Kaigham (Ken) J. Gabriel is President and CEO of Draper, a MIT spinoff engineering solutions company, famed for developing the Apollo guidance computer. He contributed this article to Space.com's Expert Voices: Op-Ed & Insights.
A golden era of space exploration has begun. NASA will send astronauts to space in American rockets this summer. The famous Opportunity Mars rover's extended tour of duty just came to a heart-tugging close, yet at the same time eight newer craft continue to explore the Red Planet's surface. China landed a spacecraft on the far side of the moon, and private companies like Virgin Galactic are on the verge of launching tourist flights to space.
Apollo showed us we could get to, land, walk and drive on the moon's surface. We left footprints, flags and scientific instruments, and then departed for nearly 50 years. This coming age of space exploration will see humans return to the moon — for good. We will see an era of sustained exploration where people live and work on the moon for extended periods of time. And this exploration will be a search for good, resulting in capabilities that improve life on Earth just as the Apollo missions did.
This isn't wishful thinking. Technology in the intervening decades has advanced by orders of magnitude, amplifying and augmenting human ability to explore and reach new frontiers in space. Autonomous vehicles, big data, greater computing power and machine learning make it easier and less risky not only to land on the moon or Mars but also to stay there. Bold missions like Apollo focused, drove and accelerated technological innovations on Earth for decades after the moon landing.
Our lives are more intertwined with space than many may realize. We interact with everyday items that depend on satellites, such as GPS, or inventions born from space programs, which are as wide-ranging as CAT scans, insulation for buildings and controllers for video games. The coming age of space exploration will also deliver countless new capabilities, some foreseeable, some not — including advances in remote medicine and sustainable energy.
Privatization also makes this space age a reality. Today, governments aren't the only ones leading the charge. NASA's advances are dependent on collaboration with the private sector, such as upcoming launches of crewed systems to the International Space Station in partnership with Boeing and SpaceX. There is money to be made in moon exploration, whether it be in the quest for resources, new inventions or even $200,000 flight tickets. A Space Foundation study estimated that every dollar NASA spends on space yields $10 in economic benefit. More significantly, concerns around climate change and population growth are creating a shared urgency between the public and private sectors to expand our reach in space to preserve and protect life on Earth.
Perhaps most importantly, we'll continue to explore space because it's in our nature. The original space age and the ages of discovery that preceded it show us that, innately, we are explorers. Humanity is driven to see what's over the next horizon and not be satisfied until we see it. Most people are familiar with the first part of what President John F. Kennedy said in his inspirational moon speech more than 50 years ago:
"We choose to go to the moon in this decade and do the other things, not because they are easy, but because they are hard."
The quote often ends there. The rest of the sentence is equally important and is even more relevant now: "Because that goal will serve to organize and measure the best of our energies and skills. Because that challenge is one that we are willing to accept, one we are unwilling to postpone, and one which we intend to win."
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