Humans like to explore. I think it's in our nature. What's over that next mountain? What's across that sea? Many times people explored the Earth for economic or political reasons, but it's hard to deny the idea that people simply like to roam.
As the United States space shuttle makes it last mission before retirement, it may appear that human exploration is coming to an end. There are still the oceans, which are wide and deep and well worth exploring for a variety of reasons. But for those that dream of going to space, it will probably remain a dream. Unless a breakthrough in science enables us to cover the vast distances involved, humans are probably trapped here on Earth.
We can send robotic craft out, but even those move slowly, drifting out to the edge of our solar system and beyond, but without a human presence aboard. You can be a space tourist, flying on the Russian Soyuz spacecraft up to the International Space Station via a company called Space Adventures. Their site mentions that only about 500 people have been to space, and all of those flew for specific countries. The Space Adventures site only lists 7 people who have gone up as tourists, and they don't mention the cost. One of the tourists, Charles Simonyi, is reported to have paid between $20 and $35 million USD for his trip to space.
Since most of us will not reach space as either tourists or on official duty, I predict humans will begin to look inward. Consider the popularity of MMORPGs (massively multiplayer online role-playing games.) Is the allure of these games purely social? I would argue that while playing with friends is a fine reason to sign up, there is also the factor of exploration. Even if it's from the safety of their chairs, these players are exploring areas that are new to them. Much the way a conventional traveler might visit Paris. The city existed before they arrived, but it is new to them.
Looking at some numbers for a handful of the top MMORPGs, we see that World of Warcraft has 12 million subscribers as of 2011, Aion has 3.4 million in 2010, Final Fantasy has 350,000 in 2010, and Eve Online has 325,000 in 2011. Compared to the world population, these numbers are small, but the games do offer an outlet of exploration that is safe and inexpensive compared to travel to other countries or into space.
While I'd love to see a scientific breakthrough that opens up space travel to the general populace, I think that's a long way away at best, and at worst, maybe never. Maybe the majority of us are stuck here on Earth for our lifetimes and so we need to get along. And to get our joy of exploration, we will probably look inward, spending hours in sophisticated virtual worlds designed by other humans and someday by artificial intelligences.
Is this ideal? No. But I think it's our future. For now.
(The info on Space Adventures came right from their website. Game Drone has an interesting article by Droniac on MMO numbers. I drew the subscriber data from an article by Simon Hill at Bright Hub. And for interesting articles on virtual worlds, try Terra Nova. The pic is from: star-trek-ship-schematics.blogspot.com.)