Well into the 1860s, the American West remained divided from the East by the harsh terrain of the country's broad, untamed interior, particularly the steep peaks of the Sierra Nevada. Then four Sacramento merchants began raising money to fund a seemingly impossible project: to build a railroad across the high Sierras and thus unite the continent. Derided by the press, the moneymen, top engineers and politicians, the ambitious enterprise nonetheless overcame daunting technical obstacles and eventually succeeded. The so-called Big Four investors, Collis P. Huntington, Mark Hopkins, Charles Crocker and Leland Stanford, became enormously rich as settlers arrived in the newly opened lands. Railroads prospered from the short-haul traffic for a burgeoning population they helped to create.
Today a group of entrepreneurs has a comparable but loftier aim: to provide cheap, reliable transportation to low Earth orbit. Their high-flying goal comes with similarly steep challenges. Like the rail pioneers, private rocket builders are trying to create a market where none currently exists while keeping costs affordable. Further, they must develop a regular taxi service to space that is sufficiently safe to attract customers. (It will be some time before any flights to space will be as safe as passenger airline flights, though.) Finally, the entrepreneurs must surmount evolving governmental regulatory hurdles.
This article was originally published with the title Blastoffs on a Budget.