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Certainly, there are huge hurdles to clear before the private space industry takes off, beyond the $25 million flights people can take to the International Space Station with Diamandis' Space Adventures. NASA still believes that it has important work to do to land men on the moon, even though it has formed several partnerships with private industry to further its efforts.
Michael Griffin, administrator of NASA, said at a recent space conference: "We have here a program which is affordable, sustainable and which can be highly correlated to historical successes and developments from the past."
One of the biggest challenges for private industry is to get more people on flights into space so that the costs of operation go down.
Rutan, as the founder of Scaled Composites, changed the landscape of private space travel when he designed and built the SpaceShipOne suborbital commercial spacecraft. The first privately funded venture to put a civilian in suborbital space (funded by Microsoft's Allen), SpaceShipOne broke the Earth's atmosphere twice to win the $10 million Ansari X Prize in 2004.
Now, Rutan's company is building SpaceShipTwo, the suborbital rocket for Branson's Virgin Galactic space-tourism outfit. But Scaled Composites recently suffered a major setback when two people were killed in an explosion at the company's facility in Mojave, Calif.
Diamandis pointed out that the cost of space flight hinges on the people, rather than the vehicle or fuel. The annual space shuttle budget, for example, is about $2.5 billion if it conducts zero flights that year, he said. If it flies once a year, that cost goes to $3 billion, and if it flies four times a year, the cost is just under $4 billion, "so your price might drop down to $800 million per flight," he said. "So, we need to learn how to become much more robust--to become a real vibrant system and not an annual experiment that flies flights three or four times to space."
Branson's Virgin Galactic is the most visible, and first-to-market company attempting to accomplish this task. Branson is selling tickets aboard his SpaceShipTwo suborbital vehicle for about $200,000 to celebrities and millionaires. He expects the first flights to take off in 2009.
In a much quieter fashion, Amazon's Bezos is building up Blue Origin, another commercial space company that's aiming to reduce the cost of flight for citizens. It's developing a vertical take-off, vertical-landing vehicle called the New Shepard that will take a few astronauts on a suborbital journey. So far, Blue Origin has had at least one successful test flight, but Bezos doesn't divulge many details about this venture.
Musk, who has built SpaceX with much of his own money made from selling Internet companies Zip2 and PayPal, is building launch vehicles that he says will reduce the cost of reaching orbit by a factor of two or three. Musk said at a recent space conference that he's interested in the space sector because of its impact on the future of humanity, and people transitioning from Earth to other planets.
Musk said the cost and reliability of space transportation, unlike other industries, hasn't improved significantly in the last 50 years. SpaceX, he said, is out to reduce the cost of and improve the reliability of space travel much the way the technology industry operates.
Musk's SpaceX has plans for several operational launches of its Falcon 1 next year. Musk has also promised to help teams get to the moon to compete in the Google Lunar X Prize, a race to put a robotic rover on the moon that's worth $20 million to the winner.
"For the first time in our 4-billion-year history, we have the opportunity to extend life beyond Earth, but the economic challenges are substantial," Musk said. "The reason I founded SpaceX was to try in a little way to make that happen."
Carmack founded Texas-based Armadillo Aerospace to build next-generation vehicles for transporting people and payloads into suborbit. Still under development, his experimental rockets were put to the test at last year's X Prize Cup, as the lone competitors in a NASA-funded contest to build and fly a lunar vehicle.
Rutan expressed hope that the current efforts in space will inspire the next generation.
"Right now kids are inspired by the next iPhone, not by exploration or taking risks, and that's going to hurt us," Rutan said at a recent space conference. "We have to change something so our environment excites kids. It's what really pays us dividends later."
Day 1: Private industry moves to take over space race
The space race taking shape in the private sector today is due in large part to boyhood dreams of becoming astronauts.
Day 1: Space entrepreneur shoots for the moon
Space Adventures CEO Peter Diamandis talks about the future of private space travel to the moon and beyond.
Day 1: Key milestones in space exploration
A timeline of some of the events that brought humans into space and will guide where we go next.
Day 2: Silicon galaxy
Technologies developed by NASA have led to some of the most important commercial innovations to come out of Silicon Valley.
Day 2: The satellite age
The commercial satellite market has grown into a multibillion-dollar industry, but future growth could suffer.
Day 3: Do we need NASA?
Is NASA still worth spending more than $16 billion in taxpayer money each year?
Day 3: Designing a 21st-century space suit
MIT professor Dava Newman tells how the form-fitting BioSuit will help give NASA a ready-to-wear outfit for the moon and Mars.
Memories from the space age
CNET News.com readers (and writers) share their memories from the early days of space exploration. October 5, 2007
Japan probe approaches moon
A new space race is getting under way, with as many as five nations expecting to land hardware on the moon within five years. October 4, 2007
Who's who in space travel
The private sector is laying the groundwork for a new era of space exploration. October 3, 2007
A half-century of space flight
We take a look at how the ships that enable space exploration are evolving. October 1, 2007
Strange visitors to other planets
The first Voyager spacecraft left Earth 30 years ago. Now, nearly 10 billion miles from home, they aren't finished yet.August 28, 2007
Building a better space suit
At MIT and the University of North Dakota, researchers are trying out new designs to clothe astronauts heading to Mars. July 18, 2007
Stellar views from the Hubble at 17
NASA and ESA celebrate the Hubble Space Telescope's anniversary with colliding stars and supernovas.April 25, 2007
The race to space: Recalling Sputnik
The Baltimore Sun
Science Times special coverage
New York Times
The next 50 years in space
Happy birthday, Sputnik! (Thanks for the Internet)
Thank Sputnik for today's orbital freedom
Christian Science Monitor
Editors: Jennifer Guevin, Jim Kerstetter
Design: Andrew Ballagh
Production: Madeleine Kempton
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