Private space exploration a long and thriving tradition

By Michael Burgan, Special to the BDN
Posted July 21, 2012, at 4:19 p.m.

With the U.S. space-shuttle program over, companies and governments are rushing to privatize travel into the cosmos. This spring, Space Exploration Technologies Corp., known as SpaceX, launched a capsule that docked with the International Space Station — the first commercial space vehicle to do so.

In the desert of New Mexico, Virgin Galactic is preparing for the first suborbital space flights for paying customers, with actor Ashton Kutcher one of the latest to sign up for the privilege. In Huntsville, Ala., Stratolaunch Systems Inc. is busy dismantling Boeing 747s, hoping to use their engines and other systems to build the world’s largest plane, which will help propel a new spacecraft into flight.

All three projects have wealthy entrepreneurs backing them: PayPal co-founder Elon Musk is the head of SpaceX, British billionaire Richard Branson is the founder and chairman of Virgin Group, and Paul G. Allen, the co-founder of Microsoft, started Stratolaunch last year.

In the 19th and early 20th centuries, private citizens raised money to promote Earth-based exploration of the stars. Charles Tyson Yerkes, a robber baron who transformed urban transportation, gave $300,000 to the University of Chicago to establish an observatory. James Lick, California’s richest man, left much of his considerable fortune to the University of California in 1876 to build an observatory with the world’s most powerful telescope. Philanthropists from Andrew Carnegie to John D. Rockefeller helped fund ever more elaborate technology for scanning the cosmos.

But when it came to actually putting a vehicle into space, Daniel Guggenheim stood alone. He and his family earned their millions in copper mining and other extractive endeavors. Taking over from their father, Guggenheim and his brothers expanded the family business, sometimes seeking new technologies to reduce costs.

In 1924, Guggenheim and his wife, Florence, started a foundation, hoping to use their fortune to promote “the well-being of mankind throughout the world.”

Seeing the effects of engineering breakthroughs and experimentation in business, Guggenheim also wanted to support science — in particular, heavier-than-air flight. In 1925, he donated $250,000 to New York University to start the first U.S. school of aeronautics. The next year, he spent $2.5 million to start the Daniel Guggenheim Fund for the Promotion of Aeronautics.

Guggenheim’s son Harry, a former Navy pilot, became the fund’s first president.

In 1926, Goddard had tested the world’s first liquid-fueled rocket. Using his aunt’s farm as a launch site, Goddard sent the rocket to a less-than-dizzying altitude of 41 feet. Goddard was sure he could do better and was soon talking publicly about the potential for space travel with rockets. By 1929, his work had caught Lindbergh’s attention.

The next year, Harry introduced Lindbergh to his father and the pilot stirred the elder Guggenheim’s interest in funding Goddard’s work. In 1930, Daniel told the New York Times, “I am convinced the experiments deserve support.” He backed that up with $100,000, and over the years more than double that amount followed.

Through the 1930s, in a series of successful launches, he broke the sound barrier and increased the rockets’ altitude to almost two miles. Goddard also earned dozens of patents for his work.

There were failures too, of course, including rockets that exploded on the launch pad. Still, with private money backing him, Goddard helped start the Rocket Age.

Daniel and Harry Guggenheim were philanthropists who saw the potential value in speeding the mail, or people, around the world on rockets. Yet years after Goddard died, their support of rocketry also led to a financial payback. In 1960, the U.S. government agreed to pay the Guggenheim Foundation $1 million for infringing on patents Goddard had won years before.

Today, Musk, Allen, Branson and others spending their way into space see their ventures as potential moneymakers — why else do it? But at some level, they must share what Guggenheim family biographer John H. Davis wrote Daniel (and surely Harry) had as well: “faith in the wonders of technology.”

Michael Burgan is a freelance writer and the editor of “The Biographer’s Craft,” the official publication of Biographers International Organization. printed on July 29, 2014