To realize the national benefits of space will require a degree of presidential and congressional leadership that we have not seen in a long time. More importantly, space must have the backing of the rest of us. Each of us needs to understand the broad benefits. And we must demand that our leadership ensure we reap the rewards of having the most advanced spacefaring technologies in the world.
For any of this—the leadership and the support—to happen, first we need a vision. We need a mission that strains our capabilities, one that’s hard. NASA hard. The ideal mission will have certain characteristics:
It will seem crazy to skeptics, while stretching our belief in ourselves. Just as Kennedy’s call for going to the Moon, this new mission must thrust right up to the edge of impossibility.
It will be nonpartisan and represent no particular ideology, except the characteristic American quest for invention and discovery.
It will be new, exceeding all the goals of previous presidents. Bigger and newer than Lyndon Johnson’s vision of a Moon base. More daring even than George W. Bush’s call for a base on Mars. Bolder than Barack Obama’s plan for capturing an asteroid.
It will deliver—immediately and in the long run—all the economic, STEM, and international benefits.
What in heaven could such a mission be? I’ve been suggesting it throughout this book. It’s the Gravity Well.
The mission itself will not be enough. The next president should enshrine that mission within a vision, one that describes the best possible future for America and the planet. This vision, too, must be bold enough to stretch credulity while captivating our nation’s most restless young intellects. It could go something like this:
Our generation is about to take the first step toward turning Earth into a homeland that guarantees all individuals the right to reach their potential. We will achieve this feat by stepping up and away from Earth.
The President will then describe the Gravity Well, the definable part of the near Solar System that will serve as our next, greatest frontier.
Conquering this Well means exploring it, then settling it—much the way we explored and settled the vast American frontier. And in doing that, we will find riches we can only begin to imagine.
We will manufacture new machines, and create new generations of computers fully capable of artificial intelligence. We will invent new smart materials, with clothing that changes temperature with the weather, and self-healing polymers. We will have new medicines, developed in microgravity environments. We will tap into limitless supplies of energy without causing any harm to our planet. Future generations may even grow enough food in space to satisfy everyone. One day, our children’s children will turn vast tracts of Earth into parks, because they will have all the terrain and all the space they need, off this planet.
This vision sounds far-fetched, I know. But so did President John F. Kennedy’s call for landing people on the Moon and bringing them back safely. When he made that call in 1961, commercial airplane flight was barely 50 years old. Only a tiny fraction of Americans had even flown in an airplane. And who would have thought that our giant leap into space would come with so many added benefits, like accurate weather prediction, GPS, and our smartphones that communicate with satellites?
It has been more than half a century since President Kennedy made that call. And now it is time for a new vision, one that reaps even greater benefits.
Ten years from now, we will have a base on the Moon. Twenty years from now, astronauts will be operating on a permanent base on Mars. Twenty-five years from now, we will be mining the asteroids near and beyond Mars. A single asteroid, no wider than your living room, can contain $10 billion worth of gold, along with platinum, tungsten, and the rare earth metals we desperately need here, where supplies are running low. Along with those metals, we’ll extract iron, nickel, aluminum and titanium to construct new bases on Mars and in space. On other asteroids we’ll obtain water and oxygen to sustain life, as well as hydrogen, oxygen, and ammonia for fuel.
Beyond those 25 years, we will create an economy in the Gravity Well that dwarfs the one on our planet. We will achieve a global prosperity that we cannot fully imagine today—just as no one could envision the wealth we have achieved since the Wright brothers first took to the sky.
But first, we must step up and climb to the top of the Well. If we do that—if we meet that challenge—then we will be known as the generation who opened up the terrain of space, who settled the newest, greatest frontier. Future generations will remember us for our courage and our boldness. And they will remember us for something even more important: That we did it peacefully.