by Austin Bay
April 12, 2011
April 12, 2011, marked the anniversaries of two
extraordinary historical events. One hundred fifty years ago, on April 12,
1861, rebels in Charleston, S.C., fired on Fort Sumter, igniting the American
Civil War. That war had complex economic, political and social origins, but
taking seriously the Declaration of Independence's premise that "all men
are created equal" was definitely one of those complexities.
Russian cosmonaut Yuri Gagarin's space flight on April 12,
1961, is the other extraordinary anniversary. Fifty very short years ago,
Gagarin, in a Vostok 1 spacecraft, made a one-orbit trip around the Earth, and
became the first human being to fly into space and return.
The American Civil War showcased two history-shaping
technologies: the railroad and the telegraph. Both Union and Confederate
logisticians amazed European military observers by moving large armies hundreds
of miles by rail, and then quickly throwing them into battle. For worse and for
better, railroads would ultimately connect Paris to Berlin, then Baghdad, then
With the telegraph sending data at the speed of light, Union
Gen. William Sherman, in Chattanooga, could contact the War Department in
Washington in a matter of minutes. In some respects, the Internet is just a
telegraph where everyone is his own telegrapher. In the shorthand method for
designating upgrades of software and hardware, think of the telegraph as
Former NASA Deputy Administrator Hans Mark speculates that
in four or five centuries, people will remember the 20th century for the Apollo
moon landings -- human beings physically landing on another heavenly body.
Gagarin's spaceflight 50 years ago was the first dramatic success in that
Within the last decade, we have entered what I call the
Space Age's fourth phase, Space 4.0. Space 1.0 began with Robert Goddard's
rocketry genius, meandered through World War II, and in the Cold War's first
decade produced Sputnik and Telstar. Space 2.0 spanned the manned orbital and
"moon race" era. It began with Gagarin and culminated with the
magnificent Apollo missions.
The American shuttle defined Space 3.0. NASA's space
"truck" engaged a Swiss Army knife array of missions, from deploying
satellites to experimental manufacturing to transporting astronauts to the
International Space Station (ISS). Coincidentally, April 12, 2011, is the 30th
anniversary of the first space shuttle flight (April 12, 1981).
NASA intends to formally end Space 3.0 this year, when the
last shuttle mission is scheduled to lift off. However, the transition to the
age of commercialization and private space ventures -- Space 4.0, the age of
the space entrepreneur -- is already well underway.
In 2009, Apollo 11's 40th anniversary, COTS (Commercial
Orbital Transportation Services) moved from NASA acronym to reality. SpaceX
corporation's Falcon 1 missile launch provided future historians with the
moment of indicative drama. On July 13, 2009, the privately financed and
privately built Falcon 1 missile placed the Malaysian RazakSAT Earth
Observation satellite in orbit.
Other initiatives signal how varied -- and frenzied -- the
next three decades will be from low-Earth orbit to the moon. "Space
tourism" companies are booking jaunts to and from the ISS. A couple of
years ago, another company, Orbital Sciences, tested its Cygnus Pressurized
Cargo Module (PCM), which will deliver supplies to the ISS.
Though the entrepreneurial era of transcontinental railroads
connecting U.S. and Canadian coasts does capture a sense of this moment's expansive
possibilities, Space 4.0 defies historical analogy. Today's near-space
entrepreneurs run markedly different kinds of companies and operations than the
rail barons. If the relative "high stakes" are comparable (for the
North American transcontinental railroads were participants in
nation-building), the risks involved and accepted are more immediate and
The transition to 4.0 from 3.0 won't be smooth. Space 4.0
requires risk capital -- lots of it. NASA's future role is murky. NASA has been
the coordinating brain and inspirational heart of America's space effort. As
NASA's budget withers, having commercial services deliver cargo and personnel
to and from orbit should free NASA to focus on deep-space projects -- the first
steps to Space 5.0.