A Remarkable Resemblance: Outer Space and Virtual Space

The Space industry bears a remarkable resemblance to an industry that enriched most Space entrepreneurs: the Internet, another space that’s virtually out of this world. A generation ago, few people imagined that the “brick and mortar” world of retail would be rocked by an online bookstore named after a river, or that people would trust their money to flow through a place called PayPal, or that computer geeks would become billionaire celebrities while still in their twenties.

Those web and software entrepreneurs defied the establishment in every way possible; Steve Jobs, Bill Gates, and Mark Zuckerberg were proud college dropouts who spent their careers defying expectations and achieving the impossible. Although Elon Musk differed in that he earned two bachelor’s degrees, the sheer age in which he made a name for himself defied conventional norms. He didn’t just become rich in his twenties, he founded and sold two successful companies while in his twenties, and went on to create three companies in three years, all in different industries: Space, automotive, and solar energy.

Just as Apollo inspired a generation of technically minded people, the Internet generation attracted the best and the brightest to explore their own virtual worlds. But these web pioneers were also inspired by the Space pioneers who went to the moon. When the time came to put their vast new wealth to the highest purpose possible, entrepreneurs like Bezos, Musk, and Ansari understandably chose Space. “Astronauts were like heroes to them,” said John Spencer, president of the Space Tourism Society, in an interview with Entrepreneur magazine. “Once they grew up and became wealthy enough, they migrated essentially to the Space world because that’s the ultimate challenge.”

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Space is the coolest, noblest, next-level thing there is: a cornucopia of impossibilities to overcome, just like the early Internet.

There’s another tie to the analogy between the Internet and Space: their initial dependence on government. The Internet began as ARPANET, a computer network among research universities set up by the Defense Department. The original satellites, which vastly increased the speed of communications between those computers, were sent up by NASA. It’s no exaggeration to say that—without the government’s original efforts in networking, microelectronics, and satellites—Bezos, Musk, Ansari, and Jobs would have had to make their money elsewhere. There would be no Internet as we know it.

Similarly, Space entrepreneurs depended on the government’s pioneering efforts in research, risk-taking, and contracts. But the point here is not to disparage private Space ventures. On the contrary, their initial dependence on NASA and the Defense Department shows how government can stimulate the next generation’s economic and technological innovations. The American economy, a phenomenon unprecedented in history, was built by both public and private efforts. Private Space ventures are carving out niches in Space, only one or two of which overlap with NASA’s continuing efforts. While Elon Musk continues to set the lofty goal of a private Mars colony, most of the entrepreneurial ventures in Space are limited to the area between Earth and lower orbital paths around it. Private ventures focus on five basic areas: tourism, satellites, research, and—speculatively—Space mining and suborbital travel. Currently, the Space industry alone comprises a $300 billion-plus sector that has been growing at a healthy annual pace of 4.9 percent.

LAUNCHPAD

  1. What and/or who inspires you?

  2. What other organizations or new industries are a result of the Space program?

  3. Like the Internet and Space, education depends on the government. What are the advantages of these ties? How does this relationship impede the progress of education as a system?

  4. How might the knowledge and technology that is developed through Space programs impact career opportunities of the future, specifically in the private venture areas of tourism, satellites, research, mining, and suborbital travel?

  5. Visit http://spacetourismsociety.org/ and consider how Space exploration will continue to impact the tourism industry. How does this impact how we prepare students for their future?