The Co.’s Katherine Gougeon explores social and cultural details that have an outsized ripple effect. 

Jet Propulsion Labs, NASA’s scientific design company, has come out with a magnificent (and free) poster series that advertises distant planets and moons as vacation destinations. These retro-futuristic images brilliantly promote the dream of space travel.

posters20160210-16Credit: Jet Propulsion Labs

Much like these posters, NASA’s stated goal of launching a manned mission to Mars by 2030 is tailor-made to stir up public excitement and a lot of government funding. The vision for space travel that truly tantalizes, however, is coming from the private sector.

In one corner, we have Sir Richard Branson, the billionaire entrepreneur and founder of Virgin Galactic, the world’s first space tourism company. Despite a decade of setbacks that included a test flight in which a pilot was killed, Sir Richard, last week, unveiled the VSS Unity, the world’s first commercial spacecraft.

 

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Credit: Virgin Atlantic

About the size of a private jet, the cabin is roomy enough for 6 passengers to experience a few minutes of weightlessness in the fringes of space before returning to Earth. Physicist Stephen Hawking, actor Ashton Kutcher, and hundreds of other ordinary (yet affluent) Earthlings between the ages of 10 and 90, have secured tickets for the $250,000-per-ticket flight, which remains in the testing phase.

In another corner, we have Elon Musk, the co-founder of PayPal and founder of Tesla Motors, who has channeled his billions into the creation of SpaceX, a private aerospace company.

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Credit: Getty Images

SpaceX is intent on exponentially reducing the cost of space travel by creating rockets that can be used over and over again. The company is also figuring out ways to revolutionize space technology to enable people to live on other planets. Musk’s mission – even though he admits it will be ‘superhard’ and won’t happen in his lifetime – is to save humanity from extinction by colonizing Mars.

Sir Richard’s wants to turn ordinary citizens into astronauts. He sees democratizing space as a means to inspire the next generation of leaders and citizens in ways that will, ultimately, make life better on Earth.   For Mr. Musk, space is a frontier to be conquered, the ultimate escape hatch from global catastrophe, natural or manmade.

Whichever plotline you get behind and however long it takes, what makes Sir Richard’s and Mr. Musk’s visions so compelling is that are pitching Space as a possibility for everyone. While NASA speaks in terms of ‘manned missions’, these charismatic, high-profile visionaries are putting space travel on our radar by promising to take us along for the ride.

Follow me on Twitter @kgougeon