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EDITORIAL: Entrepreneurs lead the way into space

Fearlessly leading the way to a seat into the unknown

- - Monday, March 3, 2014

President Obama doesn't understand what Abraham Lincoln was talking about when he called America "the exceptional nation." Mr. Obama says the Americans are no more the exception than "the Brits" or the Greeks, but he's wrong and events are proving it. You don't even have to be an American to take inspiration from the exception.

Even as the Obama administration clips the wings of NASA, entrepreneurs are preparing to launch expeditions into the final frontier. Private-sector pioneers are the key to breaking the limits to growth, and they're thinking outside the box and heading beyond the earthly cradle. There are no stop signs in space.

Entrepreneurs risk their money, daredevils risk their necks, and Richard Branson, an Englishman taking his cue from the American exception, does both. The aerospace billionaire is getting closer to doing something that NASA hasn't been able to do over its 55 years of breaking boundaries.

Mr. Branson's Virgin Galactic will offer a space flight to paying passengers on a routine schedule. If he succeeds, a trip to the great beyond on gossamer wings will resemble a heart-pumping roller-coaster ride more than a ride on a NASA space shuttle.

The maiden commercial flight of Virgin Galactic's SpaceShip Two is expected to lift off later this year from a New Mexico spaceport south of Albuquerque. At $250,000 a ticket, the suborbital flight, reaching an altitude of 68 miles, isn't within the reach of just anybody.

But 700 men and women who groove on life in the fast lane, including Tom Hanks and Angelina Jolie, have put down deposits of about $200,000 each to reserve a seat.

Nobody has a boarding pass yet, and a lift-off date has not been set, and Mr. Branson's plan to make several launches per week is still on the drawing board. First comes the first flight.

Mr. Branson, confident in his engineering, promises that safety comes first. He told Weekend magazine that he — and his family — will be there to fasten their seat belts on the inaugural flight.

Fellow entrepreneur Elon Musk is taking a different tack in the commercialization of space. His company, Space X, is building cargo rockets for the heavy lifting necessary to move cargo beyond the gravitational pull of Earth.

On the drawing board is a supersized rocket that would go aloft with 165 tons, 30 tons more than NASA's own Space Launch System, which is under development for use in a manned flight to Mars.

Mr. Musk has said his Falcon XX vehicle can get aloft for $2.5 billion, far less than the $30 billion or so the federal agency expects to spend developing its heavy-lift rocket.

Space X is under contract with NASA to fly cargo resupply missions to the International Space Station, providing an alternative to Russian and Chinese flights that have been the only means of reaching the orbiter since the U.S. space shuttle program shut down in 2011.

"Leading from behind" is OK for those who are content to arrive last, but that's no way to inspire anybody. Mr. Obama's 2008 campaign slogan, "yes, we can" has crumbled into "no, we can't."

Where he has failed to lead, exceptional entrepreneurs are seizing the opportunity to go beyond where governments have gone before.