By Andy Obermueller
Bill Clinton flipped a switch and changed the world.
On May 1, 2000, the former President instructed the Federal Aviation Administration to turn off the "Selective Availability" option on the Global Positioning System (GPS), which had made the network of satellite signals usable only by high-tech military hardware.
With the change -- which President Ronald Reagan had attempted to make as early as 1983 -- consumer products could receive signals from space and use the information to calculate precise location. Today, it seems like every car on the highway has a GPS unit stuck on the dashboard, and it's now available to consumers of the most modest means.
The companies at the forefront of bringing this technology to the public made windfall profits. GPS unit maker Garmin (GRMN), saw its share rise from less than $10 in 2000 to more than $120 in 2007.
Now I'm seeing a similar opportunity.
NASA -- the United States' $18 billion-a-year space exploration program -- is changing dramatically, which looks like a chance to profit.
The corporatization of space
President Obama has effectively privatized the space program. He has argued, according to a New York Times report, "that turning to private entrepreneurs would result in more space flights and more astronauts in orbit than the space plan he inherited."
It's an interesting approach, and I think it speaks to the unique facility of the private sector to make advances that government isn't positioned to make.
Critics aren't happy with the privatization of space. But it's not like privatization is totally foreign to NASA.
Its own support operations have long been conducted under a private-sector contract. The United Space Alliance, the principal space contractor for NASA as well as the 45th Space Wing of the U.S. Air Force, is a partnership between Boeing (BA) and Lockheed Martin (LMT).
I'm a believer that increasing private sector involvement makes every process faster, cheaper and generally more efficient. Top-down approaches to innovation are never successful, and the private companies that have helped the United States achieve the leading position in the conquest of space will assume their rightful place in the next chapter of exploration.
So make no mistake, as a leading voice in support of "The Next Big Thing," I applaud the privatization of space.
As an investor, I also approve the change. Names like Orbital Sciences (ORB) will be more important than ever as we move to the next era of space exploration. In a recent issue of Game-Changing Stocks I listed a half-dozen companies in prime position to benefit from our new "space sector."
And as is often my advice, there are two ways to go into the space sector: A pure-play like Orbital Sciences or a partial play like a Boeing, which derives some but not all of its revenue from space activities.
The downside, of course, is that a downturn in conventional defense spending -- which is expected in most political and industrial circles -- could overshadow positive news in the space segment. I like the pure plays.
Investors need to be aware that White House is as important in the space discussion as is the New York Stock Exchange. Government action will be crucial: the Feds have been the world's No. 1 consumer of space technology to date, although this scenario could change. And as with all things involving the government, the change would take time.
Nevertheless, I think space has the potential to be a true game-changer.