NASA astronaut Tracey Caldwell Dyson in the cupola of the International Space Station. (Flickr/NASA.)
Spaceflight is usually on the periphery of international affairs and is invisible in the US presidential campaigns. That's understandable. Most people are either not connected, or believe they are unconnected, to the space industry (never mind their communications, media, weather forecasts or GPS navigation). But turbulence is building on several fronts and some will become major issues in the year ahead.
The most important international space project is the International Space Station (ISS). Humanity's only outpost beyond Earth has survived geopolitical tensions between its major partners, but it is entering its twilight years. The ISS will remain active until 2024. Beyond this, its future is questionable.
America's space agency, NASA, is becoming comically inept in trying to define its next goal after ISS goes dormant. There's no chance of sending astronauts to the Moon or Mars any time soon. Americans seem indifferent to spaceflight. If NASA cannot recover its mojo soon, America's future as the world's predominant space power will be in question.
The rising challenger is China. The Tiangong 2 space laboratory (essentially a miniature space station) will fly at some point this year. China is fast-tracking plans for its own major space station, which should launch around 2018. International partners are being invited to join the Chinese Space Station. At some point, the CSS could become the world's only operational space station. China recently launched a dark matter astronomy satellite and is building a massive radio telescope on the ground. This 500-metre diameter dish will be the largest antenna in the world.
Russia's space program mostly rests on the legacy of Soviet-era technology and infrastructure. Its internal problems are even worse than those of NASA. Europe is moving steadily. Japan is also quietly gaining ground.
So much for national programs. The real action will come from the rise of private enterprise. A bitter rivalry has emerged between two US-based companies. Blue Origin and SpaceX have both demonstrated the ability to recover their rockets. This could bring down the cost of space travel, but it will take years for this capability to truly mature. Rivalries are also brewing between these upstart space companies and 'old school' aerospace corporations who see their cozy relations with the US government threatened. Senator John McCain periodically erupts over the import of Russian rocket engines for US rockets by the 'old school', which saves money but inhibits US innovation.
Space tourist companies are still trying but haven't demonstrated any operational vehicles. At some point, they have to deliver on their promises.