The Next REALLY Big Thing

Webb Telescope Mirrors Arrive at NASA Goddard
Image Credit: NASA/GSFC/Chris Gunn

The NASA shuttle program ended this month. Now, as NASA turns from government-funded space exploration to private corporation space commerce the future of space-based technology is (sorry for the pun) “up in the air”. Whether you believe that the capitalization of the space market is going to create a brighter, better future for space-based innovation and travel or you feel that the end of the shuttle age marks a new low in mankind’s more and more unlikely quest to conquer the stars you would almost have to agree that without the shuttle program and many of NASA’s other programs such as: Apollo, Gemini, and Mercury, space, and how we use it, would look nothing like it does today. Those programs and the technological innovations they helped bring to fruition cost the US government staggering amounts of money and never returned any direct monetary profit for NASA despite decades of continued investment. No matter how you look at it, only a government could pull off something like that. Some things are just so monumentally, enormously big that no private company could, or would, ever attempt, let alone succeed at them. Yet they make it possible for private industry to flourish in a way that would not have been possible before. So now that the era of government-funded space exploration is over, what will be the next really big thing?

In European history, the most powerful, most influential, and longest lasting empire was Rome. Rome had the strongest armies, the biggest cities, and the wealthiest citizens for almost half a millennium. No nation or empire has ever come close to those achievements in that part of the world, but that power, population, and wealth wasn’t built on the same types of things that many nations strive for today such as technological innovation or personal and commercial liberties. In fact, many of the things people point to as innovations of Rome were actually just acquired by the Romans from abroad:

  • The arch? Nope, that came from Mesopotamian.
  • Cement? That was invented in Asia.
  • Professional soldiers? Sparta did it first.
  • Electorial government? Athens and other Greek city-states had Rome beat by centuries.

No. Rome, the long-lasting power that it was, was built by engineers. It was the huge construction efforts, the roads, the aqueducts, the dams, and other massive public works that kept Rome alive and prosperous. Aqueducts allowed cities to grow to huge proportions, beating out even some of the larger cities of today; cities that bred trade and commerce as much as people. Dams cleared farm land and provided additional water resources requiring less effort to farm and more profits for agriculture. Roads . . . well the roads were literally the highways of trade. Before the Roman Empire (and for a long time after) no nation ever thought to spend quite so much effort and money on things like infrastructure and no private enterprise could have ever hoped to accomplish it.

In the United States in some ways we’ve had much the same engineering revolution in the past 60 years or so. You could rightly give credit for the past decades of US economic growth to many people, but you would be leaving out a major contributor if you did not list among the most important contributions the work of American engineers working for, or funded by, the federal government. President Eisenhower’s efforts with the Interstate Highway System built our equivalent of the Roman roads. Government funded projects built hundreds of dams throughout the country as well as aqueducts and canals to bring water to dry land. Lastly, President Kennedy started the nation on the space race leading eventually to the Shuttle program itself.

Projects like these take massive sums of money to get started and rarely, if ever, see any direct cash return on that investment. They might span hundreds of miles or dozens of years or would need to reach across many different markets and economic zones to be effective. Despite your personal views of the fiscal responsibilities of government, you must admit that private enterprise would hardly have built something so fundamentally necessary, yet enormously expensive to create and run as the California Aqueduct or the Hoover Dam, without which both Los Angeles and Las Vegas would be nothing more than medium-sized towns at best. Private firms, by their very nature, have to be too self-centered and profit-oriented to make building such huge projects on their own feasible. Private industy and capital markets are critical for taking advantage of the opportunity super projects present and private firms might be hired by a government agency to do the work, but they would never, ever fund these super projects themselves.

But oh . . . the prosperity they would create. Once the super projects are done, that’s when it is important to have a thriving and diversified private industry. The US Highway System made suburbs possible, which meant a housing market boom and a brought about decades of increased automobile sales. Water management projects in the West created the California agricultural powerhouse and mid-west flood control cleared up tens of thousands of acres of inexpensive land for industrial and residential use. Finally, the space program, and the technology it helped to invent, fund, or stimulate helped private industry usher in the age of technology, including:

  • GPS
  • Microprocessors
  • Rechargeable batteries, such as those used in mobile phones
  • Audio and video compression techniques
  • Satellite communication
  • The computer mouse

Today, the major highway projects seem to be all done. The big bridges and huge dams are all in place. Sure, we’re still digging out and expanding our aqueducts, but the pace has slowed to a crawl. The shuttle has landed for the last time. So what comes next? What will be the big effort that will take us forward this time? Is it something we already know we can use but have only barely begun, something that doesn’t seem like it would have that big an economic impact, but could turn out to mean a major leap forward, or something that won’t have a huge direct economic impact, but will  increase our prosperity by simply increasing the joy in our daily lives? Private industry is here, ready and waiting and geared up for the next big thing, but what will that be?

Personally, I’m hoping for glow-in-the-dark pets.

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