Up until fairly recently in human history, people believed that a solid dome, studded with the Sun, Moon, and stars, lay above Earth. The ancients called this dome the firmament. Above it, the ancient Jews taught, lay the vault of heaven. Our human instinct—something in our DNA, perhaps—compels us to rise beyond such barriers. The aerospace equivalent of the firmament is the Gravity Well. We live more or less comfortably within it, a million miles below its star-studded top.
Our ambitions and technology, our human drive, have lifted us above the surface of Earth to perform amazing feats—all within the bottom eighth of the Gravity Well, with humans venturing less than a thousandth of the distance from Earth to Mars. In order to go the rest of the distance, colonizing the next planet and preparing for a future unfettered by the Gravity Well, we Americans must repeat what we did over the previous century.
First, we fostered a society that encouraged inventiveness and entrepreneurship.
Next, we catalyzed the growth of an aeronautics industry through research and lucrative contracts (U.S. mail, the War Department, NACA).
Once aviation moved beyond the realm of economic uncertainty to a calculable risk, we—society, the federal government—got out of the way as much as possible. We deregulated the airlines while ensuring the safety of air traffic, maintaining aeronautics research.
Then we—society, the government—moved to the next level, literally: space. Again, our whole nation bore the burden of risk and danger, the uncertainty. Together we mourned and honored the sacrifice of the astronauts who gave their lives to the venture. Together, the whole world celebrated when Neil Armstrong took our first step on the Moon.
As we moved beyond the nearer frontier of low Earth orbit, industry began to move in, building satellites and launch vehicles more quickly and cheaply with the advantage of multiple production. Uncertainty in LEO is moderating into economic risk, making near space a ripe field for entrepreneurship.
Yet some confusion remains about what, exactly, space entails. The space of the ISS, communications satellites and planned tourist flights lies near the bottom of the Gravity Well. While Musk promises to help lead an effort to escape the Well, he is the first to say that it won’t happen without NASA.
Above the Well lies Mars and the universe beyond. As we rise out of the Well, we create a renewed economy, inspire inventors and discoverers, and foster a more cooperative Earth.