As part of Aviation Week & Space Technology's special centennial issue, we asked Richard Branson to share his thoughts on the future of space exploration.

My natural instinct is to look at the world with optimism and a sense of infinite possibility. Watching the first pictures transmitted from space of our home planet and witnessing the Moon landing and walk were transformational. The early years of advancements in space travel filled me with curiosity about Earth and a deep sense of unlimited opportunity. And to this day, it has kept me utterly consumed with the pursuit of democratizing access to space and rallying others to join the cause.

The entrepreneurial spirit is reflected in how you see problems. The world today can be viewed as a planet ravaged by war, conflict and environmental degradation. But despite man’s efforts to run the planet into the ground, there are also Herculean efforts to preserve and protect it and advance space exploration to improve the prospects for our species’ future. The sense of possibility has resulted in exciting entrepreneurial efforts to mine asteroids, send a spacecraft to the closest star system to our own and make humans a multiplanetary species. 

The belief that we are creating something important—a force for good—can keep us united and going against the odds. Just as cooperation beyond borders must occur in space, the future will see greater cooperation among countries and across government and private sectors. There will be even more opportunities for investment, diverse modes of transportation and greater access to communication and information-sharing. Through the building blocks of investment, cooperation among governments and the next generation of bright minds in pursuit of the STEM structure—science, technology, engineering and math—the future will see many sustainable space businesses that improve livelihoods, bolster communities and grow economies. 

At Virgin Galactic, our early building blocks are our human commercial spaceflight program and our small-satellite launch service. Even as we focus now on the ground tests of our ambitious projects, we are constantly mindful of the greater purpose of it all, and of what might come next. 

We created Virgin Galactic to open access to space to change the world for good. Even after five decades of exploration, space remains almost completely closed. More humans have won the Nobel Prize (900) than have flown in space (553). Satellites are more numerous, but if you were to ask a random stranger, it is extremely unlikely that their family, city, university or company would have built, operated or even seen one. We are striving to do our part to open space for more people and from all 196 nations through the companies that we have started—Virgin Galactic’s commercial spaceline, our LauncherOne small-satellite launch service, and our aerospace manufacturing arm, The Spaceship Co. 

With SpaceShipTwo, we will supercharge the Overview Effect—a fascinating phenomenon whereby space explorers come back to Earth as changed people, with a much greater perspective on world peace, our changing climate and global development—with more ambassadors capable of inspiring others just as those of us who labored long and hard on the project were inspired by the Apollo program. Our Future Astronauts come from nearly 60 different nations, two dozen of which have never sent an astronaut to space and more than a dozen that have never sent a female astronaut before. After their flights, our customers will be able to return to their homes with a powerful message to share with schoolchildren and local leaders alike. 

SpaceShipTwo flights will also contribute unique data to help answer key questions across scientific disciplines—such as anonymous health data about how a very physically diverse group of astronauts respond to their flights, or by flying autonomous research experiments built by NASA labs, universities and research companies. 

LauncherOne will help collect even larger data sets for still other fields. By lowering the cost of flexible, reliable and dedicated flights to orbit for small satellites, we are creating an opening for satellites from emerging designers that feature their fresh take on engineering possibilities. We will enable many more missions such as connecting the 3 billion unconnected residents of Earth, using next-generation weather instruments to improve forecasts as well as to feed into models of our climate, and cleaning up deactivated satellites in Earth orbit. 

The impact of these services will grow with time as we build additional spaceships and refine and improve the missions. Like other technologies, with practice we will be able to make our forays to space cheaper and more frequent while increasing performance. 

At the same time, we have to think beyond frequency and cost considerations: We are investigating how to make the way we access space cleaner. Even in the test and development phase, biofuels and renewables and other sustainability-focused operational practices will be integrated to address dwindling natural resources. This is one reason we are working on integrating renewables into LauncherOne’s 747 airlaunch vehicle ops. Being good stewards of our planet is partly what is fueling our expansion; our aim is to consciously work toward responsible solutions and to keep getting better. 

As important and ambitious as SpaceShipTwo and LauncherOne are, they are not an endpoint but rather one step. To be honest, we don’t yet know exactly what SpaceShipThree or LauncherTwo will look like, but we do know what we want our future vehicles to do—and how we think our contribution to the exploration of space can help make our planet a better place to live. 

As we think about our future, we can’t help but be excited. As true believers in the value of space exploration, we cheer for the success of all space programs. Touring Virgin Galactic’s manufacturing plants with our talented team and generating ideas for next-generation airplanes, rockets and space habitats is truly a dream come true. However, the technology is unimportant without ingraining everything we do with our purpose—ensuring the future of Earth—the only home we know today and my favorite planet. 

Beyond Virgin Group and Virgin Galactic, Richard Branson’s visionary thinking has been prevalent across myriad, disparate industries. His financial and personal commitment to opening space has fostered a new generation of commercial enterprise and investment in the space industry and inspired a new generation of students, innovators and adventurers to reach for the stars.