Editors' note: This is part of a series examining 50 years of space exploration.
The wealthy men behind today's commercial space industry were just kids when the U.S.-Soviet space race started 50 years ago.
Microsoft co-founder Paul Allen was 4 years old when the Russians launched Sputnik I into geocentric orbit on October 4, 1957, an act that effectively ignited the competition for dominance in suborbit.
Aerospace engineer Burt Rutan was 14 when the United States created the National Aeronautics and Space Administration the following year. Richard Branson, founder of Virgin Megastores, was 10 when Soviet cosmonaut Yuri Gagarin became the first man to orbit the Earth on April 12, 1961, followed by U.S. astronaut Alan Shepard in a suborbital flight less than a month later.
Space Adventures founder Peter Diamandis was just 5 days old when President John F. Kennedy announced that the United States would put a man on the moon within the decade.
The common denominator between these men? They are the pioneers of a new private space race, 35 years after anyone has walked on the moon. The U.S.-Soviet space race surely brought about technologies we now take for granted, ranging from satellite-based navigation to Tang. It also left an indelible mark on a generation that will shape the next 50 years of space exploration. Like the pioneers of the aviation industry, kids who idolized the Wright brothers, the men trying to get private industry into space grew up with names like Shepard and Armstrong as their heroes.
"Why are (we) doing something in space? Because that's what inspired them, that's what inspired me as a youth," said Diamandis, who has founded more than four companies in the space tourism and entertainment businesses, including Space Adventures, which takes private citizens to the International Space Station for between $25 million and $35 million.
The list of millionaires and billionaires inspired by NASA's glory years continues: Neil Armstrong finally walked on the moon for the first time in human history on July 21, 1969, when Amazon.com founder and billionaire Jeff Bezos was 5. Doom video game creator John Carmack was little more than 6 months old when astronaut Shepard played golf on the lunar turf in 1971. And PayPal founder Elon Musk was nearly 18 months old when NASA took its last manned lunar mission in 1972.
Allen, Rutan, Musk, Bezos and Carmack are paving the way for private industry in space from the deep pockets of their own industrial efforts. Made wealthy by taking chances in fields like software, computers, aviation and the Internet, they're taking the risk in space that was once the sole domain of governments. If you ask any of them what drove them into this field, they will most likely tell you it was a boyhood desire to be an astronaut. That, and frustration with government efforts in space today.
Diamandis added: "In the last 40 years, we've never fulfilled the promise that we had seen in Apollo. So, now people are saying, 'I'm going to give up on the government, I'm going to do it myself.'"
At the 50th anniversary of space exploration, many industry pundits and executives say there's a new era upon us. They describe the 17 years after Sputnik as the first phase of a journey marked by new human and robotic exploration in space, and which culminated in the Skylab and the Apollo missions. The second phase, from 1976 to 2007, was characterized by robotic missions to other planets like Saturn, collecting data about the universe.
"As it turns 50, there's a third era about to begin, one that recaptures the excitement of pioneering human voices that was characterized by the early years," said David Thompson, CEO of Orbital Sciences, which developed the first private launch vehicle, Pegasus.
Activities in the private industry come at a time when governments are stepping up their efforts in space, too. President George Bush has set NASA on a mission to put men back on the moon by 2020, and then onto Mars between 2035 and 2037. Among other international efforts, Russian plans to build a new manned space transport system by 2015 and China plans to send another rover to the moon in 2012, to survey every inch of lunar surface.
"The next 50 years are going to be historic. There's intensifying economic and space competition," said Joanne Maguire, head of space systems for Lockheed Martin.
Entrepreneurs like Rutan and Diamandis believe (with no shortage of controversy) NASA should leave manned flights to suborbit and the moon to private companies like their own. Players in private space development believe they can lay the groundwork to bring down the cost of suborbital space tourism so that it might one day be as common and affordable as taking a flight on Southwest. Eventually, entrepreneurs believe they can colonize other planets so people will have a place to visit and stay. Executives also see space as an eventual trillion-dollar market for mining its vast resources in energy, minerals and real estate.
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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