Commercial space ventures such as SpaceX, Blue Origin, Bigelow Aerospace, and Stratolaunch that are backed by wealthy moguls are often described as representing a brand new phenomena. However, NASA historian Alex MacDonald has a new book out called The Long Space Age: The Economic Origins of Space Exploration from Colonial America to the Cold War, in which he shows that private space initiatives actually go back to the early 1800s.

Those early space moguls did not fund rockets but instead back most of the large astronomical observatories in the USA. Lick Observatory, for example, funded by California railroad magnate James Lick in  the 1870s, is comparable to  a $1.5 billion dollar project today.

I’ll note that before World War II, the US federal government funded very little science or technology R&D. Most all such activities were supported either by private organizations such as companies, universities and institutions like the Smithsonian or by private individuals. This changed during WWII with the emergence of Big Science projects including the successful development of radar and the atomic bomb. Federal support for science and R&D after the war was further encouraged by the Cold War technology competition with the USSR.

For more about MacDonald’s book and the history of private space initiatives in the US, see:

And here is a talk by MacDonald at the “The Dawn of Private Space Science” symposium held this past June in NY City: