaboration. The pace of technological growth will continue to accelerate and take all other fields of endeavor with it – including space enabling technologies like nanoengineered materials.
The economic payoff of mass produced nanomaterials like carbon nanotubes is so great, that we can expect significant investments to pour into this field as much if not more as it poured into silicon. Not only can we expect more rapid increases in processors made of such materials but massive quantities of the strongest materials ever made.
Carbon nanotubes have the necessary strength to manufacture space elevators. A new company, High Life Systems, probably the first of many to come, has been established with this direct goal in mind. If they are successful, launch cost could plummet from their $20,000/lb to less than a $100/lb, and probably much less than that as the systems mature.
Reduced launch costs change everything.
It could radically democratize the space race, making it affordable for a lot more people and enterprises to take up shop. This in turn will create more economic incentives to reduce launch costs even further and advance basic space technology, including CELSS (Closed Environment Life Support Systems). As launch costs are reduced, and long-term habitation of space become easier, the drive to utilize space-based materials (near-earth approaching asteroids) will begin in earnest. Creating a permanent human presence on the moon would be easy as pie at this point. Not to mention that by this point, the state of nanotechnological development will be way past the mass-production of carbon based nanotubes.
As for timelines its hard to say. My guess is we could see this first attempts at building a space elevator as early as next decade. If so we could see dozens, then hundreds of people taking up some kind of permanent or semi-permanent residence in space shortly thereafter. By the second decade of space elevator operations it’s the number of people permanently residing in space could be in the thousands.
Of course, all number of catastrophes could happen between now and then, but if the underling economic drivers are allowed to continue, such a timeline could even be conservative.
I think it was Arthur C. Clarke who said most predictions tend to hype and exaggerate short-term gains while completely underestimate long-term ones.
Time will tell.