Virgin Galactic via AP
Founder of Virgin Galactic, Richard Branson (third from right), poses with fellow crew members for a July 11 test flight of the company's winged rocket ship from a site in New Mexico.

Highfliers in space

The coming flights of two wealthy entrepreneurs on their own rockets set new visions for space travel.

Almost by definition, entrepreneurs are known to set sky-high goals in business. Perhaps no other goal could be loftier than making space travel available to as many people as possible. But will their flights be safe? 

In the next few days two billionaires, who made money in earthbound ventures, will show prospective space tourists that they won’t be asked to do anything these wealthy “astropreneurs,” as they are being called, wouldn’t do themselves. On July 11, Sir Richard Branson of Britain’s Virgin Group will ride into suborbital space aboard his Virgin Galactic spacecraft. Then on July 20, Amazon founder Jeff Bezos plans to make a suborbital flight aboard his Blue Origin spacecraft.

Not to be forgotten is entrepreneur Elon Musk. His SpaceX rocket has already made three trips into orbit delivering crews and supplies to the International Space Station. While Mr. Musk hasn’t announced if he will be aboard a flight anytime soon, SpaceX plans to launch private citizens into Earth orbit for a three-day experience as soon as this September.

A space race between wealthy entrepreneurs may seem like mere spectacle. But it is one that is serving a useful purpose. “It has been a long time since we have had this much interest and accelerated progress in the space industry,” notes Rob Meyerson, former president of Blue Origin, now at an investment firm. 

Each of these astropreneurs is passionately carrying out a vision of what commercial space travel might become. Each brings different approaches to space technologies. The result has been a burst of innovation, including rockets that can lift a payload into space and then make a controlled flight back to Earth, and a space plane that takes off, not from the ground, but from an airplane acting as its launchpad. 

Even as the governments of space-faring nations continue to pursue national goals in space, the market in unmanned commercial space launches has quietly increased some 400% during the last five years as entrepreneurs have flocked to the field. And by one estimate, the space-tourism market could reach $3 billion a year by the end of this decade.

NASA, using taxpayers’ money, and putting U.S. national prestige on the line, necessarily must take a somewhat cautious approach in space. Entrepreneurs are willing to risk it all, a skill that enables them to effectively cope with “uncertainty and unknowability …. and effectively take action,” notes Leonard Schlesinger, a professor at Harvard Business School and former president of Babson College, which emphasizes entrepreneurship.

Entrepreneurs shrug off setbacks. “Do not be embarrassed by your failures, learn from them and start again,” Mr. Branson has advised. 

Mr. Bezos, who has just stepped down as chief executive of Amazon, famously talks of needing to “lean into the future” despite the head winds “because complaining isn’t a strategy.” His Blue Origin motto is “Gradatim Ferociter” – step by step, ferociously.

The fearless imaginations of these astropreneurs have set new visions in space, where unknown challenges and opportunities await in abundance. 

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