To Boldly Go

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Left: Jeff Bezos in 2018. Right: Richard Branson at a press conference following his spaceflight, July 11, 2021. (Joshua Roberts, Joe Skipper/Reuters)

Over the last two weeks, a new frontier in space travel has been opened — not by NASA or the Chinese government, or by an international consortium, but by two billionaires: Richard Branson, of Great Britain, and Jeff Bezos, of the United States, both of whom flew to the edge of space in their own crafts and returned safely to the earth. Their achievements should be celebrated by all who value the ingenuity of the untrammeled human spirit.

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It is tempting to view the two men’s remarkable voyages as the pleasurable fruits of their other, more serious, labors. It would be more accurate, though, to see them as a continuation. Richard Branson already owns an international airline, so it is not especially surprising that he began to look further afield. And, having revolutionized the art of delivering books and other products, it’s natural that Jeff Bezos would eventually seek to send cargo beyond the surly bonds of earth. Explaining why he sought to climb Everest in 1924, the explorer George Mallory said, simply, “because it is there.” That, not vanity or cynicism, best explains what we just watched Branson and Bezos accomplish.

Critics of the two men have tended to suggest that there is something “selfish” about their endeavors. The opposite is true. Unlike with state-backed initiatives, the risks that were accrued here were almost entirely private. Both Virgin Galactic (Richard Branson’s outfit) and Blue Origin (Jeff Bezos’s company) have developed their technology at their own cost and under their own steam, and, in the process, they have revolutionized the space industry in ways of which America’s federal government could only have dreamed. Going forward, Branson and Bezos both plan to open up their products to paying customers. Virgin Galactic will begin accepting space tourists this year. In addition to its own passenger service, Blue Origin is already working on a number of projects with NASA, as well as with private organizations that are in need of its “road to space.” They will be joined in the arena by a host of other businesses — among them Boeing, SpaceX, and the Sierra Nevada Corporation — all competing with them for customers.

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A thirst for exploration has always been a crucial part of the American spirit, so it is fitting that both forays took off from the United States — Richard Branson’s from New Mexico, and Jeff Bezos’s from Texas. Americans should seek to build atop these admirable breakthroughs and to ensure that, 20, 30, 40 years hence, when the next vaultingly ambitious entrepreneurs try something astonishing of their own, they, too, find a safe and welcoming reception on American soil.

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