These have been heady days for would-be space tourists, a self-funding cargo that spacecraft designer Burt Rutan once joked can be reproduced with unskilled labor around the house.

Self-funding is the key term, a synonym for “not dependent on NASA.”

Mr. Rutan was the brains behind Virgin Galactic founder Richard Branson’s space plane, a first in two ways. Mr. Rutan’s original model in 2004 received the Federal Aviation Administration’s first commercial human spaceflight license. And Mr. Branson used a later model this month to beat Jeff Bezos to an imaginary line marking the beginnings of outer space.

Mr. Branson might be said to proceed in the freebooting tradition of the East India Company. The private sector pursues its own aims and government follows. Mr. Bezos and SpaceX founder Elon Musk, without the least disrespect, are government contractors in waiting. The things many of us dream of—Mars colonization, exploring the oceans of Europa, sending robot probes to nearby star systems—are public-sector work even if big pieces can be split off for private competition.

All hail Mr. Musk for forcing NASA and its pork-barreling congressional masters to recognize the cost-cutting benefits of private, reusable rocketry. He did so with his own money, impelling NASA for now to alter its business model in a way that may or may not stick.



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