When Americans think of space they naturally think of NASA. The 100th anniversary of Langley is a great time to consider the significant national benefits that small investments in air and space make to our nation. However, in the 21st century, all humankind, not just specialized astronauts, will launch beyond the bonds of Earth’s gravity. In this century the private sector will build on NASA’s work to create a space economy in which all citizens will participate. In the past we often said the sky is the limit, but it is not. The real limit is the Earth’s gravity well.
What is the gravity well? You live in it every day — it is the reason it is hard to walk uphill and upstairs. When you do those things, you are climbing up the gravity well. And it is big — it includes the region of space from the Earth up and out about a million miles. While most people think of this region as a vast emptiness, in some respects it looks remarkably like the New World in Columbus’ time or the western frontier early in America’s national history.
Already, the gravity well contains an information economy of satellites, generating $300 billion in revenue annually and growing by 10-15 percent a year. In addition, NASA and private entrepreneurs are planning ventures into tourism, manufacturing and mining.
If this sounds like science fiction, imagine the idea of flight in 1900. It was so foreign to the average person that the Wright brothers’ own father thought it was sinful for humans to fly. Human flight constituted the new frontier in the 20th century. Conquering that frontier changed the history of our country and our species. Conquering the gravity well is the great technical challenge of our century. For individuals and nations willing to meet that challenge, the rewards will be even greater.
Why? Because frontiers are where we renew ourselves. The western frontier in the 19th century and the frontier of flight in the 20th both spurred…