I grew up in what I like to call the Apollo Generation. We were lucky enough to be born at a time when we could witness man's first steps on the moon and we were shaped by a sense of "anything is possible."
However, what many have forgotten, or never knew, is that getting to the moon wasn't just about the science, even thought it was a monumental technological achievement. It was as much, if not more so, a matter of sheer accomplishment and pride. And while you could claim it was just national pride, it really was an unlikely collaboration between competing superpowers. We forget that the first satellite (Sputnik), the first human to go into space (Yuri Gagarin), and the first EVA (Alexey Leonov) were all Soviet accomplishments (At the Russia was part of the USSR). As Neil Armstrong once said, "it was the ultimate peaceful competition."
However, the biggest payoff was ultimately that the whole world celebrated the achievement and embraced the impossible in what became a tsunami of innovation. The space race was the first domino to fall in a five-decade cascade of innovations.
I'd even go so far as to claim that from the creation of DARPA (where the Internet began) in 1958--in response to the Soviet's successful launch of Sputnik--to the ecological mindset seeded by Jack Schmitt's iconic Hasselblad photo of Blue Marble from Apollo 17, to the development of countless commercial technologies, the space program did more to spur the global economy than any other single effort in humanity's history.
Landing a man on the moon shaped the expectations of generations about what was possible. It's no surprise that so much innovation has occurred in the last 50 years. But a catalyst of that magnitude, which could so fuel innovation and influence the future, has always required a government to stand behind it.
The End Of An Era
Fast forward to 2011. I'm standing by the countdown clock at Cape Canaveral waiting for the last Space Shuttle Atlantis, STS135, to take off on its "sentimental journey into history."
I had spent the entire week at the Kennedy Space Center with a documentary film crew. A good friend had invited me to tag along on a press pass. I'd never seen the shuttle or any other rocket take off. Having grown up watching those grainy black and white images of Neil Armstrong's first steps on the moon I was filled with a sense of anticipation, awe, nostalgia, and definite sadness; I wondered if was now witness to the end of a brave and bold era with the last Shuttle.
I was being a sentimental fool, shackling myself to the past. And I was dead wrong!
What impressed me most about my week at Cape Canaveral was the enormous promise of private space exploration. What I didn't expect to see when I got there was how serious companies, such as Boeing, SpaceX, Sierra Nevada, and Blue Origin were about taking a seat at the table for space exploration going forward--and significantly upping the ante.
It's taken nearly 50 years to return to the moon (July, 20th 2019 is the golden anniversary of the Apollo 11 landing) but today there are five separate companies (SpaceIL, Moon Express, Synergy Moon, TeamIndus, and HAKUTO) in the running for Google's $30Mill in Lunar Xprize awards (20M for first place and 5M for 2nd and 5M in bonuses) to put an unmanned vehicle on the surface of the moon by the end of this year--yes, that's 2017. (There are 16 teams in total competing, but to date only these five have secured a contract to launch their spacecraft.)
So, what's the big deal? After all we've been to the moon, we planted a flag, brought home some rocks and moon dust. Is it just a matter of a few billionaires being able to say they've done it too?
Well, think of it this way. Until now we've looked to the moon, the planets, and the idea of space travel as something that's primarily an effort to prove we could do it. As JFK said, when he announce the goal of putting a man on the moon and returning him safely,
"The great British Explorer George Mallory, who was to die on Mt. Everest, was asked why did he want to climb it. He said 'Because it is there." Well space is there, and we're going to climb it. And the moon and the planets are there, and new hopes for knowledge and peace are there."
While the spirit of exploration is a wondrous thing, without hard payback it's not enough to sustain and propel space exploration. Something here on earth will always be more pressing and of a higher priority in the near term.
The Eighth Continent
This time there's much more behind the frenzy of enthusiasm than the "because it's there" attitude. One way to think of the opportunity is that the moon could be Earth's eighth continent. That's what one of the founders of Moon Express, Naveen Jain, calls it. While Moon Express has a long-term vision of creating a multi-planetary civilization, it also has near term plans to mine the moon, which is rich in rare earth metals and minerals from millennia of asteroid deposits.
But that's just scratching the surface. The way I see it, humanity desperately needs to stretch beyond its current grasp and set its sights on a new global agenda that can both unite us and connect us in a shared vision of the future. And that will have implications that are just as great for those of us who are Earthbound.
As Jain said in a recent NPR interview,
"The way to look at this stuff is when we land on the moon, that will inspire every entrepreneur around the world to find their own moonshot. And the biggest success for me would be when every person who wakes up in the morning and say, what is my moonshot? Would that be curing the cancer? Would that be finding abundance of energy or creating the abundance of food or creating abundance of fresh water? And I hope our landing on the moon becomes that seminal event that changes the way the entrepreneurs look at the problems."
The New World
So, what does this mean to you? That's for you to figure out because the magnitude of this opportunity is truly without precedent, not just in terms of what's to be mined on the moon but also what's to be gained here on Earth. In an Inc.com article about the first trillionaires, James Paine, calls out Space as one of the most likely trillion dollar industries.
To help put it in perspective, imagine that I was to transport you back the great global explorations of the 1600's, knowing what you know now about what was then the New World, what sorts of opportunities would you be able to take advantage of?
I'm not asking you to rewrite history, though it's more than tempting to try and right the wrongs in terms of the human toll of the past 500 years. I'm just asking you think about what it might be like to actually develop, colonize, and commercialize an 8th continent, without all of the human displacement and devastation of the last five centuries.
Boggles the mind, doesn't it? And yet that's exactly where we are right now.
Think about it as you look up at the night sky tonight. I've little doubt that the greatest era of prosperity for humanity is right there, wonderful illuminated and hanging just over our heads. And you're lucky enough to be here as a witness!