In July 2021, Amazon founder and multibillionaire Jeff Bezos launched himself into space. What’s more surprising about this? He’s hardly the first non-government-agency-affiliated person to reach the edge of the cosmos. Here’s a brief history of private spaceflight.
1961: Just four years after the Soviet Union launched two Sputnik satellites, the first manmade objects to inhabit space, Project OSCAR, built out of a radio club with defense industry contacts, launched OSCAR-1, the world’s first satellite built and sent off by amateurs. It spent 22 days in orbit.
1962: The first commercial communications satellite, Telstar 1, takes flight thanks to the first commercial space flight. AT&T leads the mission, and gets it into space via a Thor-Delta rocket launched at NASA’s facility in Cape Canaveral, Florida.
1982: After acquiring and repurposing a decommissioned Minuteman missile, a company called Space Services, Inc. launches Conestoga 1. It soars 192 miles into the sky, well above the 62 mile “Karman Line” threshold that indicates “space,” the first time a privately owned rocket made it up that far.
1992: About one year after the collapse of the Soviet Union, its Communist form of government, and the Cold War in general, the new Russian government made a goodwill gesture to the United States with Space Flight-Europe America 500. It sent a gift-bearing capsule into space via one of its tried-and-true Soyuz rockets. The body traveled through space for six days before landing off the coast of southwest Washington state.
1998: The satellite HGS-1, owned and operated by the Hughes Global Services communications company got within 3,900 miles of the service of the Moon. Astronomically speaking, that’s close enough to consider it a successful Moon mission, making HGS-1 the first non-government-sponsored spaceship to reach lunar areas.
2001: Dennis Tito, an engineer and aeronautics researcher who made his fortune in investment management, paid $20 million to become the first “space tourist.” He headed to the International Space Station with a Russian crew going there anyway via a Soyuz space vehicle.
2004: SpaceShipOne, a vehicle operated by private spaceflight company Scaled Composites, leaves the planet for the first time. It’s the first fully privately-funded space mission that also featured a private, non-governmental agency crew.
2021: Virgin Galactic, a division of the Virgin empire (which includes a passenger air division) founded by Richard Branson, sends the boss to space on SpaceShipTwo. Nine days later, competing private spaceflight company Blue Origin, also started by a billionaire, Amazon head Jeff Bezos, sends its founder into space for all of 11 minutes.