Scale is possible.
These three words started this essay and articulating a strategic rationale for getting to scale in space has been the goal from the start. Why haven’t we already achieved scale?
Enamored with our past success in landing men on the Moon more than a generation ago, our public policy has been to continue pursuing space exploration as the governing strategic vision for human spaceflight even though there is ample evidence to suggest that this is not what the public truly wants and aspires to nor what our political system is willing and able to fund.
There are five reasons why this is true:
- It’s (too) Expensive
- Earthly Priorities > Space Exploration
- There’s No (Direct) Payback
- There’s no Blank Check
- It’s An Elite Sport
Despite repeated Presidential initiatives and proclamations, we have failed to return to the Moon or go onwards to Mars. The grand announcements and plans have been for naught. The budget has been doled out in small increments each year, barely enough to keep the lights on and the hopes alive of greater things to come – someday.
An underfunded NASA has become so acculturated it has become a Hollywood cliché, illustrated by the films like Interstellar in which NASA has (literally) become an underground organization and we need help from an external ‘alien’ civilization to help humanity seize the space frontier. That cliché is rivalled only by another film, Gravity, in which the space environment is portrayed as so dangerous and hostile that we should be exceedingly grateful to merely stand on the Earth’s surface and feel the wet, muddy ground beneath our feet. Then there’s Tomorrowland, from Disney, which portrays NASA being dismantled because adults have stopped knowing how to dream or be optimistic (and more darkly and ironically a future where the best and brightest go to live and thrive – under the dictatorship of an authoritarian police state).
We are awash in Hollywood clichés channeling the popular zeitgeist showing a NASA with its wings clipped and an America without the strength, character, or optimism to seize the High Frontier. Either too dangerous to chance or beyond our abilities without external help, we seem to have lost confidence that we can achieve this frontier on our own or that our own public will support it. That is not the only contradiction. While NASA remains one of the most trusted and admired government agencies, the number of people that think it deserves more funding is barely a quarter.
The truth is we can do more. We can change this game.
My untested thesis is that there is a great hunger for the Frontier deeply embedded in our culture and in the aspirations of virtually all Americans. We are built of the stock that braved the voyage from far shores and ran the gauntlet to cross the border. We are the ones that dared to uproot our families in search of a better life and more opportunity. Whether Pilgrims, Pioneers, or Boat People, recently arrived or generations removed, legally here or not so, we are an immigrant nation blended, bred, and optimized to go forth and seize new frontiers. We are the ones that dared. It is literally in our DNA.
Frontier Dominance as a strategic doctrine paired with an action plan for achieving scale is an attempt to offer a vision around which it is easier to rally and inspire greater public support than Space Exploration, despite its much greater expense. If we are going to play this game, we should play it big and we should play it to win.
How does Frontier Dominance do against the five constraints to space exploration? It demolishes them. Here’s how and why.
- It’s too expensive. Compared to space exploration, Frontier Dominance is much more so, yet it offers a better value proposition. It offers a chance of direct payback and potentially a return on investment.
- Earthly priorities are more important. Earthly priorities will always trump high-minded aspiration and the desire to explore and gain knowledge. In contrast, Frontier Dominance is aimed directly at critical earthly expectations: jobs, wages, and economic growth.
- There’s no direct payback. Frontier Dominance offers a means to collect revenue directly and traceably and to eventually pay back the entire investment of public money.
- There’s no blank check. We are going to ask for far more funding than space exploration ever did. Yet with the possibility of payback and the potential to increase prosperity on Earth, it is possible that no check is really too small, a proposition voters may agree with.
- It’s an elite sport. Frontier Dominance is about forging and bending steel at scale. It is not a game of the few exploring on the behalf of the many, but a game of the many working to make the frontier real for all.
Frontier Dominance as a governing strategic rationale meets and exceeds all of the critical constraints that have held back space exploration for nearly two generations.
