The Internet and space exploration are two of the most influential frontiers of modern science and technology. Using a network of fiber optic lines, and now satellites, the Internet allows people all across the world to instantaneously access and share massive amounts of data. The Internet allows for online banking, shopping, music and movies, location and mapping, as well as scientific research and education from first grade to online phd courses. As space exploration efforts continue to expand, many feel that it is necessary to extend Internet connectivity to the people and devices taking part in that journey.
Internet connectivity in space began with the implementation of the Iris program by the United States Armed Forces. The Iris program allows soldiers in remote regions throughout the world to communicate with their superiors. Following the implementation of this program in 2009, the next logical step for the U.S. government was to expand this new connectivity to astronauts as well. In January of 2010, astronauts on the International Space Station sent the first Twitter tweets from space.
Internet connectivity from space is becoming more of an issue as space travel is becoming increasingly privatized. With the retirement of the shuttle program, NASA has signed a contract with the private company SpaceX. This private venture has already launched the first private spacecraft, which has successfully docked with the International Space Station.
However, this is only the first step in the privatization of space flight. Other companies, such as Virgin Galactic, are working on creating an entirely new tourism industry, soon to be known as space tourism. Virgin Galactic, for instance, has plans to use its state-of-the-art spacecraft technology to send people into space for the sheer fun of it. These trips will start as orbital sojourns, but the company hopes to reach out beyond that and even start sending vacationers to the moon and beyond. Teaming up with Virgin Galactic, adult entertainment giant Playboy even plans to have a club in space soon. Add to these initiatives the plans that have been made by a group of famous investors who intend to start mining asteroids, and one can get a picture of how space is gradually becoming becoming the realm of private industry. And it is of course expected that such ventures would require Internet connectivity in space, and it seems that they will have it.
To facilitate the economic transfer of people and materials between the planet’s surface and space, some have suggested the use of a space elevator, a space station connected directly to the planet’s surface with a tether. This would allow people and materials to go up and down with the use of electric motors instead of rocket propellant. Even though a number of technical barriers still exist, most experts feel that the construction of such a structure is an essential step in the expansion of privatized ventures into space because of increased efficiency and safety. If and when the space elevator is created, the people on the station will most likely want to be connected to the Internet for the same reasons they do on Earth.
As humans reach out farther and farther into space, communications will always be a challenging problem. Even between Earth and Mars, the lag in time that it takes for radio waves to span that distance can make for awkward delays in conversations. However, technology will continue to develop, and humans will continue to adapt. One step after another, we will continue to press outward and upward and we will find ways of maintaining communication as we do so.