Since the turn of the century, political leaders and prominent economists have described the problem of America’s economy as a loss of manufacturing jobs. This conclusion is understandable. The last century’s economy built itself off a growing middle class through well-paid manufacturing jobs. The middle class in turn could afford to buy the marvelous products of those factories—cars, televisions, washing machines—and they flew with the modern new airplanes in previously unimaginable numbers.
Yet that economy no longer drives America’s prosperity; manufacturing knowledge is now widely available. We have been transitioning to a new economy, a sea change that rivals the last century’s transition from an agricultural to an industrial society. Today we find ourselves competing with many other nations. Manufacturing expertise, once the purview of so-called developed nations, is now widespread—particularly in Asia and South America. To regain our competitive leadership, we need to build our economy on something new, using a quality and degree of expertise no other nation has obtained. What could that new economic engine be? And are we capable of creating it?
We have a brilliant precedent: the flying machine.
Just as we built the aircraft industry and the air transportation market that literally rose from it, we can do the same with low-cost space transportation. I have no doubt that it will be a driving force for the rest of this century. Inexpensive, reusable space vehicles will carry unprecedented amounts of cargo into low Earth orbit; carry passengers from one continent to the next in under two hours; build manufacturing facilities and commercial laboratories in microgravity environments; and, eventually, mine the treasures of asteroids beyond Mars. While some of this may sound far-fetched, imagine how someone in 1900 would respond to predictions of low-cost air travel, of air cargo, of the Boeing 747 and its cocktail lounges in the sky. Already, investors are betting billions in private capital on an equally brilliant space future. America has a natural advantage—and a big head start. To foster the next great, tech-driven economy, government and the private sector must work together to conquer the Gravity Well, with their combined efforts focused by our civil space program.