Why Web Billionaires Think Space Is Cool

Private space has a lot going for it; not least the unflagging enthusiasm of its technology-born champions, who are themselves inspiring young people. While they vary in age—Burt Rutan is 28 years older than Elon Musk—they share remarkably similar stories of being inspired by space. Nearly all grew up watching Star Trek. All of them talk about Apollo as a life-changing experience. All of them are STEM geeks, inspired by space to acquire a technical education. (Peter Diamandis being a bit of an outlier, having gone to medical school to please his parents.) And all of them wish to inspire a younger generation to go into space.

In fact, the space industry bears remarkable resemblance to the industry that enriched most space entrepreneurs: the Internet, a space that’s out of this world—in this case a virtual world instead of the actual one. Think about it; a generation ago, few people imagined that the “bricks and mortar” world of retail would be rocked by an online bookstore named after a river, or that people would trust their money to flow through a single website called PayPal, or that computer geeks would become billionaire celebrities while still in their twenties.

Those Web and software entrepreneurs defied the establishment in every way possible; Steve Jobs, Bill Gates, and Elon Musk were proud college dropouts who spent their careers defying expectations and achieving the impossible. Musk didn’t just become rich in his twenties; he founded and sold two successful companies while in his twenties, and went on to create three companies in three years, all in different industries—space, automotive, and solar energy. This was a group of men and women who seemed capable of achieving anything. Just as Apollo had inspired a generation of technically minded people, the Internet generation attracted the best and the brightest to explore their own virtual worlds. But those Web pioneers themselves were inspired by the space pioneers who went to the Moon. When the time came to put their vast new wealth to the highest purpose possible, entrepreneurs like Bezos, Musk, Ansari, and Allen understandably chose space. It made sense. “Astronauts were like heroes to them,” said John Spencer, president of the Space Tourism Society, in an interview with Entrepreneur magazine. “Once they grew up and became wealthy enough, they migrated essentially to the space world, because that’s the ultimate challenge.”

Space is the coolest; the most noble, next-level thing there is, a cornucopia of impossibilities to overcome, just like the early Internet. Like the virtual space of the Web, outer space offers otherworldly exploration. And besides all that, there’s money to be made. Vast amounts of money.

There’s another tie to the analogy between Web and space: their initial dependence on government. As every modern historian knows, the Internet began as ARPAnet, a computer network among research universities set up by the Defense Department. The original satellites that vastly increased the speed of communications between those computers were sent up by NASA. It’s no exaggeration to say that, without the government’s original efforts in networking, microelectronics and satellites, Bezos, Musk, Ansari, Allen, and Jobs would have had to make their money elsewhere. There would be no Internet as we know it—at least not yet.

Similarly, as we have seen, the space entrepreneurs have depended on the government’s pioneering efforts in R&D, risk-taking, and contracts.

But the point here is not to disparage private space ventures. On the contrary: their initial dependence on NASA and the Defense Department shows just how government can stimulate the next generation’s economic and technological innovations. The key point is that we need a change in paradigm. The anti-government pendulum must swing back toward the middle before the private and public sectors can advance more efficiently in space. The American economy, a phenomenon unprecedented in history, was built by both public and private efforts. Private space ventures are carving out niches in space, only one or two of which overlap with NASA’s continuing efforts. While Elon Musk continues to set the lofty goal of a private Mars colony, most of the entrepreneurial ventures in space are limited to the area between Earth and lower orbital paths around it. Private ventures focus on five basic areas; tourism, satellites, research, and—speculatively, at least—space mining and suborbital travel. Currently, the space industry alone comprises a $300 billion-plus industry that has been growing at a healthy annual pace of 4.9%.