This may be the most exciting time to be alive. Though poverty and disease are not yet eradicated and wars still persist, a lower percentage of people die from illness or violence than ever before. And our inter-connectedness is leaving few corners of the world untouched by humanity's growing hive-like mind. The recent discovery of a tribe in the Amazon jungle previously isolated from outsiders was ironically seen around the world through the wonder of our broadcasting power. For good or for ill, we have taken over the planet and have nowhere to go but up!
And we are looking up -- up and out into the solar system and the galaxy and beyond with new eyes and robotic probes. How, you may ask, are things "looking up" considering the cuts to the federal budget, the retirement of the shuttle, and the faltering of international agreements with our Russian partners in the International Space Station?
The answer is simple: American ingenuity and creativity.
Right now, more companies are starting up in the aerospace industry than have been in decades. Until recently, new companies have been the result of the constant consumption of small companies by larger ones (this chart shows the dramatic consolidation of the aerospace industry). But something new is happening -- NewSpace: the revival of the entrepreneurial spirit in space. New rocket companies, new satellite companies, and new space services companies have cropped up all over the country.
The leaders of many of these companies are creating new markets and opportunities. They were raised on Apollo and Star Wars and Star Trek and are asking "WHY NOT?" Why should we not be able to regularly rocket from one side of the world to the other? Why should we not be able to routinely send people to the Moon? Why should we not be able to see any point on the Earth at any time? Why should we not be able to go boldly into the solar system and spread the human race to other planets?
The industry is growing so fast that one new company's sole task is to track all the other new space companies. NewSpace Global ranks what they call the NSG100 top new, privately held space companies. They also track publicly held companies that have an interest in space, some of which are quite surprising (why is Playboy on the NSG PTC100? Your thoughts in the comments section -- keep it clean!).
But with all the growth, all the excitement, there is still uncertainty and doubt. We don't know when the real breakthroughs will come. SpaceX, the putative leader of this movement, is hoping for a 2X reduction in launch cost if they can reuse the first stage of their Falcon 9 rockets. However, they're challenging themselves to achieve a 10x reduction in cost to achieve this revolution (which will be televised). It's been almost ten years since the first privately funded spacecraft took a human being beyond the Von Karman line; the spin-off from that feat, Virgin Galactic's Spaceship II, has not yet followed suit. Remember that it was less than seven years from Kennedy's compelling speech at Rice to "The Eagle has landed." The fast moving start-up world has made strides in space, but it has not yet replicated the leaps that the US government was once capable of.
Nevertheless, all the enthusiasm found in the space industry gives me hope. The investment that we have all made through NASA is now being transitioned to private enterprise. With one agent (NASA) leading the way, much progress was made; with many agents finding support and funding through private investment, even more progress will be made in the years to come.
NASA itself has not been idle during the new space revolution, and with its wealth of amazing discoveries from these last ten years it is fueling the fire (e.g. active water-bearing moons and minor planets, rainstorms and rivers of liquid methane on Titan, hundreds and thousands of planets discovered in other star systems). I believe that our awareness of space is part of the reason why we invest and invent, and why we persist in the face of the obstinate tyranny of the rocket equation. These discoveries tell us two things I think are important -- that the Earth doesn't look so unique and that we ourselves may not be so unique. Our imaginations draw us outward. Since we now know there is water a-plenty on Europa and Enceladus, and perhaps even the minor planet Ceres, then perhaps our bodies can one day follow our imaginations. Humanity has ready-made way stations on our trip across the dark desert.
Just knowing that exploration of the solar system is not impossible, constrained by neither the laws of physics nor the red tape in Washington, is enough for this entrepreneurial uprising to succeed. Space comes with unique challenges, and the time-constant defining successful projects is, I believe, still being discovered in the accounting books in places like Mojave California. Though NASA is still reforming itself and a commercial astronaut-to-orbit service has still not replaced the Space Shuttle, the changes we see today are proof that everything changes, but nothing is truly lost (Omnia mutantor nihil interit --Ovid).