NASA. ESA. JAXA. RKA. These are the world’s major national space agencies. They are the names that have dominated the past 50 years of space exploration. But over the next 50 years, new names will emerge. The names that history will remember from the next five decades will be those of entrepreneurs, members of the private sector who saw in space an opportunity for expansion and vast wealth creation.
Two fundamental realities will drive space exploration forwards. First, wealth is accumulating in the hands of ambitious and visionary individuals, many of whom view space simultaneously as an adventure and as a place to make money. What was once affordable only by nations can now be funded by individuals.
Second, corporations and investors are realizing that resources on Earth are limited and are running out. But everything we hold of value on Earth—metals, minerals, energy and real estate—is in near-infinite supply in space. As space operations become more affordable, companies will set their sights on extraterrestrial resources, and what was once thought of as a vast wasteland will become the next “gold rush.”
Alaska serves as an excellent analogy. Once thought of as worthless territory (in 1867, William Seward, America’s secretary of state, was criticized for paying $7.2 million to the Russians for Alaska, known then as “Seward’s folly”), Alaska has since become a trillion-dollar economy. The transport infrastructure has made Alaska’s gold, oil, timber and fishing industries super-profitable. The same will hold true for space. A 0.5 km (0.3-mile) diameter asteroid is worth more than $20 trillion in nickel, iron and platinum-group metals.
|Celebrating Innovation. Peter Diamandis after the win of the Ansari X Prize in 2004.|
Aside from the economic incentives, technology is reaching a critical point, making space exploration an inevitable component of human progress. Moore’s Law has given us exponential growth in computing technology, which in turn has led to exponential growth in nearly every other technological industry.
Breakthroughs in rocket propulsion will allow us to go farther, faster and more safely into space. Robotics will help us to explore, map and recover resources from far-off celestial bodies. Improvements in communications and life-support technologies will enable further manned missions, and eventually, the colonization of other places, like Mars. And now all of these technologies are in the hands of entrepreneurs who are willing to take risks and do things that have never been done before.
Recently, the X Prize Foundation joined with Google to announce a $30 million Google Lunar X Prize, to be paid out to the first teams able to land on the lunar surface, rove for 500 meters and send back two video/photographic moon-casts. Amazingly, within the first two weeks following the announcement, we received over 190 requests from 25 countries from prospective teams looking for registration materials. This is the new generation of entrepreneurs who will reinvent space exploration the same way that Apple and Dell reinvented the computer industry.
To Boldly Go
Crucially, these entrepreneurs are young, in contrast to the grey-beards who are now running the space show. The average age of the engineers who built Apollo was just 26—not 50-plus, the average of today’s aerospace industry. Similarly, the dot-com industry was also built by the genius and unconstrained thinking of 20-somethings. Young doers don’t know what is impossible, and they have less to risk when proposing bold solutions.
This is not to say that governments will have no role. They will retain the critical work of pure science, and of answering some of the biggest unknowns: for example, is there life on Mars? Governments should play the important role of big customer and get out of the operations business. In the same way that government agencies don’t build their own PCs, or fly their own commuter airlines, in the future, governments will buy seats on commercial orbital vehicles and stay aboard commercial space stations. Politicians will also need to determine what laws govern space and its colonies—and how to respond if space colonies strike out on their own and claim independence.
So, in the next 50 years, will we see the stuff of science fiction come to life? Quite probably, though that may be thinking too small. Private tourism to space will become a real-life opportunity. Privately financed human-research outposts will be common sights in the night sky and on the moon. The first one-way missions to Mars will be launched. We will witness the first live births in space. Mining operations will spring up on the moon. Asteroids will be claimed for their natural resources. And, as these things happen, more opportunities that we have yet to comprehend will come out of the frontier. The next 50 years will be when we establish ourselves as a space-faring civilization. © The Economist Newspaper Limited, London (2008).
Peter Diamandis is Chairman and CEO of the X Prize Foundation.