Forty-nine years ago Friday, when astronaut Neil Armstrong became the first person to set foot on the moon, we had every reason to believe that what he called his “small step” was in fact just the beginning of what he described as “one giant leap for mankind.”
In 1969, it was reasonable to expect that our space program would continue to move at the pace of the Apollo program. It was therefore reasonable to think that by 2018 we would have four to five colonies on the moon, space-based outposts in various lunar and cislunar orbits, mining operations on several asteroids, and a preliminary habitat on Mars.
In fact, when Arthur C. Clarke wrote “2001: A Space Odyssey” in 1968, it made sense to mark 2001 as the timeframe in which humans would develop the technology and shape the reality that he described.
However, we have clearly fallen short of Armstrong’s and Clarke’s visions.
Instead of building a robust space program, we built a robust space bureaucracy. After nearly 50 years wandering in a mostly Earth-bound wilderness of red tape – and spending roughly $555 billion on risk-averse, underwhelming, mostly unmanned space observation projects – we have not truly taken Armstrong’s giant leap.
I did an episode of my Facebook series “What If? History that Could’ve Been” about how different America – and humanity – would be had the U.S. continued to build on the John F. Kennedy-era space program.
President Nixon’s decision to slow down and moderate President Kennedy’s space program amounted to one of the biggest hits to scientific advancement in our country’s history. It set us down the path of high costs and large bureaucracy that now dominates NASA.
However, we are currently at a turning point that could course-correct this misstep.
President Trump represents a fundamental change in thinking about space, just as he is a fundamental change agent in so many other areas.
In signing the re-establishment of the National Space Council after 25 years President Trump said: “America will think big once again. Important words: Think big. We haven’t been thinking so big for a long time, but we’re thinking big again as a county. We will inspire millions of children to carry on this proud tradition of American space leadership – and they’re excited – and to never stop wondering, hoping, and dreaming about what lies beyond the stars.”
Vice President Mike Pence may be the perfect implementer of the “think big” space approach. Pence has always been fascinated by space. Before he won a congressional seat, he drove to Florida with his family to watch rockets being launched. Chairing the Space Council may be the assignment that makes him happiest.
Furthermore, in some ways, the Trump-Pence approach is even broader than the JFK approach. Kennedy was using space to influence the Cold War on Earth. Trump and Pence want Americans to go into space permanently.
The interim post-Apollo, pre-Trump NASA system has focused on sending well-trained astronauts on expensive, narrowly focused missions (look at their planning for a Mars trip nearly two decades from now).
Trump and Pence want ordinary Americans with modest training going into space as pioneers and colonizers. Their vision inherently requires dramatic drops in cost and increases in capability.
This is the same model we followed while exploring the North American continent. First came the “professionals” and then came the settlers as soon as economic viability was established. Fifty years after the first human extraterrestrial landings, we are about to enter the second phase of American space exploration.
The amazing thing about this moment in space policy is that an entrepreneurial president can now turn to entrepreneurial leaders for less expensive, more accessible space assets.
Jeff Bezos, Elon Musk, Paul Allen, Richard Branson, and Eren and Fatih Ozmen (the owners of Sierra Nevada Corporation) are leaders working to make access to space cheaper and more reliable for normal people.
The new approaches of Bezos’s Blue Origin and Musk’s SpaceX will lower costs by at least 40 percent (and the next generation of reusables with new materials technology may take that reduction even further). Equally important, these entrepreneurs are the forerunners of new systems that will have daily launches – instead of monthly launches.
When combined with 3D printing, robotics, artificial intelligence, and microminiaturization, these breakthroughs in launch cost and frequency will lead Americans to the moon, Mars and mining asteroids.
Under the Trump-Pence spacefaring vision, we could quickly expand the experience of few astronauts, to extraterrestrial habitats for dozens, hundreds, and eventually thousands of Americans.
After the extraordinary success of the Kennedy challenge, we unfortunately turned our attention back to Earth.
If the Trump-Pence challenge prevails, Americans will be living beyond Earth and looking toward the stars for the rest of our existence.
It is this tremendous effort to democratize space and turn access to space into an opportunity for everyone that will help us to finally achieve the “giant leap” that Armstrong knew would take us into a much brighter, more exciting future.