Virgin Galactic was one of a crop of private companies to sprout, mushroom-like, from the fecund decay of American spaceflight in the early 2000s. NASA budgets had been stagnating. The 1986 Challenger disaster had soured many on the dangers of human spaceflight, and the breakup of the Columbia in 2003 cemented this opinion. The space shuttle program was retired, and American astronauts began to launch to the International Space Station via the Russian Soyuz. Meanwhile, private interests saw an opportunity. Amazon’s Jeff Bezos (who owns The Washington Post) founded the space company Blue Origin in 2000, followed by Tesla’s Elon Musk with SpaceX in 2002. In 2004, British businessman Richard Branson announced the formation of Virgin Galactic. Branson — a generalist entrepreneur who had made his name selling records, airlines, hotels, wedding dresses, soft drinks and, now, spaceships — was less interested in replacing NASA than in extending his hospitality empire to suborbital space. He announced that he would be selling seats on his own commercial spacecraft “within five years.” Tickets sold for $250,000 a piece, for a launch date yet to be determined.