Not only that, but an informal survey suggests the possibility that Americans are willing to bet big on our future when it comes to space. A poll using Survey Monkey found a strong majority of Americans (>65%) support a space program that results in an economically profitable space-based economy that creates stronger economic growth and high paying jobs here on Earth. When offered various options for programs that spend substantial sums ($200 billion/year) for extended periods of time (50 years), there is a strong baseline of support (40-45%) among respondents (and slightly higher among Likely Voters) for these programs as long as they offer the potential for jobs and payback. Last, two-thirds of voters are willing to consider a Congressional candidate that proposes a bolder American space program as long as the program also results in higher economic growth and better paying jobs at home. Support for a bolder program in space, surprisingly, may also be shared across the political spectrum.
These numbers are not perfect. The survey behind them is not a professional one. The questions are admittedly leading. The results need to be tested more rigorously. And yet these findings offer grounds for optimism that our public is interested in boldness. The truth could be that we are a people looking for a big, expansive dream in which ‘normal’ people get a shot at being in space paired with a viable proposal and narrative for a more prosperous future for all.
The great irony, of course, is that space exploration and related science, a program I have criticized as an overall governing vision, would be greatly expanded if we were to achieve Frontier Dominance. A vigorous and expansive human presence in space would be a shot in the arm for exploration and science, whether robotic or human. If there is a large sustainable presence in near earth space, then there is a low cost base from which to explore deep space and a very high need to do so at far greater scale and frequency. There will be many more such missions within this context than are even remotely contemplated today. Simply put, Frontier Dominance includes space exploration at greater scale and tempo by default.
It also includes a lot more science. Go big in space and we are going to need to understand much more about that environment and its impact on humans. We are going to need new forms of propulsion and new materials. We are going to have to develop a way to protect people from radiation without tons of materials for shielding, which is incredibly expensive. We are going to need an exponential increase in virtually every field of science and engineering to make living in space feasible and to travel down the cost curve to make it economically sustainable.
I’ve argued we have a good chance of selling Frontier Dominance to the public as a vision and I believe we can engage in the political process in a way to get the votes to reboot an American space program at scale.
As the enabling levers of lower launch costs and asteroid mining come into place, we can grow to dominate the frontier of near Earth space and build a permanent and self-sustaining human presence as a foundation from which to grow beyond Earth.
The Frontier beckons.
We do not need a new rival nor do we need a new Sputnik moment, either rhetorically or in fact. We don’t need to go hat in hand to the international community to find partners willing to pay for that which we are not willing to fund ourselves. What we need is a vision upon which to act and the will to go forth. We have been hugging the shallows of Low Earth Orbit for too long.
It is time to go beyond.
Getting to scale will not be easy. We are not flush with cash and we face a daunting list of challenges. The forecasts of our long range fiscal situation are grim. Our national debt is grown enormously from multiple crises and it is likely to get worse. Our middle class is under threat, wages are stagnant, and our economy may be entering a period of secular stagnation where income inequality may yet worsen from historically high levels already. Every region of the world seems to be getting increasingly dangerous, requiring more guns over butter. We face a warming planet that is likely to impose significant costs in the future. These issues are occurring against the backdrop of a polarized and poisonous partisan political environment. We are a divided nation that seems unable to reach consensus on anything, choosing conflict instead. The list of calls on our resources both now and in the future is long, urgent, and morally compelling and any grand new program will face the opposition of every vested interest.
Underlining this litany of challenges is a gaping hole in public confidence. Neither party has articulated a vision that inspires much confidence beyond the standard ideological rhetoric. Americans are not fooled. Survey after survey suggests a majority of Americans believe their children’s generation will be less well off than ours today and faith in our governing institutions from Congress to both political parties has collapsed. This is an indictment of our current politics and a profound failure by our policy elites to articulate a governing vision for the future.
The surest sign of a failure in political vision is when outsiders rise as serious political candidates on all sides of the political spectrum and voters reject governing elites and their supposed wisdom and competence. This is happening today in every advanced economy of the western world, not just America. And why not when all our politicians offer are obsolete ideologies and ineffective policies leading to jobless recoveries, stagnating wages, and an unsustainable future?
The year 2016 will surely be seen as ground zero in the political earthquake that has shaken the West. From Brexit to the improbable rise and victory of Donald Trump in the US Presidential election, voters have been rejecting the status quo of governing elites that have created more Have Nots than Haves. But the trend did not start in 2016 and it certainly did not end with the polarized result of 2020.
But that may not be the worst of it. Against this backdrop, there is a growing debate over whether the golden age of American growth is over for good. Best articulated by Economist Robert Gordon, his thesis is that the big transformations – electricity, automobiles, airplanes, manufacturing, modern healthcare – have played out and the much hyped technology innovations of the digital economy today are at best merely incremental improvements on current trends by comparison. Digitizing chatter and making money from advertising hardly compares with the creation of the flush toilet, the light bulb, the networked home, the Model T, antibiotics, or the airplane. Facebook is profitable. It’s not profound. Gordon suggests the possibility that the future will look more like the recent past: slow economic growth, increased inequality, stagnating wages, and a declining American middle class.
If that is our future, then it is a grim forecast.
In the face of such woeful tidings, this essay attempts a counterargument. It articulates a specific pathway to a high growth future, a future that can lift tens of millions of Americans into high wage jobs and reverse the trends of a declining middle class.
The century from 1870-1970 was an extraordinary one filled with a number of innovations that have already reached saturation and those specific innovations won’t be duplicated at scale in the future.
However, the biggest transformation in human history still lies ahead and is nearly within our grasp. It represents a second ‘Special Century’ for America. It entails the massive build out of the space frontier. It includes factor inputs of resources on an unlimited scale. It implies building cities in space and colonies on other worlds. It requires building a transportation system that spans the solar system. It means exploring innovations like variable gravity agriculture and zero-G manufacturing. And it creates a forcing function for a dramatic increase in total factor productivity. Labor and capital will be incredibly expensive when you have to lift them from the surface of the Earth or your drinking water comes from an asteroid. Therefore every activity will inspire and require an effort at innovation.
These are the engines of future economic growth. This is profoundly more powerful and exciting than digitizing chatter and charging for advertising. This is much bigger than snapping, tweeting, or searching. This is forging and bending steel at scale in an environment of extraordinarily high cost and with no established, vested interests or competitors. It is a virgin frontier that beckons the hardy, the entrepreneurial, and the brave. Sound familiar? It should. That used to be us.
This future is possible and it can be ours again.
We face a low growth future only if we choose to live in a closed system.
My counter-thesis to the growth-is-over argument is that we are, instead and at long last, on the verge of a 100-year burst of sustained high single digit and possibly double-digit economic growth that will drive more jobs, higher wages, and a sustainable economic future for America and also all of humanity. The counterpoint to the thesis of secular stagnation is a strategy to create an Economic Conjugate in space that creates a minimum wage job that pays $250 per hour, $500,000 per year, and comes with a 5-year contract, a job available to tens of millions of American by the end of this century. It is built on a vision of creating a duplicate economy in space that returns a vast surplus of earnings to Earth within 50 years, effectively lifting all boats in all nations. There is a growth explosion at the far right of the economic model of Frontier Dominance that we can capture for the benefit of our children and all of humanity, if we but choose to try.
A better, more prosperous future is within our reach. It is a future that will be led by the society that can best harness the technology, the public will, and private sector innovation along with a sustainable means of financing the breakout. When the Economist magazine called the end of the Space Age at the retirement of the Space Shuttle in 2011, they got it wrong. We have merely finished the first chapter. Something bigger, bolder, and more extraordinary is beginning to ramp up. We have the potential to build an economically sustainable frontier in space.
We are a country that has made such big bets and gone to such great lengths in the past.
We are the country that made the Louisiana Purchase, bought Alaska from the Russians, and built the Panama Canal. We are the country that funded the Marshall Plan, inspired the United Nations, and legislated the Land Grant universities. We are the country that built the Interstate Highway system, created the Internet, and landed men on the moon.
We are still that country.
It’s not too late to imagine a future in which we can do much more at home and abroad on the back of a dynamic and rapidly growing economy. It’s not too late to imagine a future where our children do better and are more prosperous than we are today. It’s not too late to build a new frontier and create a new destination for all of humanity. It’s not too late to build a future we can be proud of, regardless of our politics. It is not too late to be bold, to build, and to make big bets again.
We don’t have to live in a closed global economy forever characterized by win-lose competition, jealous of every job lost. We don’t have to stand by watching our middle class stagnate and decline because too many jobs are being automated or globalized. We don’t have to build walls, turn inward, and hunker down, pointing fingers of blame in every direction except our own.
We can do more and go further.
If you are looking for the soundbites for why we must go into space at scale and with boldness, if you are looking for the pitch lines to use with Americans of all walks in every situation, if you are looking for the talking points for explaining to someone in the unemployment line in the midst of a recession that has no job and is losing their home that spending $200 billion a year to conquer a new frontier is more important than their personal need right now at this moment, then here are the soundbites to explain what is possible and why we must try:
- We must be the generation that dared to expand our horizons instead of the generation that was too scared to try.
- We must be the generation that lived up to our legacy of American leadership and made the bold investments to move humanity beyond the confines of a single planet.
- We must be the generation that chose to build the new products and new industries of a new frontier where no one else can compete.
- We must go into space because we must escape the secular stagnation of our economy and the polarization of our politics.
- We must go into space because it means re-establishing the narrative of the American Dream on a frontier of limitless opportunity and exponential growth.
- We must go into space because it is the only way we can establish a bolder, more prosperous future for our children even if it requires sacrifices today to make that future a reality.
- We must go into space because it is this generation’s responsibility not to squander the exceptional calling of America for the frontier, even as our forebears made the bold decisions of their eras to expand our nation’s horizons.
These are the reasons we must go into space at scale and speed and for which we must make sacrifices today for a better more prosperous future tomorrow. The world needs an exceptional and prosperous America. We can be that beacon of opportunity and hope once again.
This can be your future. It is a future that will be earned one vote at a time. It starts with yours.
Some people are going to tell you that we are not ready for a big new vision for America in space. They will say we can’t afford it. They will tell you that Congress will never approve it. They will say Americans will never vote for it. They will shake their head and tell you that it just can’t be done.
The naysayers are wrong. Why that is so can be summed up in just four words:
The world has changed.
In 2016, we witnessed a political earthquake rock the Western World from Brexit in the UK to the victory of Donald Trump in America. For the last four years, Populism and protest have been locked in struggle against the status quo in America and Europe. It may not win every time, but the ugliness has exposed just how alienated, angry, and desperate our publics are. In the midst of economic pain, political elites have failed to deliver a believable narrative of future growth and prosperity that benefits the majority rather than a lucky few and electorates are seeking alternatives, no matter how extreme.
Political failure has opened the door to Populism.
But the Populists have a quandary. The charismatic people who have been most successful in capturing voter dissatisfaction with promises of a better future have no real agenda for achieving what they have promised. They can demonize and attack. But you can’t just wave your hand and magically conjure economic growth. You can’t get more jobs by building walls, putting up barriers, pulling back from competition, and starting trade wars. You can juice short-term results with massive tax cuts or debt, but eventually the bills will come due. The most likely outcome is the exact opposite of a prosperous future. But neither can the established parties defeat Populism by making promises of more benefits and programs without a narrative to achieve economic prosperity through growth and without dumping the tax bill on people who don’t feel they can afford it. Both sides need a believable path forward to growth and prosperity. Neither yet has one.
The U.S. election of 2020 simply illustrates the ideological stalemate.
Any vision that offers a narrative of a more prosperous future with better jobs and opportunities for all is one that now has a shot at serious consideration like no previous time in recent history.
The truth is we need the growth of a frontier that has the scope and size of the Louisiana Purchase, the Homestead Act, the Interstate Highway System, the Marshall Plan, and the Panama Canal all rolled into one. The space frontier is the only candidate that qualifies.
The time to go big and be bold is now. The vision of a prosperous America and West is not a luxury that we approach and argue for over time with incremental baby steps. It is an urgent necessity today and the future of the world as we know it now depends on our success.
It is time for space advocacy organizations to step up their game. It is time to stop talking about small-scale space exploration by the few and start talking about the extraordinary benefits to the many of a mass break-out into space on a frontier of limitless opportunity and exponential growth.
The time is now. The time to seize the frontier of space is upon us and the single best way to end this essay is with the quote from Carl Sagan that started it:
The visions we offer our children shape the future.
It matters what those visions are.
Often they become self-fulfilling prophecies.
Dreams are maps.
Carl Sagan, Pale Blue Dot, 1994