I fell in love with space when I was in high school. It was not sudden, but movies like “Star Trek” and books like “Dune” permeated my subconscious, slowly convincing me that the next great chapter of the human race would be among the stars. I was also swayed by Alan Stern, the renowned planetary scientist. He visited my high school when I was a senior and expressed his jealousy of the role my generation will have exploring the solar system, and spoke of the coming commercial space revolution. He suggested that it was a better time than ever to study space-related fields.
The new generation of engineers, scientists and politicians who will determine the future of human spaceflight grew up on different dreams than our fathers and mothers. While my father watched the moon landings in the 1960s and ’70s, I watched the SpaceX Grasshopper tests. While my mother watched many shuttle launches on NASA TV, I saw the shuttles decommissioned, one by one, until the American human spaceflight program was placed in limbo.
The millennial generation of the aerospace industry has been shaped by the emergence of private, entrepreneurial space corporations such as SpaceX, Blue Origin and Virgin Galactic. The success of these companies has opened the door for smaller, nimbler companies like Planet Labs and Planetary Resources, fostering a new feeling of entrepreneurship in the industry unlike anything seen before. This feeling has spread to my friends and fellow students, allowing them to pursue work outside of existing aerospace companies and weakening the grip those large aerospace companies had over the industry.
Companies such as SpaceX and Blue Origin were founded in order to realize the dream of a new era of human space exploration, and they have already shown their determination to accomplish that. Like many startups, NewSpace firms must weather years of development before their technologies come to fruition. The most successful space startups have been founded by billionaires because of the financial security they have, but in recent years venture capitalists have played a bigger role, especially in small satellites and small launch systems.NewSpace startups are attractive to students like me because of their consistent mission of space exploration and utilization, in contrast to large aerospace companies and their defense business. They inspire us to devote their careers and dreams to human space exploration.
This is far different from the Apollo and Shuttle eras. For decades, NASA and large aerospace companies have commanded the industry, relegating smaller companies to specialized roles. But after the end of the shuttle program and the recent transition to the Space Launch System and Orion programs, students like me have distant memories of American hegemony of space. I had just turned 15 when the Atlantis touched down for the last time, and four and a half years later, it looks to me as if the entire aerospace industry has been flipped on its head.
The past five years have been tumultuous for the space industry, but I see the next couple decades as being a golden age for American space exploration. Thousands of today’s students will go to work for one of the most passionate, ambitious industries on the planet with a strong sense of entrepreneurship and invention, empowered by a supportive government and realizable dream of interplanetary settlement. This army of young engineers, policymakers and scientists will carry their own childhood dreams and innate sense of exploration, allowing the space industry to diversify and expand. With smaller, nimbler companies will come more failure, but also greater success.
It is almost time for the space geeks of this generation to enter industry, and we believe that it is an industry ripe for revolution. The emergence of private space has inspired many of my friends and classmates to look at the aerospace industry differently, a place of decreasing cost and increasing entrepreneurship.
In his book “A Pale Blue Dot,” Carl Sagan said, “The open road still softly calls, like a nearly forgotten song of childhood.” I believe we were all born with a longing for exploration. Many factors dictate whether we heed that call, but the changing nature of the space industry gives me hope that I will, in some small way, be able to fulfill that promise to my own humanity and allow for the next great age of exploration.
Andrew Gatherer is a sophomore mechanical engineering student at Rice University in Houston, originally from Dallas. At Rice, he is the Propulsion Team Lead for Rice Eclipse, a student group that designs, builds and tests hybrid rocket engines.