This satellite constellation is one of many signs that the relationship between humans and space is changing in ways unseen since Russia and the U.S. began sending rockets into orbit six decades ago. Thanks to modern software, artificial intelligence, advances in electronics and materials, and a generation of aggressive, unconventional entrepreneurs, we are awash in space startups. These companies envision an era in which rockets take off daily, filling the skies with satellites that sense Earth’s every action—in effect building a computational shell around our planet. The people constructing this bustling new economic highway promise it will improve life down below, but the future they describe is packed with wonder and controversy in equal measure—and although few have noticed, it’s coming to pass right now.
The New Space revolution’s satellite boom began near another marshland, two oceans away from Sriharikota, where the San Francisco Bay meets the border of Mountain View, Calif. There you’ll find the NASA Ames Research Center, marked by odd-shaped buildings and some hangars that once housed Depression-era airships and enormous old wind tunnels.
Since 2006, under the stewardship of Pete Worden, Ames has garnered a reputation for far-flung experimentation. Worden, an astrophysicist and former U.S. Air Force brigadier general, spent decades running Black Ops missions and oversaw the development of Ronald Reagan’s never-built Star Wars missile defense shield, among other jobs geared toward weaponizing space. At Ames he delighted in hiring adventurous young engineers for unusual research projects and forged strong ties with Silicon Valley, inviting startups to set up on NASA property and creating commercial links between the organization and Google Inc. He was also eccentric, occasionally donning a robe and taking to the surrounding fields with a staff to herd goats.