For some, the adventures of Sir Richard Branson, Jeff Bezos, Elon Musk and NASA have been difficult to follow and understand. In the last two decades and mostly in the last few months, I have been entertained by the various remarks and discussions that have emanated from all corners of the globe on the subject of space.
Some, as it was in the beginning, have questioned the purpose of space exploration. Others have wondered if they really got to space or, even if they did, they did not spend days in space. Yet some others dismissed their adventures as the foolery of the rich who have wasted their money in putting up these ‘shows’ for nothing.
The advent of these skeptics is not new to us. There are still people today who will swear with all they hold dear that the International Space Station is not resident in a geostationary orbit, or that satellites bringing services of various kinds to man are not above us at more that 80km from Earth. For all those and their converts, let me take them back to the early 1960s, the era of the space race between the USSR and USA.
There were practically no billionaires then and the world was still drunk with the success of the Wright brothers in inventing the aeroplane that we in our ingenuity have turned into objects for ferrying the rich from city to city, continent to continent, as well as converting them into instruments of war. So, space research was left to scientists who could not fund their own inventions.
Then also the Cold War provided the USSR the cover to use state funds to pursue space research while in the West, America and European scientists were pleading with a reluctant Congress to fund their research. The wake-up call came in the form of national pride and shaming all rolled into one.
America woke up one morning to learn that USSR had sent Yuri Gagarin to space and brought him back alive. Since doing the same with an American would not really count as one better than what the communists have achieved, President John F. Kennedy tasked Americans with beating the Russians to the moon.
Congress unlocked the purse strings and NASA went to work in a frenzy. Before the end of that decade, precisely in 1969, USA went to the moon and back with Neil Armstrong, Buzz Aldrin and Michael Collins riding the Apollo 11. That made NASA the number one go-to place if you wanted to be in space.
NASA showed the world that getting to the moon or for that matter any other planet in the Solar System was is not a part-time pursuit or an easy one; it was, however, an important one because we needed to visit and fraternize with our neighbours.
Among the skeptics were the faith institutions, who accused the scientists of mounting another quest in search of God. Well, for almost 60 years, nobody has found a route to heaven.
Rather, a lot of technologies that have enhanced our quality of life on earth were spurned off these space researches, from Teflon in non-stick pots to telecommunications, from microwave-safe ceramics to the Internet. Everyone, including the skeptics, uses all these and many more. Space research gave rise to nanotechnology, among others. Miniaturization has benefitted the telecommunication industry to no end.
The faith institutions have benefitted immensely from televangelism pre-pandemic, during pandemic, and post-pandemic. Even those who were spreading false information about COVID-19 and 5G technology were sending out their weekly broadcasts through the Internet, mobile devices and televisions. If they were right all this time, then they must be serving God and Mammon now.
But how did America get billionaires involved in the space race? Since its founding, NASA had been preoccupied with the search for space objects and understanding of the universe. Going to the moon was the easy part; they wanted to reach the stars. The agency required more and more money with each achievement or failure in space exploration. But Congress made it be known that the funds were not limitless. On the other hand, NASA had used private contractors to build space vehicles while providing the research and design. Recognizing the business part of space research, it dawned on NASA that they could spurn off such works to the private industries they had been working with, leaving NASA to dream on and venture into deep space.
Some of the first private companies to get involved with NASA were slow to appreciate the benefits of full-throttle space business to their bottom lines. Others were so big that convincing the board members to move into space exploration was an executive’s nightmare.
And so the one-man crusaders of the modern billionaires and their friendly investors of the IT age came to the rescue. Thus were born Blue Origin (Jeff Bezos) in 2000, SpaceX (Elon Musk) in 2002, and Virgin Galactica (Sir Richard Branson) in 2004. All with the main purpose of working with and for NASA.
Additionally, the President Barack Obama administration refocused NASA’s attention to Martian trips and deep space exploration, encouraged NASA to retire the Space Shuttle programme, which had gradually become too expensive to keep in service, and liberalized the pathway and growth of private enterprises in space business both with NASA and the military.
Can we just see and appreciate how government has created a business, turned it into an important segment of our lives, spurned off various research products to the private sector to develop, turned over some parts of the business to the private sector to execute in conjunction with its agency, creating jobs, knowledge and wealth simultaneously?
No NASA engineer had lost his job; if anyone left NASA, he went to any of these companies. Today, it is estimated that the Space business will be worth $1 trillion in 2040.
That is a true example of government creating job opportunities and an enabling environment. It is not about ‘dashing’ money or directly employing people but by encouraging private industries and giving them the free rein to perform without government intervention but with government support.
Next week, I will tell the story of my encounter with Sir Richard Branson and how much we have in common. Stay tuned.
What do you think about space exploration and the new billionaire rush to
conquer space? I would love to hear from you. Kindly send your comments to