Pete Worden, head of NASA Ames Research Center, a facility just down the road from Google in Mountain View was interviewed last week by TechCrunch.com The theme was how Ames can work more with Silicon Valley—whether that’s playing a role in starting new companies, buying from them, or just winning the best employees away from high-growth startups. NASA is talking about the increasingly public-private partnerships that they are being forced to embrace for their very survival.
Meanwhile, a generation of centi-millionaires and billionaires, including Jeff Bezos, Elon Musk and Richard Branson, who were reared on a passion for space are putting their own money behind programs that seemed audacious a decade ago, but are turning into billion-dollar companies today. The idea that space could be a serious growth opportunity for Silicon Valley was laughable ten years ago. But while rockets aren’t a mass market—they’re a lucrative one. Ask Musk who got a $2 billion contract from NASA for SpaceX. Are we really on the cusp of settling the galaxy and will the same people who settled the virtual world be the ones who take us there?
Worden thinks that idea isn’t such a joke anymore. We’re basically talking about colonizing space and last time a group of nations decided to “carve up” a new world, there were a lot of political, environmental and economic implications with which countries in South America, Africa, and South East Asia are still grappling. Will we do better with space? A few decades from now, will Avatar turn out to be prescient rather than allegorical? Is this still a US push into space or more of an international coalition? How far off is retiring on Mars, for real? Is it possible that something as, well, retro as space travel could be the next big Valley growth area, not clean tech?