10/04/2007 08:00 am ET Updated Nov 17, 2011

Sputnik 50th Anniversary: Governments Move Over, Here Comes Private Industry

Today is a very special day, an anniversary that school children thousands of years from now will remember, long after all national holidays have been long since forgotten. Today, October 4th, is the 50th anniversary of Sputnik, and the third anniversary of the winning flight of SpaceShipOne that captured the $10 million Ansari X PRIZE.

Both of these historic milestones represent the evolution of humanity beyond the bounds of Earth, into the Cosmos. One was accomplished by a nation, the other by a small dedicated company.

On October 4, 1957, a little metal ball, whose only purpose was to send out a simple "beep-beep-beep," shocked the world, igniting an all-out space race between the United States and the Soviet Union. Even though I was too young to remember any of this, the implications of the space race has inspired me and shaped my life.

The United States responded to Sputnik by launching its first satellite, Explorer 1. Then both the U.S. and the Soviets launched animals to orbit... Laika the first dog (November 3rd, 1957 - USSR), and Ham the first chimp in space (January 31st, 1961 - USA). This eventually led to incredible flight of Yuri Gagarin, the first human in space (April 12th, 1961 - USSR).

Soviet 'firsts' piled up - first satellite, first animal in space, first human in space. Then President Kennedy trumped everyone - he announced that the United States would land on the Moon before the end of the decade... and against all rational odds, we actually did it.

NASA. ESA. JAXA. RKA. These are the world's major national space agencies. These are the names that dominated the first 50 years of space exploration. Over the next 50 years new names will emerge, some we know, some we don't. However, one thing is certain: the names that history will remember from the next 5 decades will be those of entrepreneurs, members of the private sector who saw in space an opportunity for growth, expansion and vast wealth creation.

This is where today's other anniversary; the private flight of SpaceShipOne comes into play. Burt Rutan, backed by Paul Allen, won the coveted Ansari X PRIZE in the early dawn of the Mojave desert on this day 3 years ago. Besides walking away with the cash and getting their spaceship hung in the venerated entry of the Smithsonian National Air & Space Museum, Rutan and Allen demonstrated a new paradigm for space exploration.

Economics will drive the next 50 years in space. Two recent and fundamental drivers have changed the space exploration game forever. First, wealth has accumulated in the hands of ambitious and visionary individuals, many of whom view space simultaneously as a challenging adventure and a place to make a massive profit. What was once only affordable by nations can now be funded by individuals. These visionaries are setting their sights (and their dollars) on the heavens, in the hopes of personally being able to unravel their secrets and fulfill their dreams.

Second, corporations and investors are realizing that resources on Earth are limited; and are running out. On the other hand, everything we hold of value on Earth... metals, minerals, energy and real estate as in near-infinity quantity in space. As space transportation and operations become more affordable, companies will set their sights on extra-terrestrial resources, and what was once thought of as a vast wasteland will become the next "gold rush." It is worth noting that an average ½ kilometer asteroid is worth more than $20 trillion in Nickel, Iron and Platinum-group metals.

Perhaps the most important force behind the next 50 years of space exploration will be the empowerment of youth over the gray-beards who are now running the show (at 46 years old, I'm now closer to the later). Consider two of the greatest achievements of the past 50 years, and you'll understand my point. The average age of the engineers who built Apollo was just 26, not 50+ which is the average of today's aerospace industry. Similarly, the dot-com industry was also built by the genius and unconstrained thinking of the 20-something crowd. Young doers don't know what is impossible and they have less to risk when proposing bold solutions. Once the cost of spaceflight comes down, and the young entrepreneurial minds are let loose, the possibilities of what they will do with those resources are as boundless as their imaginations.

So what will we see in the next 50 years? The stuff of science fiction come to life? Quite probably, though that may be thinking too small. Private tourism to space will become a functional, 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 be witness to the first 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 even comprehend will come out of the frontier. Perhaps in 25 years, something so profound will happen that the achievements listed here will seem paltry and meaningless. But one thing is certain. The next 50 years in space will be when we establish ourselves as a space-faring civilization. For millions of years to come, humanity will look back at the next few decades as "THE magical era" when humanity irreversibly ventured out into the cosmos... and it all began with one small metal ball circling the Earth going "beep-beep-beep."

The X PRIZE Foundation is an educational nonprofit prize institute whose mission is to create radical breakthroughs for the benefit of humanity. Since the winning of the $10 million Ansari X PRIZE for Suborbital Spaceflight by Burt Rutan and Paul Allen in 2004, the Foundation has grown in new areas, launching the $10 million Archon X PRIZE for Genomics and the $30 million Google Lunar X PRIZE. The X PRIZE Foundation will continue to offer new prizes for breakthroughs in the areas of life improvement, exploration, equity of opportunity and sustainability and is widely recognized as the leading model for fostering innovation through competition. For more information about the X PRIZE Foundation, please visit