In recent years, privately funded companies have made many efforts to develop and test space-capable vehicles. One of the most well-known, prize-based technology encouragement activities is the Ansari X Prize, founded in 2004 by the non-profit organization the X Prize Foundation. The competition’s rules were simple: The first privately funded, non-government organization to develop a reusable, manned spacecraft and launch it into space–not once, but twice in a two-week period–would win $10 million big ones.
The winning spacecraft was developed by Burt Rutan of Scaled Composites and was funded by $20 million from Paul Allen of Microsoft fame. In total, it was estimated that the competition bolstered more than $100 million of spacecraft research and development in pursuit of the prize.
Space Exploration Technologies (SpaceX), created in 2002 and founded by Elon Musk (founder of the popular, Web-based financial institution PayPal), has been creating a great deal of buzz lately with its expanding line of reusable rockets. In 2008, SpaceX, with its launch vehicles Falcon 1, Falcon 9, and Falcon 9 Heavy, were selected to replace the soon-to-be-retired NASA Space Shuttles for the delivery and return of cargo to the International Space Station (ISS). In 2010, President Obama and NASA Administrator Bolen decided to outsource astronaut transportation to the private sector, as well. SpaceX and its Dragon Manned Spacecraft carried by the Falcon 9 launch vehicle are considered by many to be the launch system of choice for the proposed commercial astronaut transportation system.
It’s clear we are coming close to Arthur C. Clarke’s predictions, as outlined in his classic, sci-fi epic 2001; yet, it looks like it could be a couple decades before I can book a PanAm (bankrupted in 1991) flight to the moon as did Dr. Heywood R. Floyd. This geek looks forward to the day when I can catch a flight off the third rock from the sun.