Climbing out of the ‘gravity well’ towards a more prosperous future

| May 8, 2018

Now that it appears Australia will have its own space agency, many Australians will be asking a perfectly legitimate question: Why?

After all, it appears as if Elon Musk is doing perfectly fine sending up sports cars. Private space companies, including the Australian space industry, has already created a US$300 billion economy in Earth orbit, growing by about 15% annually. Tourism is slated to follow, along with a vast mining and manufacturing economy in space. Why spend tax money on a venture that already seems to thrive on its own?

We tend to forget that this industry relies on government catalyzation. Elon Musk himself is backed by billions in American public contracts. Without public help, the industry wouldn’t have gotten off the ground in the first place.

Besides, space isn’t all about economics. It’s also about peace; or, rather, the potential lack of it. The International Space Station demonstrates the power of a peaceful consortium of nations. Even while they feud over Twitter, the Americans and Russians are cooperating with space launches and the station itself.

But all that still fails to answer the real question: Why should we care? Polls show that most citizens of developed nations are quite pro-space. It’s just they don’t rank it very high among critical national priorities.

I would argue that this shrugging attitude has a lot to do with what we think space is in the first place. We think it’s a vast emptiness specked by Mars and the Moon and some mildly interesting stars, no more.

In reality, though, the region of space between Earth and Mars is anything but empty. It’s an actual, physical frontier—this time without an indigenous population.

Let me explain.

We humans, and all the other inhabitants of Earth, live at the bottom of a well. Astrophysicists call it the Gravity Well. It extends a million miles overhead. And the future of our species depends on our conquering it.

To a physicist, this Well is a physical force, an attraction between two bodies, diminishing with distance. To engineers, The Gravity Well is the physical challenge of overcoming that force, breaking the bonds of gravity.

All true. But the Gravity Well is also something even cooler. It’s a region in space with its own special terrain.

When we look up at the Gravity Well from Earth, it actually seems more like a mountain than a well. It rises steeply with a few flat ledges called Lagrange Points—and a few small valleys. They’re all made by gravitational forces, but they work the same way as hills and valleys and plains on Earth.

Think about it: When you ride a bike uphill here in Sydney or Adelaide, you’re actually climbing the first part of the Gravity Well.

Ascend enough up this mountain of gravity, and you have clear sailing on a level plain until you coast downhill to the Moon or Mars.

This region of space, this area within the Gravity Well and just beyond, is the most rugged frontier we have ever encountered. It’s the wildest of the Wild Wests. It’s also filled with riches: precious metals and minerals; energy, water—not to mention unimaginable scientific discoveries. Just like the frontiers that first made America and Australia great.

Which is just the beginning. I believe the Gravity Well economy will eventually dwarf the one on Earth. The nations who grasp this future will get there first and profit the most. They’ll benefit from the boost to their economy, technology, and international leadership.

But we won’t just explore the Gravity Well. We’ll settle it. After the scouts – the probes and then the astronauts – come the outposts – the human bases at a Lagrange point, the Moon, and then Mars or her moons.

Behind the outposts, entrepreneurs expand the transportation industry and high tech manufacturing, even mining. As we rise within the Gravity Well, the economy – with new jobs, new technology, and growth – follows. Private industry settles orbital space and eventually the Moon, Mars and the asteroids.

Sounds unlikely? We did it before, here on Earth.

So: I urge you to speak of space as the Gravity Well. Learn more and talk to others about its crucial importance to humanity’s survival, international peace and the next great economy. Let us be the generation who pioneered this frontier, the greatest frontier humans have ever faced.

Buy The Gravity Well, America’s Next Greatest Mission, written by Stephen Sandford with Jay Heinrichs, from Amazon, Booktopia and all good bookshops.

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Stephen Sandford

Stephen Sandford spent 28 years as an engineer and executive at NASA and three years at Stinger Ghaffarian Technologies working on space challenges from asteroid utilization to space policy. He is now Chief Technology Officer at Psionic, an American company that commercializes cutting edge LIDAR.