In March 1966, the month astronaut Neil R. Armstrong flew on NASA's Gemini 8 docking mission, the Goddard Space Symposium convened in Washington to examine the future of space exploration. With the industry advancing on a breathtaking trajectory, scientists and engineers outlined grand visions.

“Space activities in the year 2000 will include study by biologists on Mars supported from stations on its moon Phobos, use of a solar physics station on Mercury and the investigation of Jupiter from a base on its satellite, Titan,” wrote Aviation Week & Space Technology reporter Roderick D. Hibben. North American Aviation unveiled a design for an interplanetary spacecraft to carry astronauts on 300-1,000-day missions, while Lockheed's chief space researcher foresaw the use of transport rockets delivering cargo to the Moon “for a few dollars a pound.”

Amid all those optimistic projections was a warning. William G. Purdy of the Martin Co. cautioned that society was on a path where affluence and regulation threatened to choke off interest in “unorthodox inquiries.” By 2000, “we may be far down the road to a well-managed but mediocre [space] technology,” he said. Purdy, who would go on to play a role in the Mars Viking Lander program and be awarded NASA's Distinguished Public Service Medal, was spot on. Today, the space shuttle orbiters are museum pieces, and the U.S. must rely on Russia to transport astronauts to the International Space Station. The Aug. 25 death of Armstrong (p. 32), who became the first person to set foot on the Moon in 1969, is a sad reminder of how long it has been since U.S. human spaceflight's glory days.

That is not to say NASA has completely lost its ability to inspire. The risky but successful landing of Curiosity on Mars on Aug. 6 and the dramatic photographs the rover is transmitting (p. 36) have energized interest in planetary exploration, albeit without humans. But the DNA to realize the dreams laid out in 1966 no longer resides in a government that has become averse to risk, hidebound by bureaucracy and providing only a pittance of the financial resources needed to sustain a robust space program. The “right stuff” DNA is now found, in large part, in smaller, more nimble companies in the private sector.

A series of articles beginning on p. 56 focuses on the role small aerospace and defense companies are playing in innovation. Don't tell Dynetics that space is no longer a growth industry. The 1,300-employee company in Huntsville, Ala., has evolved from providing engineering services to the U.S. Army to become an integrator of the Stratolaunch satellite air-launch system now in commercial development. In the U.K., Surrey Satellite Technologies, now owned by EADS, is greatly expanding the capabilities of smaller satellites. And researcher-entrepreneur Noah Rhys believes the U.S. is on the cusp of an “unusual explosion” in space exploration fueled by low-cost innovations from the private sector.

The dreams of 1966 aren't dead. But the path to achieving them will be a lot different than most people back then imagined.

Weekly Market Performance Closing Prices as of August 29, 2012
Current Previous Fwd. Tot. Ret. % Tot. Ret. %
Company Name Week Week P/E 3 Yr. 1 Yr.
AIR TRANSPORT
AAR Corp. 14.87 13.85 9.3 -11.6 -36.0
ACE Aviation Holdings 2.77 2.78 -2.1 159.7 2.7
AerCap Holdings N.V. 12.58 12.80 5.9 40.9 15.0
Air Berlin 2.39 2.39 -1.9 -50.6 -28.6
Air Canada 1.05 1.07 6.8 -38.8 -37.0
Air France - KLM 5.13 5.22 -3.0 -62.1 -37.1
Alaska Air Group 33.50 34.47 6.2 159.4 14.9
All Nippon Airways Co Ltd. 2.26 2.25 13.9 -37.5 -28.9
Allegiant Travel Co. 66.05 67.87 12.6 69.3 41.1
Asiana Airlines Inc. 6.87 6.86 7.7 105.3 -22.4
Atlas Air Worldwide Holdings 51.56 52.77 9.3 104.8 6.4
BBA Aviation plc 2.99 2.99 10.5 40.1 21.1
B/E Aerospace Inc. 40.21 40.03 13.3 121.1 14.2
CAE Inc. 10.32 10.21 12.7 20.9 -1.0
Cathay Pacific Airways 1.63 1.68 19.8 23.1 -15.2
China Southern Airlines 21.85 23.52 …. 43.8 -31.9
Copa Holdings SA 77.04 79.42 9.5 93.1 19.1
Delta Air Lines Inc. 8.61 9.53 3.3 17.3 13.1
Deutsche Lufthansa AG 12.15 12.34 14.3 -8.5 -10.9
easyJet plc 8.47 8.55 9.4 70.3 61.3
FedEx Corp. 87.63 89.54 12.0 27.7 11.9
GOL SA 4.75 5.26 …. -48.4 -37.5
Hawaiian Holdings Inc. 5.81 6.36 3.6 -21.3 42.1
Heico Corp. 35.18 34.80 20.1 85.7 -19.7
Jet Airways (India) Ltd. 6.10 7.16 -9.9 34.1 27.2
JetBlue Airways 4.89 5.18 8.0 -15.0 11.9
Korean Air Lines Co. Ltd. 41.29 42.82 8.5 10.9 -17.8
Lan Airlines SA 23.68 24.13 22.0 102.7 -15.6
Qantas Airways Ltd. 1.21 1.22 10.7 -54.7 -26.3
Republic Airways Holdings Inc. 4.50 4.74 4.1 -52.8 37.6
Ryanair Holdings ADS 30.87 31.20 74.1 20.5 18.1
Singapore Airlines Ltd. 8.55 8.68 23.9 -8.4 0.6
Skywest Inc. 8.71 8.67 6.8 -42.3 -30.5
Spirit Airlines, Inc. 19.67 19.79 8.7 …. 63.0
Southwest Airlines 8.89 9.32 9.5 5.2 4.4
TransDigm Group Inc. 138.76 136.27 18.2 270.5 54.3
United Continental Holdings, Inc. 18.33 19.35 4.4 181.1 -2.2
United Parcel Service Inc. 74.30 76.14 15.4 51.2 13.8
US Airways Group 10.45 11.61 …. 192.7 89.3
WestJet Airlines Ltd. 17.18 17.17 10.0 41.9 26.5
Zodiac Aerospace SA 96.32 99.73 12.8 212.4 46.6
Source of financial data: Standard & Poor’s and Capital IQ Inc. (a Division of Standard & Poor’s) U.S. dollars and cents. Forward P/E ratio uses S&P and Capital IQ forecasts of current fiscal year.